IT is in praise of Mr. Bartlett’s honesty and candor to say that we lay down his Life of Dr. Rimmer 1 with the enigma of that life unsolved. However much we may be abashed at our own inability to form a rounded judgment, we have a secret satisfaction in the suspicion that the student and practiced artist, who has collected all the available materials for a judgment, is almost as much in the dark as we are. At any rate, Mr. Bartlett, while giving frequent expression to his admiration, and aiding the reader by many felicitous criticisms, has not undertaken to sum up the qualities of Dr. Rimmer’s greatness, and to furnish the reader with a convenient formula by which to reckon the measure of his genius. He has done better than this. He has collected with patience and industry the facts of Dr. Rimmer’s life ; he has illustrated the facts with comments and criticisms from many sources ; he has recovered much testimony which would inevitably have been lost except for his faithfulness; and he has presented the results in an orderly and comprehensive form. Mr. Bartlett’s qualifications as a biographer do not lie in a special literary grace, but in the more essential attributes of frankness and truthfulness. We follow his lead in the book with a grateful sense of being in the hands of a man who is not thinking of himself, but of his subject, and thinking with singular vigor and concentration of mind. If Dr. Rimmer is still a puzzle to Mr. Bartlett, as we think he is, we may assuredly find satisfaction in the thought that Mr. Bartlett has concealed none of the difficulties from us, and has given us all the clues which he himself had.
There is an enigma, to begin with, about Dr. Rimmer’s origin. His father belonged to a branch of one of the royal families of France. Born in 1789, he was brought up in seclusion in an English home, ignorant of his name and destiny until he had reached what may be called years of indiscretion. Then, fired with ambition and expectation, he entered the English army to qualify himself for military life; but just when he might-look for the consummation of his hopes, he suffered the bitter disappointment of an unsuccessful claimant, and, filled with rage and indignation, assumed the name of Thomas Rimmer, left England behind, and came to this country.
Mr. Bartlett does not tell us, if he knew himself, to which of the branches of the royal family Rimmer belonged; but he shrewdly inserts a striking likeness of the man, and any one familiar with French history may please himself with establishing the identity. The Rev. Mr. Williams retired some time since into obscurity, and Thomas Rimmer is a much more interesting lost prince. The few glimpses which are given of this strange mortal have a value in the interpretation of the artist’s temperament and career; for William Rimmer not only inherited something of his father’s violent and capricious temper, but he was heir to his father’s hopeless great expectations, and did not positively abandon hope of a reinstatement of fortune until he buried it in the grave of his son.
Mr. Bartlett gives due force to the power of this illusion in shaping Dr. Rimmer’s mind, but the reader is likely to recur to it as containing a subtle explanation of the irregularities of nature which constantly perplex one in studying this remarkable man. The secret but strong aspiration, which made every pursuit seem a temporary expedient, lasted far into Dr. Rimmer’s life; and when it was found by him to be vain and delusive, there remained only the refuge of home and the exercise of great powers, which were under no controlling principle or impulse. The inner man seemed to have gone to pieces. How great his powers were, and how distorted, may be read in the passages given from Dr. Rimmer’s writings, in the testimony of his pupils and contemporaries, and in the illustrative heliotypes from his works. The waste of his powers was extraordinary. Mr. Bartlett reminds us more than once of the sculptor’s contemptuous disregard of the conditions of the material in which he worked. The clay crumbled because he would not use ordinary precaution to protect it. “ He drew upon any scrap of paper that came within his reach. At times, the floor of the room, wherever he might be, would be strewn with drawings of every possible subject, grave, gay, grotesque, poetic, and illustrative. . . . Wherever he could get a pencil, paint, brushes, and canvas was his studio. ‘ He painted on the floor in the sitting-room,’ says one of the family, ‘ in the hall way, on the stairs, or in the attic.’ The majority of the drawings exhibited at the Art Museum in 1880 were made under these circumstances, and owe their preservation to the fact that members of his family would bring him the leaf of an album, or other piece of paper, in order that they might save, now and then, a drawing of the mass that otherwise would go to the rag-bag.” An interesting collection of examples of his art was formed by a thoughtful lady, who traced drawings which he had left on the blackboard ; but his students bear mournful testimony to the fact that thousands of such drawings, many of them of most striking excellence, were seen for a few moments, and then remorselessly erased.
He wasted his powers, moreover, in fruitless experiments. He worked with a fury, but nothing which he did seemed to be the result of long and patiently considered thought. To do the thing seemed uppermost, and the thing once done was neglected and disregarded. But the several things done were not conscious steps in a progress; they were quite as frequently repetitions and reproductions. Mr. Bartlett and many of his friends raise the question what he might have done had he visited Europe; but Mr. Bartlett wisely suspects that there would have been no material difference in the result. For such a man as Rimmer, the only possible change could have been through a change of nature in himself ; external conditions were powerless to affect him radically.
No one word can sum up such a man, but the nearest to a comprehensive epithet may be found in the statement that Rimmer was an inventor rather than a designer. That is to say, color and form were not before him as absolute material, out of which he was to construct designs which his perception and imagination discovered ; they were relative to certain ideas which he held, and his constructions were in the nature of empiric experiments. On a lower plane, he was ingenious without being conclusive. “ At one time he had made some improvement in a gun-lock ; at another, some self-registering plan to determine the number of persons entering a street car ; still again, his plan was the construction, in a cheap and durable material, of a peculiar form of trunk, convenient for use and handling, and, as he used to say, ‘ such as no expressman could break.’ But all these, as well as numberless other plans, came in the end to nothing but vague hopes and words.” In art, he invented, as it were, the material in which he worked, the instruments which he used, the world which he essayed to interpret. Take the prodigious lions which he drew. They are not copies of lions, but inventions of new lions out of the leonine conception which he had formed after seeing the living beasts.
Dr. Rimmer never used models. This fact, the significance of which Mr. Bartlett clearly perceives, taken in connection with his wonderful anatomical knowledge, discloses the source both of his strength and his weakness. He generalized superbly, but his generalization was unsustained by a wide and close observation of particulars. Hence he was continually moving in a circle, and fretting himself by his limitations. The strong mind consumed its own creations ; for it was not matched by a hand trained in cunning to obey implicitly, nor by a judgment schooled in discipline. In a word, Dr. Rimmer may be said to have been his own model, and his introspection to have been the revelation which he heeded. The colossal, broken remains of a romantic history furnished him with images of life which were scarcely formed by the stirring movements about him, although the nearest connection between his own life and contemporaneous history lay through the medium of war; and in this there was a consistency. He was not at all moved by the ideas involved in John Brown’s crusade, but the marching of Massachusetts militia called from him a noble picture, To the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers.
It is to be observed that Dr. Rimmer laid great stress, when teaching his pupils, upon the necessity of the study of anatomy; but he seemed to think that the power of design was a gift to be accepted, and not an art to be patiently acquired. In truth, anatomy was the only science which he had mastered, and in emphasizing that as an essential part of an artist’s study he was simply reproducing his own incomplete development. Mr. Bartlett confines his book to the art life of Dr. Rimmer, but it would not be difficult, from the material which he has furnished, to show that his character was, in a parallel way, invested with singular disproportions.
The strange loneliness of this great man, by which he was separated from his kind, and wrought hopelessly in perishable material the ideas which seemed born in him, and tested only by his own reflection, has its pathos and pain. It has its beauty, also, in the passion with which he clung to his own kith and kin, and sought to shelter them from an inclement world. To this, rather than to any absence of high principle, may fairly be referred the mercenary character of some of his transactions. He was a blind giant, who squandered his strength, and left works which fill one with despair at the thought of what he did not leave ; but he was also a man of tender, affectionate nature, who calls out one’s love and pity. His work has entered in numberless ways into the lives of his pupils, and thus can never be lost, even though the structural examples of his art are but fragments of his genius. There was little of the American in him, yet his gift to America has been very great. No history of art can henceforth omit to count his contribution, and we are sure that future students will be even more grateful than we are to-day to Mr. Bartlett for rescuing so much from the inevitable decay of time.
- The Art Life of William Rimmer, Sculptor, Painter, and Physician. By TRUMAN H. BARTLETT, Sculptor. Illustrated with heliotype reproductions. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1882.↩