The Statue of Leif Erikson
IT is an act of poetic justice for the civilization which crowds the sea-coasts of Massachusetts, remembering that this region is by general acceptance the Vinland of the early Norse explorers, to commemorate with a work of art the most conspicuous among the brave sailors who, more than six hundred years before the landing of the Pilgrims, and nearly five hundred years before Columbus, touched these shores with their adventurous prows. The Icelandic Sagas, as we like to interpret them, have given us an antiquity picturesque enough for all the purposes of art and poetry, and remote enough to satisfy the most exacting demands for historic dignity. Surely, a more romantic theme could hardly possess the imagination of an American sculptor. Longfellow, in his ballad of The Skeleton in Armor, has preoccupied the field with his vision of the bold Viking and the band of “ fierce marauders.” The ideal Norseman, as established by the license of poetry, is thus a trenchant figure, dimly descried through the mists of romance, half pirate, half knight-errant, bearded like the pard, “ in rude armour drest,” with naked sword and a general aspect of ruthless barbaric force. But Miss Anne Whitney’s Leif Erikson is a very different sort of creature, by no means conformed to this ideal, and the first impression of her work is thus one of surprise, if not of disappointment.
The conception of the sculptor presents to us a full-grown giant, with a strong but intellectual and beardless face, rather Roman than Greek, and distinctly not of recognized barbaric type. He has just set foot, in advance of his companions, upon an unknown shore, where he stands, sailor-fashion, with his legs somewhat apart, but firmly poised upon his left, in the attitude of one eagerly scanning the distance. The left hand shades the eyes; the right, resting upon his hip, holds a signal horn, bravely bedecked with Runic device like a drinking-cup of the Skalds. He is clad in a short, sleeveless jerkin, or coat of scale armor, closely fitting around the hips, and adorned with two round bossed plates upon the breasts. Beneath it a linen tunic descends half-way down the thighs. He wears a decorated belt and a sheathed dagger at his waist. Upon his long, shaggy locks is set a small, round cap of steel. The powerful arms are bare, and skin-tight leggings reveal the strong anatomy of the lower limbs. Upon the feet are shoes, apparently of slashed leather, and the legs are not cross-gartered. The general expression of the figure is one of alert and vigorous manhood ; it is modeled on a heroic scale, and posed like one who pauses for a moment and for a definite purpose in the midst of an active career. Leif, however, is portrayed as a man of thought as well as of action ; in the whole conception of him there is not only more of civilization than barbarism, but more of classic than romantic sentiment.
It is evident that upon this fundamental point the sculptor is ready to take issue with those who conceive that out of Scandinavia, in the tenth century, nothing better could issue than manly virtue of a brutal sort, and a very savage and coarse-fibred energy.
According to the Sagas, Leif Erikson was a prince, son of Erik the Red, Jarl of Norway. It may fairly be assumed that this rude court had received some reflection, however faint, from the civilization of the south. It was four or five centuries before the era of Leif when the hordes from this “ northern hive ” overran the Roman Empire, and his own ancestors may have occupied the Palatine among the conquerors. Fired by the narrative of Bjarne, who in 986 first visited the coast of North America, he set out with thirty-five men in the year 1000, and discovered Labrador and Vinland. A few years later he was sent to Greenland to spread Christianity among the Norse settlements. He is described by the Sagas as “ a great and strong man, grave and well favored, therewith sensible and moderate in all things.” No act of piracy or rapine is recorded of him.
Upon the basis of these records, it would seem that the artist is historically justified in associating a certain degree of intellectual and moral force, if not of actual refinement, with the proper physical characteristics of her semi-barbaric hero. The burden of proof lies with those who are disposed to typify the reputed discoverer of Massachusetts Bay and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard as a Hun or Goth of the third century.
In an artistic point of view, the figure “ composes ” well all around, but its best and most picturesque aspect, perhaps, is seen by one who stands a little behind the left side. It is evident that the sentiment is sought to be conveyed less by explanatory accessories of costume or surroundings than by a direct sculpturesque presentment of a man with certain definite ideal qualities of body and mind. It is essentially an out-of-door statue ; the idea of it is not forced upon the beholder by undue insistence of details, but lies almost entirely in the suggestions of attitude and modeling. The costume is just enough to give a date to the subject, and to emphasize its dramatic significance. If the figure itself, as the model of a man, succeeds in telling a story, it enters, according to the Greek method, into a high region of art. The reserve of the sculptor, her evident desire to depend upon legitimate methods of composition, sufficiently indicate that she is inspired with true artistic feeling. If, like her subject, she has shown herself “ sensible and moderate in all things,” and yet has not fallen into mere technical or academical correctness, if her reserve has not made her dull or commonplace, she has done a good work of sculpture, and has advanced the art of her country one fair step forward. We think it will be at least conceded that her figure is correct, yet neither dull nor commonplace, and we are greatly mistaken if, when in vesture of bronze it takes its final place, it will not be recognized always as an object of singular poetic interest. The plaster of the model is too white and pure for the subject, and refines it beyond the limit of the artist’s intention. The weight and solemn color of the bronze, the diminished sharpness which this material will give to the finer lights and shades of modeling, and the stronger assertion of outline which it will confer, — all these will work to the advantage of the composition as a memorial to the Genius of Discovery.
In respect to the question of anatomy, we think no serious fault can be found. It is certainly a figure full of virile force, and, so far as we can see, no opportunity of the composition for the requisite display of muscular energy has been slighted. On the contrary, for the sake of the dignity of art, we can find it in our heart to regret that, in her desire to clothe the nether limbs of the hero without concealing their vigorous anatomy, she has furnished them with an integument suggestive rather of modern underclothing than of habiliments better suited to the exigencies of the occasion. We should have preferred the anatomy without any concession.
If the sculptor has disdained to eke out her thought and to give significance and the color of romance to her ideal by a lavish use of accessories, this fine spirit of self-denial should not in the same degree be extended to the pedestal. It is not too much to say that the treatment of the pedestal may make or mar the whole. What cannot be told in the figure may be expressed in the stone upon which it stands. The one should supplement the other, and they should unite to tell the tale of the Norseman. A classic die, finely cut, with proper cornice and correct base and plinth, would antagonize the idea of the statue, and divide the monument into two incongruous parts. Set the figure upon a bowlder, and the opportunity for the appeal to the imagination and the excitement of poetic thought would be lost. The story would not be half told. On the other hand, mount it on a block of dark red sandstone, picked into shape with a coarse chisel, its top barely large enough for the feet of the figure, its cornice bold but of slight projection, and carved with ramping chimæras, fabulous dolphins, and strange creatures of the sea, but rather “ roughed out ” than wrought to the point of technical perfection ; a braided belt of Runic ornament; the angles of the die slightly rounded, its sides battering outward to the plinth, and bearing inscriptions and the story of the landing in sculpture of low relief; set the whole in a basin supplied with water from masks upon the plinth, — and the spirit of the Saga would stand revealed. The schoolboy would understand the tale of the bold Viking, and even the vulgar would be touched by an effect of art.
The base in this form is still under study. It is an experiment requiring in the sculptor a thorough saturation of the mind with the Norse spirit of poetry, an invention restrained to decent and prudent conventionalities of form, not " expressed in fancy,” but, within these limits, bold and free. In such an essay failure is easy, but success, though hard, will complete the work, and give to us a monument adequate to the theme, fit to decorate the entrance of the new pleasure-ground of Boston, where the sedges and the salt-marsh and the breath of the sea shall conspire with imperishable bronze to keep alive the legend of Leif Erikson.
Henry Van Brunt.