Boston Painters and Paintings
ALLSTON AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES.
ALLSTON, like Stuart, was an adopted child of the New England capital. He was a South Carolinian, and settled in Boston in 1818, at the age of thirty-nine, passing the remaining twenty-five years of His life there and in Cambridge, as we are reminded by Lowell’s affectionate lines : —
Transfiguring street and shop with his illumined gaze.”
He was of a sensitive and æsthetic temperament, with a rich imagination, but he was not so great a painter as appears to have been commonly believed during his lifetime. His mind was rather of the literary order, and he belonged to that large class of artists whose ideals and aspirations constantly outrun their executive ability, whose whole careers consist of more or less futile struggles to express on canvas thoughts which they might probably make clearer by means of the pen than of the brush. Allston was a lovable man, and his name has always been held in honor wherever he has been known. But it is a pity to be obliged to say that an artist’s description of his picture is better than the picture itself ; and this is what might have been said at times of him. He was the artistic lion of Boston in 1839, when a loan exhibition of his works made a great stir. The forty-five pictures in this collection were lent by the most solid citizens of that day, and nothing could be better calculated to show the esteem in which Allston was held than the longlist of their honored names in the catalogue. It was only four years later that he died, leaving unfinished the large painting of Belshazzar’s Feast, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, and which he had hoped to make his masterpiece. His friends unwittingly have done him a great injustice in placing this work on exhibition.
The story of his prolonged labors upon it, the anxiety it cost him through many years, and the preposterous expectations of a curious public concerning it is one of the most pathetic episodes in the whole history of art, which is full of the sad records of honorable failures. In relation to this " noble pictorial fragment ” he said in a letter: “ I think the composition the best I ever made. It contains a multitude of figures, and (if I may be allowed to say so) they are without confusion. Don’t you think it a fine subject ? I know not any that so happily unites the magnificent and the awful. A mighty sovereign, surrounded by his whole court, intoxicated with his own state, in the midst of his revelry, palsied in a moment, under the spell of a supernatural hand suddenly tracing his doom on the wall before him; his powerless limbs, like a wounded spider’s, shrunk up to his body, while his heart, compressed to a point, is only kept from vanishing by the terrific suspense that animates it during the interpretation of his mysterious sentence ; his less guilty but scarcely less agitated queen, the panic-struck courtiers and concubines, the splendid and deserted banquet-table, the half-arrogant, half-astounded magicians, the holy vessels of the temple (shining as it were in triumph through the gloom), and the calm, solemn contrast of the prophet, standing, like an animated pillar, in the midst, breathing forth the oracular destruction of the empire ! ”
Such is the work as Allston wished to make it, not as he did make it; and a thorough examination of the great canvas must lead any impartial judge to the inevitable conclusion that, even if it had been finished, the work was destined to be a failure. The large figure of the prophet Daniel in the centre, instead of being in any respect like an “ animated pillar,” — which we are not sure that we should admire, — is theatrical and repulsive. The group at the right of the foreground is burlesque. Belshazzar himself is a shapeless, disjointed effigy of simulated horror; and the queen is the only important personage in the composition who has any life or naturalness of bearing. Parts of the background and some of the secondary figures at the right appear to have been of merit, but time and neglect, in the short interval since Allston’s death, have already done much to ruin the work which was so loudly heralded and of which so much was expected. The canvas is sixteen feet by twelve feet in dimensions. It is in a very bad light, and it is not easy to see it advantageously. Yet it is apparent that parts of the composition are marked by special beauties of color, the use of yellow being lavish and rich in effect. There is a kneeling figure of a woman near the centre, which is full of grace. Of course due allowance should be made for the unfinished condition of the picture, but since it has been permanently exposed to the public view, there is no reason why it should not be discussed as it is. The mistake was in exhibiting it at all. So great did Allston seem to his contemporaries, however, that it would have been regarded as nothing short of sacrilegious to hint that he was not the equal of the most renowned painters that ever lived. He was commonly called the American Titian. William Ware, whose lectures on The Works and Genius of Washington Allston (Boston, 1852) contain numerous comparisons between Allston and Titian, maintained in a serious and eloquent argument that the former’s Valentine was quite as well painted as the latter’s Venus. Coleridge said that Allston was the first genius produced by the Western world. William Page, speaking of The Vision of the Bloody Hand, expressed the opinion that “few pictures of Titian’s, of that size, are so good in color.” Tuckerman thought that Allston’s pictures “ represented every department of pictorial art and every excellence for which her most gifted votaries have been celebrated.” Leslie compared the harmony of tint in Uriel to that of the best pictures of Paul Veronese. All these extravagances, and more, were soberly accepted ; it was the fashion to dilate upon Rosalie, Beatrice, the Roman Lady, and the Spanish Girl, in a style overloaded with adjectives, italics, and poetical quotations, in which sentimentality was often made to pass for sentiment.
There are several of Allston’s wellknown pictures, besides Belshazzar’s Feast, in the Museum of Fine Arts. Rosalie is the name given to a very romantic young woman, who is represented as languishing in love, — a condition which is betrayed by her affected pose and vacant expression, in amusing contrast with her robust figure. The poem fastened to the lower part of the frame, and beginning with these lines, —
That sad, unearthly strain,
That seems from other worlds to plain,” —
is in the Friendship’s-Offering-and-Floral-Album taste, and corresponds in some sort to the soft modeling and the saccharine savor of the figure. The Flight of Florimel, a bad imitation of the old masters, illustrating Spenser’s Faery Queen, is chiefly noticeable on account of its impossible white horse, whose position is exactly like that of a hobbyhorse, and its ill-painted landscape. Elijah Fed by the Ravens is in fact a landscape of sombre tone, in which the prophet and the birds are but secondary items. Elijah is seen among the twisted roots of a great naked banyantree in the midst of a vast brown desert, which is closed in the distance by a range of dark mountains. Heavy clouds overshadow the desolate scene. The sky is hard, and the cloud-forms do not look like nature. The misleading title was the source of some disappointment at the time the Elijah was first exhibited, but Ware pronounced the landscape sublime, and proclaimed it superior to the tempests of Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Vernet, and Wilson. In The Rising of a Thunder Storm at Sea there is a fine luminous sky and some rare blue and gray tones. A ship is seen in the distance, and a small pilot-boat, which is putting off for her, staggers about among the big waves to a lively measure. From behind a great bank of dark clouds at the left the light of the sun smites the calm and tender blue of the heavens far beyond at the right, forming a dramatic contrast with the dark and troubled waters of the sea. The Portrait of Himself when Young is that of a comely youth, with mild and dreamy eyes, a mass of dark curling hair, a delicate complexion, an almost girlish cast of beauty. As far as execution goes, it is the best example of his painting in the Museum. The Isaac of York, the Moonlight, the Landscape painted when at college, the portrait of Benjamin West painted in London in 1814, and the study for the head of Jeremiah (a work which aptly illustrates the propinquity of the sublime and the ridiculous), besides a considerable number of drawings, tracings, and unfinished oil-paintings from Allston’s Cambridge studio, may also be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts, where a special exhibition of about fifty of his works was held in 1881.
He made the profession of the painter more respected than it had been in Boston before his day; for he was distinctly a gentleman, and among those who might have been vulgarly disposed to look down upon his calling, he insisted upon its dignity, and made people take off their hats when they were in the presence of a work of art. This was a real service to art and artists at the time, for the epoch of Bohemian artists, inhabiting obscure garrets, living from hand to mouth, and affecting peculiarities of dress, had not then entirely passed away; and much was gained when art was, so to speak, clothed like a gentleman, and introduced to good society on an equal footing. Countless anecdotes are told by Dunlap, Tuckerman, Drake, and other writers regarding the American Titian, which show how much he was admired and beloved. His lectures on art, which were edited by R. H. Dana, Junior, his famous brotherin-law’s son, were published in 1850.
Allston’s influence was wholesome. Without him there would have been no George Fuller, and consequently no Winifred Dysart, forty years later. The element of ideality in his works and his love of the beautiful were thus destined to inspire some remarkable manifestations of art long after he had passed from the stage.
During his life he had seen growing up around him a group of artists who were glad to look up to him as a leader, and the Boston Artists’ Association, of which he was the first president, in 1842, comprised in its membership such men as Henry Sargent, Chester Harding, D. C. Johnston, Joseph Ames, Francis Alexander, T. Buchanan Read, R. M. Staigg, and other painters, who were to achieve more or less distinction in various fields. Among Allston’s other contemporaries were Thomas Doughty, Stuart Newton, James Frothingham, Alvan Fisher, S. F. B. Morse, G. P. A. Healy, William Dunlap, R. A. Salmon, Edward G. Malbone, and Henry C. Pratt. The dean of this galaxy was Colonel Sargent, who was born in 1770. Like Trumbull, he divided his allegiance between the sword and the pencil, but this did not prevent him from doing some excellent work with the latter tool, as is proved by the great full-length portrait of Peter Faneuil in Faneuil Hall, which reminds one of a Copley, and of which the Massachusetts Historical Society possesses a replica on a smaller scale. Faneuil was a large man, who wore a huge gray wig and a rich red costume, which is set off by a variety of yellows, grays, and browns in the accessories. The portrait has fine decorative qualities, and the heavy, powerful figure of Faneuil is very actual and imposing. In his hands he holds a drawing of the Cradle of Liberty which has perpetuated his name. Sargent was a pupil of Copley and West in London. He painted anecdotal pieces as well as portraits, and occasionally essayed historical and religious compositions. His large picture of the Landing of the Pilgrims was, unfortunately, destroyed by being rolled on an unseasoned pine pole.
James Frothingham (horn 1786) was a portraitist of talent, and Stuart is quoted as having said of one of his heads, “ No man in Boston but myself can paint so good a head.” Frothingham was greatly aided by Stuart’s criticisms and encouragement, although at first his Nestor had advised him to adopt some other and less precarious means of earning a livelihood. There is a fine portrait of Samuel Dexter, by Frothingham, in the Harvard Memorial Hall. Dexter, who wears a white wig and a red cloak over a black coat, holds a book in his hand, and seems lost in meditation. The flesh in this painting is rather dry and parchment-like, but in general the color is very harmonious and agreeable. We have, therefore, every reason to believe that Dunlap was right in saying that his heads were painted with great truth, freedom, and excellence.”
Samuel F. B. Morse, the famous inventor of telegraphy, born in 1791, in Charlestown, was a pupil of Allston, and went with him, in 1811, to London, where he roomed with Leslie, and was encouraged by West and Copley. He returned to Boston in 1815, but although he was hospitably welcomed in society, and his pictures were politely praised, no one bought any of his works; so he left after a year’s sojourn, to become in after time the president of the National Academy of Design, and finally the greatest inventor of the age. There are none of his paintings in any public collection, and possibly the only work of art by which he will be known to posterity is the portrait of Noah Webster engraved as a frontispiece to the dictionary. He was not a born painter, but he was one of those men of great general powers of mind and character, who are sure to rise to preeminent position, whether it be in art, statesmanship, war, or commerce.
Chester Harding (born in 1792) enjoyed a great vogue as a portrait-painter for many years. In 1823, he was the fashion in Boston. Even Stuart was neglected, and used to ask ironically, “ How goes the Harding fever ? ” His full-length portraits of Daniel Webster and Chief-Justice Marshall are in the Athenæum. That of Webster is in character the most genial and winning of his portraits. It shows him as a younger man than the majority of his likenesses describe, and though his look is keen and serious, he is not yet so heavy-browed and stern as we shall see him when painted by Ames and Healy. He stands with the tips of the fingers of his right hand resting lightly on a table. His clothes are the blackest of black, and in the background is the inevitable red curtain. The quality of the work is in no regard remarkable, either as good or bad; it is mediocre ; yet in this case, as in all others, Harding unquestionably got a perfect likeness. The portrait of Marshall is decidedly one of his happiest productions, in arrangement and characterization. It has the same black and red draperies as the Webster, but the great jurist’s robe and knee-breeches are more pictorial than Webster’s modern coat and trousers. There is no trace here of Marshall’s reputed awkwardness of bearing. Mr. Dexter, in the Memorial History of Boston, endeavors to account for Harding’s success by recalling the fact that he was “ a backwoodsman newly caught,” and ‘‘ trumpeted forth as a self-taught man.” There is some excuse for saying that such an introduction goes a long way towards winning the favor of Boston amateurs ; but it would be an injustice to Harding to attribute all of his popularity to his rustic origin and his unacademic training. His sincere and amiable character doubtless would have made him a favorite anywhere, and though he was sufficiently modest about his own abilities, they were of no contemptible order. He began life as a sign-painter, as many an artist has done. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, hearty, genial man, whom everybody in town knew and liked. He went to England, and met with much success there, painting the portraits of the poet Rogers, the historian Alison, and several members of the royal family.
Alvan Fisher (born 1792) was another portraitist who flourished at the same period, and whose pictures of children, dogs, horses, and landscapes were particularly admired. He had a good deal of invention, and his scenes from rural life were deservedly popular. Judging from the examples of his portrait work in the Harvard Memorial Hall, his endeavors in this direction resulted in indifferent success. His portrait of Samuel Gilman is decidedly feeble and thin ; and the profile likeness of John G. Spurzheim, the phrenologist, holding a plaster head in his hands, is not much better.
Gilbert Stuart Newton (born 1793), the nephew and pupil of Stuart, painted small genre subjects with great ability. His Forsaken, in the Museum of Fine Arts, is a richly colored painting, about eighteen by twenty-four inches in dimensions, which represents a weeping woman crouching on a red sofa in a dark room. Her face is hid in her hands, and she rests her head on the arm of the sofa, buried in a handkerchief. She is dressed in white. The conception is seriously carried out, and the feeling of pathos is so genuine that some one (it was Leslie, I suppose) has said it is a painting of a sob. There is a very handsome gamut of warm reddish-browns employed in the work, which almost justifies Allston’s remark that “ Newton’s color was magical.” This exquisite picture belonged to the lamented Thomas Gold Appleton. Newton’s portrait of himself is a half-length painted on a small panel. He stands with folded arms, his right side turned towards the observer. It is neatly and simply executed. The portraits of John Adams and of Fisher Ames (after Stuart), with a couple of sketches made while studying in London, are also included in the collections of the Museum. The portrait of Samuel Appleton in the Harvard Memorial Hall is warm and distinguished in color. It is evident, however, that his ideal pictures, which enlisted his imagination, and in their deep, sensuous color foreshadowed the works of Diaz, were executed con amore, and were therefore his best works.
The year that witnessed the birth of Newton — the year of the French Revolution — likewise marked the advent upon the scene of Thomas Doughty, a native of Philadelphia, who became one of the most accomplished and artistic of early American landscapists. He moved to Boston, and, after the opening of the Athenæum, was a regular exhibitor in its yearly exhibitions. His pictures were gray, his skies remote and luminous. The foliage in his landscapes often showed by its fluttering the action of a breeze. He especially enjoyed and appreciated those silvery effects of light and those indescribably delicate atmospheric tones with which, in later years, Corot’s name and fame were to be associated. Doughty’s small canvases are rare to-day, and it is no wonder that they are highly prized by all who are fortunate enough to possess them. The British minister to the United States paid him twenty-five hundred dollars for one of his pictures, a price that was considered extraordinary in those days.
Francis Alexander (born 1800) was a successful portrait-painter, who was encouraged to settle in Boston by Stuart, and who, with Harding, Fisher, and Doughty, opened an exhibition in 1833, which was regarded as an important event, and proved profitable as well. Alexander went to Europe, and when in Rome made Sir Walter Scott’s acquaintance. He had just painted a small Magdalen, and the great romancer, after looking at it in silence for some minutes, turned away, with the flattering comment, “ She’s been forgiven ! Alexander’s portrait of Nathaniel P. Willis, which Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis bequeathed to the Museum of Fine Arts, is one quarter of the size of life, low and somewhat bituminous in tone, describing sympathetically a boyish and ingenuous head, full of amiability. His portrait of Joseph Tuckerman, in the Harvard Memorial Hall, though rather dry, is strong in expression ; but one of his best portraits in all respects is that of Francis C. Gray, the donor of the valuable Gray collection of engravings to Harvard College, which is in the First Print Room of the Museum of Fine Arts. I know of no more refined and sympathetic work. The head is excellently drawn and painted. Kindness and intelligence are perceptible upon every feature of this good face.
G. P. A. Healy (born 1808) is best known by his numerous portraits of celebrated men. That of Longfellow in the Museum of Fine Arts is chiefly remarkable as presenting him in the character of a young man, with a dapper and brisk air, side-whiskers, and the bearing of a practical, prosaic person, so wholly different from the meditative graybeard of the print-shops that the contrast is amusing. Healy has painted a larger and later portrait of the poet, which is the best existing representation of him, made when he was in middle age and at the height of his powers. Healy’s portrait of himself as a young man is in the Museum. Put his capital work — which, if size were of itself a prime merit in a painting, would have no equal in Boston — is his vast historical picture of Webster replying to Hayne, which hangs in Faneuil Hall. This contains no less than one hundred and thirty figures, and measures sixteen by thirty feet. The published key shows that all but about a dozen of the heads are portraits, including those of Webster, Hayne, Edward Everett, Judge Story, George Ticknor, M. de Toqueville, John Quincy Adams, General Scott, John C. Calhoun, James K. Polk, General Cass, and many other celebrated people who are known to have been in the Senate-Chamber on January 26 and 27, 1830, the dates of Webster’s famous speech. The orator is represented standing by his desk in the central aisle, directly in front of and facing the president of the Senate. His shoulders are thrown back; his left hand rests on his desk ; his right arm falls by his side. He wears black trousers, and a dark blue dress-coat with brass buttons, closely buttoned over a buff waistcoat; and a high " choker ” and white cravat, with a black silk watch-guard, complete his costume. This leading actor would appear insignificant if the minor personages in the drama were not so much more so. With a few exceptions, there is very little life in the heads. The young page at the right of the president’s desk is intrinsically the most interesting character in the composition. There is no unity of effect, and little atmosphere. Time has already blackened the shadows and made them opaque. The reds in the carpet and hangings are of an unpleasant dull tone. It may be that the work had at first a “ success of esteem,” which was materially fostered by the fact that so many Massachusetts people were flattered to have their likenesses included in a historical painting of such imposing proportions ; but it is surprising to find even the genial Mr. Appleton speaking of it, in 1851, as if it were a masterpiece, — “ a far better picture than any of Trumbull’s, or indeed any kindred picture in America.”
Joseph Ames (born 1816) was another member of the group of portraitists who made Boston their home in Allston’s time, and had the good fortune to paint the heads of many distinguished men, including Lincoln, Webster, Choate, Prescott, Emerson, Pope Pius IX., and others. He was self-educated, like Harding, and his early works are said to have been especially fine in color. His likenesses of Webster have become, like Gilbert Stuart’s Washington, widely recognized as the best counterfeit presentments of that statesman. His two-thirdslength portrait of Lincoln, in Faneuil Hall, the study for which is owned by the Paint and Clay Club, is austere, homely, and truthful; it has the halfgrotesque and half-pathetic look of the great and well-beloved war President. Ames never flattered ; he would be called brutal by latter-day critics, and perhaps that is none too severe a term to apply to him. His Rufus Choate, also in Faneuil Hall, represents that eminent advocate making a sweeping backward gesture with both arms, as if brushing away with one imperious stroke the other side’s tissue of sophistical arguments. It has precisely the same characteristics as the Lincoln: an aggressive plainness, a manly and rugged presence. Surely Lincoln and Choate both had some traits which Ames has missed in these portraits, but then the world is constantly asking too much of artists. Who shall undertake to rival nature ? In the Museum of Fine Arts is Ames’s portrait of Webster, which does not differ in its style from the Lincoln and the Choate; and in the Harvard Memorial Hall hangs his vigorous portrait of the eminent Grecian, President Felton. None of these portraits are extraordinary in respect to workmanship or color. They are strongly modeled and coarse in handling; the backgrounds are uniformly of cold gray. The innumerable reproductions of his Death of Webster have made that melancholy composition familiar from Maine to Texas. Moody and uneven, Ames at his best was capable of extremely fine work. He was the wonder of Boston at one time, but soon afterwards a period of neglect came, which, whether merited or not, caused him great suffering, and had a bad effect upon his work.
Richard M. Staigg (born 1817), the son of a Scotch stone-mason, who came to Boston in 1841, and was instructed by Allston, was a miniaturist, whose portraits of Webster, Everett, Allston, and others have been reproduced in engravings. Later in life he painted genre pieces, landscapes, and portraits in oil, but his best works were his early miniatures. The exhibition of his pictures, soon after his death, in the gallery of the Boston Art Club, contained twentyfive miniatures, one hundred and three oil-paintings, and thirteen water-colors.
T. Buchanan Read (born 1822) was a poet and a painter, who lived in Boston from 1842 to 1846, and was the secretary of tire Boston Artists’ Association. His ideal paintings were called The Water Sprite, The Lost Pleiad, and The Star of Bethlehem ; and he made a picture of Sheridan and his Horse, besides writing the well-known poem called Sheridan’s Ride. His picture of Longfellow’s children in a group, with their arms twined about each other’s waists, was reproduced by photography, and attained great popularity.
D. C. Johnston, who had been an actor, was a caricaturist, — the first of any note in Boston, — whose two sons were destined to become remarkably gifted painters. He had a keen sense of humor and a good degree of invention.
William Dunlap was a portrait-painter, who, in 1822, exhibited his large picture of Christ Rejected, in Boston, and passed several months here painting portraits. He was the author of a History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, in which he devoted a large share of the space to his own acts. He states that he made a profit from the exhibition of his picture “ in Doggett’s great room, a noble place,” and apparently accepted with the utmost good-nature Stuart’s blunt criticisms upon his work.
R. A. Salmon was a marine-painter of considerable talent, who came to Boston from England early in the century, and established an enviable reputation. His paintings were highly finished, and what we should call old-fashioned nowadays. They were impregnated with a certain English sentiment, but the manner revealed familiarity with the works of Van der Velde. The execution was skillful and learned, and it was evident that Salmon had traveled and seen fine pictures. He lived in a rude dwelling on a wharf in South Boston, and was reputed to be eccentric, but nothing that suggests roughness or irregularity appears in his works.
Henry C. Pratt, who was a pupil of S. F. B. Morse, was a mediocre painter of portraits and landscapes. His fulllength and life-size portrait of Edward Everett, painted about 1838, was shown lately in the Old South Meeting-House. The evening costume, the gesture of the right hand, and the conscious formality of his position indicate that Everett is delivering an oration. Through an open door at the left, Bunker Hill Monument is visible. Pratt went to Mexico with the Bartlett expedition, which was sent there, about 1851, to settle the question of the boundary line between the United States and Mexico, and he brought back from this journey some mountain and prairie scenes, which were a little hard, but had a decided appearance of truth. At that time he painted portraits passably well, but as he grew older he became a very bad painter, and resorted to lotteries to get rid of his pictures, which no one wanted.
Edward G. Malbone, miniaturist (born in Newport, 1777), established himself in Boston when about nineteen years old, and formed a close friendship with Allston. His stay here was short, however, and after equally brief sojourns in several other cities, he chose Charleston, S. C., for his permanent home. He died at the age of thirty, leaving an enviable reputation as a miniature-painter. His most celebrated work is a group of three beautiful young girls, called The Hours. A good specimen of his delicate workmanship and his refined expression of character is the miniature portrait of Mrs. James Carter, in the Museum of Fine Arts. Mrs. Carter was a browneyed beauty in 1798, whose pale and transparent complexion was emphasized by a mass of dark curling hair. In her white dress she looks almost as unsubstantial as a ghost. In her day people were not above liking pretty pictures, with a good, smooth finish, and Malbone’s success is not hard to account for.
William Howe Downes.