Story's Conversations in a Studio

THE versatility of Mr. Story’s mind, which is illustrated by the variety of his talents, finds an admirable means of expression in the informal talk upon many topics which he has thrown into his last volumes.1 Prose dialogue is a literary form difficult to manage, and instances of success in it in English books are rare; but one who has a well-stored mind and an educated interest in many subjects can scarcely find a form offering such freedom and ease. Mr. Story has but one interlocutor with himself, and as he has not endeavored to make him the mouthpiece of views opposed to his own, he escapes the danger of creating only a man of straw. In fact, there is no discussion, properly speaking, in the work; there is only talk such as would take place between sympathetic friends of the same tastes and education without any friction of the mind. The matter of the conversation, also, is not such as would arouse any very serious feeling, but is largely that mass of fact, theory, and opinion upon artistic or literary subjects which is the common property of men of scholarship and taste. The writer reminds us of the principles of art and poetry, and recalls anecdotes of the history of past times and famous men, and occasionally communicates some out-of-the-way piece of information, such as a wide-ranging reader may gather from curious books ; and he binds the whole together in a natural way by his fiction of the hour in the studio. There is nothing energetic in thought or exacting of attention; all is very easy reading; but the intelligence and mental alertness of these rambling discourses lend them value and make them attractive; the curiosity of the reader is quickened and satisfied, and at the end he finds he has been pleasantly and instructively entertained.

One trait of the work is a certain cosmopolitanism natural to its Roman setting, but also belonging of right to the author himself. The ancients seem like contemporaries in such an atmosphere, and they come often and quite without ceremony upon the stage; but besides this scholarly neighborliness with the Greeks and Romans, there is an equal closeness to Goethe and Shakespeare, to Paris fashions, and of course to Italy with all its range ; nor does the criticism fail to glance at the characteristics of Mr. Story’s countrymen. The leading subject in all this is properly art, its theory and practice and history ; and although there is little new in the thought or fresh in its expression, it is interesting to listen to a sculptor upon his own profession, and to hear from a poet what pleases him in the great masters. Mr. Story is an idealist, and consequently finds much to criticise in modern works of painting and sculpture, and takes pains to justify his own convictions, and to set forth the defects of naturalism or realism, of photographic representation, of unorganized detail, of mere effects of sensation or of technical power, and the like; and, on the other hand, to speak of the beauty behind nature, the type in the individual, the poetical and philosophical temperament of the great writers, and, in general, to defend idealistic treatment both in the fine arts and in literature. Only a small portion of his conversations, however, deals with such abstract matter; his usual method is concrete, and his main purpose seems often to present striking facts. One of the freshest of these conversations, for example, is that which deals with the luxury of the ancients. and particularly with the extraordinary prices paid to artists and sculptors of classical times for their works. Art was then, according to this account, a remarkably lucrative profession. The prices now paid either to the most eminent of living artists or for the works of the old masters which occasionally come into the market, enormous as they seem to us, were exceeded in the days of Greece and Rome; one artist reached such a degree of wealth and also of vanity that he declared no money could pay for his productions, and therefore he gave them away to cities or princes. Mr. Story cites a large number of instances of these prices from the ancient authors, and supports his view with ample illustrations. This profusion, in Rome at least, was equaled in other departments of luxury, examples of which he furnishes. He compares with this the low prices prevailing in the Italian Renaissance, and thus affords a broad summary view of the financial side of artistic history. In another chapter he treats of the much-vexed question of Latin pronunciation, in which he argues plausibly and in detail in favor of the Italian system. The continuance of many of the old Roman proper names in familiar and unbroken succession down to the last period supplies him with one noteworthy point in the question, and the Italian lengthening of the consonantal sounds suggests a peculiarly apt explanation of a rule of quantity. The history of the Italian alphabet and the evidence of some ancient inscriptions are also made to do service in behalf of his position. Altogether, this subject becomes almost a monograph, under his skillful handling. The canon of proportion in sculpture, as practiced by the ancients, is a third most interesting classical theme, and is treated in an original way.

Not all of Mr. Story’s topics, nevertheless, are of this severe sort. The talk about literature, whether German, Italian, or English, is admirably light in touch and sound in criticism. He is more appreciative than rigorous in his remarks upon the poets, but his quotations are usually happily selected examples of the minor excellences of really good verse. Shakespeare, naturally, holds a foremost place everywhere, and his versification is well discriminated and illustrated. Shelley comes scarcely behind the great dramatist as a favorite poet, and the descriptions of Italian scenery, so wonderfully direct and truthful, are often cited on the page. Few writers have perceived so clearly how much Shelley owed to Italian landscape for that peculiar charm and atmosphere which is diffused about his later verse. Wordsworth is the third greatest name which recurs with frequency to Mr. Story’s memory, and to him he does full justice. Contemporary poetry, however, is hardly mentioned, and there is no familiar reminiscence of the poets the author has known excepting Landor, of whom a sympathetic but rather pitiful portrait is drawn in his old age. Mr. Story appears throughout as a generous and tolerant lover of poetry, — as one into whose life it has entered; and perhaps the best of his conversations on this subject consists rather in the unconscious illustration of this intimacy of poetry in a life than in any express criticism of it. Of Goethe he usually speaks disparagingly, as a mechanical and too self-possessed poet, with too much of platitude and attitude in his work; and for his criticism of English literature, particularly the famous analysis and improvement of Hamlet, Mr. Story has no mercy. This is hut one of several signs which an attentive observer may note of a decrease in the reputation of Goethe among the English. In his strictures, Mr. Story will have the sympathy of many who have not been able, in these latter days, to reach the degree of enthusiasm for the chief of the Germans which was aroused by the eulogy of Carlyle and his early followers.

The variety of these volumes, however, is hardly indicated by mention of these greater separate subjects on which the conversation turned at one or another point. The mere list of the topics which are touched on just sufficiently to yield interest without weariness would fill a long paragraph. There is a good deal of the “curiosities of literature” scattered through the pages, much piecemeal learning, occasionally a humorous story or fine saying. Magic and the powers of memory; old age, with an account of famous centenarians ; the pedigree of the dress-coat and its unfortunate influence; the fate of the corpses of the Medici family; the early exhaustion of Raphael: the genius of Michael Angelo; the population of ancient Rome; the patriotic verses of Robert Treat Paine ; American mispronunciations and solecisms ; the characteristics of Roman statues ; the obligation of the sculptor to his assistant who does the mechanical work, are a few of the more prominent matters to which some pages are given. In fact, Mr. Story does not write all this now for the first time; but he has gathered here, with some recasting, much that he has written from time to time upon special topics, so that we have a considerable portion of his occasional literary work in the shape which he desires it to wear. The knowledge of a cultivated man, his wealth of allusion and literary or artistic anecdote, his final convictions about art and its great historical memorials, are all laid under tribute in these pages for our entertainment; and though there is a good proportion of seeming paradox, and the freshness of idea is not always quite unworn, yet one finds the volumes useful as well as charming resources for leisure. There is, too, through all of the conversations a geniality of feeling and a refinement of intellectual interests, a tone of friendliness and good-nature, even in those portions which distribute the mild blame in which the author sometimes indulges himself, that win the reader to cheerfulness, and give the work that companionableness of feeling which it ought to have. Mr. Story’s literary faculty is not beneath such work as this, and there is something of the same quality here as in his older books about Roman life which have delighted lovers of Italy. One misses only the local coloring which might have been looked for in conversations which are represented as taking place in his Roman studio, and the occasional ripple of Italian breaking in on the English text does not entirely make up for this lack. It is not markedly an Italian work, therefore, but there is something of Italy in it ; and one feels this mainly in the cosmopolitan manner which characterizes it, and which we began by speaking of. Those who are interested in the things of culture will give it welcome, and others may he led to liking of such pleasures by reading it.

  1. Conversations in a Studio. By WILLIAM WETMORE STORY. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.