Washington Allston

WASHINGTON ALLSTON was born in 1779, and died in 1843. Fifty years after his death his biography 1 appears, a generous volume, stocked amply with contemporary correspondence, gathering in much, if not all, available memorabilia, and as richly furnished with illustrations as the dispersion of his productions in two hemispheres seems to have permitted. The author himself belongs, as an Academician, in that period when Thomas Cole, Frederick E. Church, Durand, Bierstadt, Elliott, Page, and others were rather the successors of Allston than the predecessors of the present generation of American artists. He may indeed be regarded as a disciple of Allston as well as a kinsman.

Why such a memorial should have been delayed for half a century passes both explanation and comprehension. Had there been a flaw or fault in the record, an equivocal or a shady episode shrinking from the light, requiring apology or commiseration ; had the verdict of contemporaries at home or abroad been traversed or disallowed by the deliberate thought of a later generation; or had there appeared incongruities, disappointing or discordant, between the man, the art, and the life, such a delay might have been easily enough accounted for. As it is, Dr. Flagg has inherited the indecision and procrastination of all these years with the grave disabilities accumulating under them without recourse or remedy. There was no fresh material to be looked for. The record was complete and sufficient almost from the day of Allston’s decease. Time could neither augment nor enrich it.

Moreover, the man was at hand, rarely gifted and accomplished for such a labor of love and duty; sharing the thought and confidence of his brotherin-law, while already exercising a fraternal providence over his later years, and over his estate and reputation after Allston had passed away. Mr. Dana, so far as it appears, never declined this commission so universally assigned him ; nor did he throw any light upon his failure to assume this deputed responsibility. We may only imagine that his very proximity to Allston, their reciprocity of communion and fellowship, the depth and tenderness of his affection, the shock of sudden bereavement, added to a temperament overcritical and hesitant, may have constrained and disabled him from the duties of a biographer. Dr. Flagg, in taking up the work which Mr. Dana avoided, writes almost from the point of view of a contemporary of Allston ; and it can scarcely be said that in his treatment of the subject he takes advantage of the estimate which may be made of a painter after his vogue has passed, and new methods, new ideals, have come in to affect criticism and make the judgment one of posterity. The treatment, however, has something in its favor. The reader, if he chooses, may take his new position, but the facts given him are the facts of Allston’s time seen in the light of Allston’s time; he will not find the writer of the biography interpreting Allston by the canons of a later day, but, so far as he can, by canons which were admitted by Allston and his contemporaries. Hence the book is all of a piece.

Dr. Flagg is embarrassed by no sense of loss or shrinkage or deterioration. He goes about his work with quiet assurance in the completeness and unimpaired charm of his subject. The half-century has only served to mellow the perspectives and purify all aberrations of judgment. The Allston of 1840 is the Allston of 1892. His temperamental fascinations, his artistic predilections, the joy and sweetness of his personality, the measure and range of his intelligence, and his sublime invention, all remain, and quicken and brighten the present. Dr. Flagg pleads no lapse of years, discovers no default ; beholding as he does in Allston a nobility and greatness, a loveliness and transcendent manliness, alike welcome and precious to-day and for all days.

There is little to disparage or censure in Dr. Flagg’s work, after this summary of his point of view and his personal relations with it. He has caught not a little of the mellifluous rhythm of Allston’s rare English, and its graceful cadences modulate his own periods. For Allston’s English is penetrated throughout with the refinement and elegance of the périodique without its artifice. It gives the reader breath and refreshment, while it stimulates and feeds his interest. Let us be glad for it, in a day when grace and beauty of literary art are maimed and marred under the pitiless staccato of telegraphic shorthand and journalistic condensations, until our idiom has well-nigh lost all grace and comeliness, and the sweet music of speech has grown incoherent and gasping with ellipses; so that the man of books and traditional culture finds himself a stranger at the wells of English undefiled, driven either to solitude and exile, or to the bondage of slang and the overwhelming patois that has come to suffocate both conversation and epistolary correspondence. With Allston, the oldfashioned lover of English may say, We keep good company, the company of Addison, Goldsmith, and Irving, relieved sufficiently with touches of current realism, so that nothing seems old-fashioned or out of date.

It may be fairly questioned whether the amplitude of incidental correspondence, valuable and illustrative as it is. may not at intervals become oppressive, shutting out or obscuring the narrative ; whether there is not an occasional lapse into the technics of the studio, something unintelligible to the general reader, with now and then a confusion or withholding of dates and incidentals essential to clearness and easy comprehension. Besides, we note the casual intrusion of personalities and personal considerations hardly relevant or likely to promote the unity and impressiveness of the picture. Of much greater moment seem to us the criticisms and comments concerning Allston’s temperament and idiosyncrasies. Clearly enough, had he been a cool-headed, shrewd, sagacious man of affairs, keenly alive to all the possibilities of thrift and personal advantage, so prudent and farsighted in the adjustment of pecuniary interests as to turn his studio to the highest possible account, he would have been quite another man, and not the Allston whose personality shaped and fashioned his career, and which yet survives in perennial fragrance.

Allston was poet, painter, sculptor, philosopher, and possible musician, variously and richly endowed as the Da Vincis and Angelos ; yet here his biographer seems to fail in determining the harmonies and symmetries of this exquisite and wondrously gifted nature. Had Allston been coarsely organized, and schooled in the prevailing greed and cunning, he might, and doubtless would, have created his own clientèle, educating it for his own selfish ends, like the mercenaries of foreign ateliers, and so painted saints and sirens, Holy Families and courtesans, adventuring sacred and obscene things in their turn, thus keeping tally with the markets; have put up a luxurious villa somewhere in honor of his plutocratic patronage ; and at the last, quitting the world of his base triumphs, have bequeathed a solid estate. Unspeakably better for himself and for the world was it that, not forsaking the high and spiritual tenor of his ways, Allston should trip now and then among the economics ; that he should even be bothered by the demands of his “coal merchant” while serving with a single mind the behests of his inspired mission. It was good that such a life should keep its vows clean and true, even when obedience carried him beyond reach and thought of conventionalities, or stinted his thrift, or delayed the day of his triumph. It was better that the august vision of Belshazzar waited and tarried, even while struggling for enlargement and clearer utterance, as a lesson of heroic devotion to the voice of conscience ; for the quest of an ideal perfection, even if it may never be realized, may be worth infinitely more to the people than all the exploits of selfsatisfied virtuosity. And all this by no means implies that the obedience of genius is necessarily and always at crosspurposes with conventional duties and worldly prudence, or that its finer development necessarily depends upon perplexed relations with the “ coal merchant.”

It is easy and natural enough for the wisest to bewail the casual incompleteness of many a masterpiece. The triumphs of Allston seemed long crowding at the door, waiting his pleasure. No honor or distinction in the art world lay beyond his reach. He might have succeeded Benjamin West, and become the second American president of the Royal Society of Fine Arts of Great Britain. He was literally beset and harassed by the teeming “ commissions ” and urgent demands for “ important ” pictures. Certainly two panels in the great rotunda at the national Capitol were pressed upon him. Only, that fateful vision of Belshazzar, luring him on to an ideal of perfection, elusive as the foundations of the rainbow, like a gruesome mist gathered closer and deeper above and about him, until the fires failed from his eyes, and his heart was stilled by the finger of death.

A deep and lifelong intimacy and friendship grew up between Allston and Coleridge. Wordsworth, that shy recluse, came to know and love him. At home, Verplanck and Irving, with all the leaders of thought, were numbered among his friends. Most remarkable of all is it that the memorable artists of his time, in England and at home, agree in their admiration for his genius and their devotion to his splendid manliness. There is not a breath of hesitation or dissent. These were indeed deep and ardent friendships, disclosed in the letters of Leslie. Newton, Greenough, Mrs. Jameson, and the rest. His absolutely unselfish, loving spirit captured all hearts. When urgently pressed, by Verplanck and others in authority at Washington, to accept commissions for the rotunda, he insists stoutly upon the greater merits and deserts of Vanderlyn. What a sweet touch of nature is this, when two old housewives of Cambridgeport, perplexed over the rival attractions of some calico samples for a new gown, find themselves before Allston’s house, and “the very perfect gentleman ” leaves his waiting dinner, goes down to the street door, and helps them to a selection !

The student who would reach some adequate æsthetic measure of this unique figure among American artists, who realized in the majesty of his design and the irresistible harmonies of his color more of the artistic mastery of the sixteenth century than any of his contemporaries, and whose wide-sweeping genius forecast the persuasive tenderness and ideal exaltation of the two Hunts, of Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, will search in vain among our galleries and collections. A few of his less important productions hang in a feebly lighted room in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts ; these, excepting the rare and altogether lovely (yet unfinished) Rosalie and the exquisite portrait of Benjamin West, affording but a twilight glimpse of his wonderful art. The Belshazzar, superb even in its incompleteness, and better than a whole gallery of conventionalities, hangs on the landing of the central stairway, admirably lighted, and accessible to the student from the opposite side, notwithstanding Dr. Flagg’s somewhat impatient strictures. But not a single acknowledged masterpiece will be found. For a sight of The Angel Liberating St. Peter from Prison one must go to the chapel of the Asylum for the Insane in Worcester. To study The Dead Man Restored by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha there must be a journey to Philadelphia. Other principal works on which Allston’s reputation mainly rests are to be found only in the private galleries of certain English noblemen and old American, chiefly Boston families.

  1. The Life and Letters of Washington Allston. By JARED B. FLAGG, N. A., S. T. D. With Reproductions from Allston’s Pictures. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1892.