Autobiography of W. J. Stillman
III. ART STUDY.
DURING the time of my preparation for entry to college, a wandering artist had happened to find his way to Schenectady, — one of the restless victims of his temperament, to whose unrest fate had given other motives for change than his occupation. He was an Englishman by the name of John Wilson, a pupil of the brothers Chalons, fashionable London miniature painters of the early part of the century, and in years long gone by he had established himself at St. Petersburg as a portrait painter ; but losing his wife and two children by a flood of the Neva, which occurred when he happened to be absent in England, he abandoned Russia, and went to one of the Western states of America and gave himself to agriculture. Here fate found him again, and after losing another wife and other children he became a wanderer, interested in everything new and strange. He had been taken by Pitman’s then new phonography, and his chief occupation at that time was teaching it wherever at any school he could form a class. He came to Union College to this end; and having been recommended to my mother for board and lodging, she gladly availed herself of the opportunity to get for me lessons in drawing in return for his board. He was a constitutional reformer, a radical as radicalism was then possible, and, indignant at the treatment accorded him by destiny, had become an atheist with Robert Dale Owen, but was au fond an honest and philanthropic man. He taught me the simplest rudiments of portrait and landscape in water color, and of perspective, of which he was master. I got up a small class in drawing for him, but after a dozen lessons he went his way to new regions, and I never heard from him again. What he taught me I soon lost, except the perspective.
A little later, during one of the vacations while I was at work in my father’s shop, there came in for a piece of ironwork our local artist, a man of curious artistic faculties, a shoemaker by trade, who had taught himself painting, and had gained a certain repute as the portrait painter of the region. He desired to make for himself a lay figure, and for the articulations had conceived a new form of universal joint, which he wished my father to put into shape. My father refused the job as out of the line of his work, and I volunteered to take it, stipulating for some instruction in painting in return. The joint did not answer when worked out, but the friendship between Sexton and myself lasted through his life; a truer example of the artistic nature never came under my study. All that he knew of painting, saving what he got on an annual visit to the exhibition of the American Academy at New York, he had gained from books; but his conception of the nature of art was very high and correct, and had his education been in keeping with his natural gifts he would have taken a high position as a painter. His was one of the most pathetic lives I can recall: a fine, sensitive nature, full of enthusiasms for the outer world, with rare gifts in the embryonic state and mental powers far above the average, limited in every direction, — in facilities, in education in art and in letters, — and with his lot cast in a community where, except the wife of President Nott, there was not a single person who was capable of giving him sympathy or artistic appreciation. Not least in the pathos of his situation were the simplicity and humility with which he accepted himself, with his whole nature yearning toward an ideal which he knew to be as unattainable as the stars, without impatience or bitterness toward men or fate. If he was not content with what was given him, no one could see it; he was, indeed, so filled with the happiness that nature and his limited art afforded him that he had no room for discontent at the limitations. Happy days were those in which my leisure gave me the opportunity to share his walks, and make my crude sketches of his favorite nooks and bends of our beautiful river Mohawk, and listen to his experiences while he worked. I can see now that it was more nature than art that evoked my enthusiasm, and that in art I felt mainly the expression of the love of the beauty of nature. Sexton gave me some idea of the use of oils, and from that time most of my leisure hours and my vacant days were given to painting in an otherwise untaught manner, copying such pictures as I could borrow, or translating engravings into color, — wretched things, most certainly, but to me, then, and with my crude ambition, productive of greater pleasure than the better works of later years.
The three years of my college course had left me little leisure for such studies, and at the end of them I realized that, so far as the object I had set before me was concerned, I had wasted the time and blunted the edge of my enthusiasms. In preparation for the career which I proposed for myself I had, however, entered into correspondence with Thomas Cole, then the leading painter of landscape in America, and an artist to this day unrivaled in certain poetic and imaginative gifts by any American painter. He was a curious result of the influence of the old masters on a strongly individual English mind, inclined to nature worship, born in England in the epoch of the poetic English school to which Girtin, Turner, and their colleagues belonged, and migrating to America in boyhood, early enough to become impressed by the influence of primitive nature as a subject of art. Self-taught in technique and isolated in his development, he became inevitably devoted to the element of subject rather than to technical attainment, and in the purely literary quality of art he has perhaps been surpassed by no landscape painter of any time. His indifference to technical qualities has led to neglect of him at present, but in the influence he had on American art, and for his part in the history of it, he remains an important individuality now much underrated. It was settled that I should become his pupil in the winter following my graduation, but a few months before that he died.
At that time there was not in the United States a single school of art, and except Cole, who had one or two pupils when he died, there was no competent landscape painter who accepted pupils, nor perhaps one who was capable of teaching. Drawing masters there were here and there, mostly adepts in the conventional style adapted to the seminaries for young ladies. Inman, the leading portrait painter of the day, had taken pupils; but his powers did not extend to the treatment of landscape, and my sympathies did not go beyond it. I applied to A. B. Durand, then the president of our Academy, the only rival of Cole, though in a purely naturalistic vein, and a painter of real power in a manner quite his own, but which borrowed more from the Dutch than the Italian feeling, to which Cole inclined. Durand was originally an engraver of the first order, and afterwards a portrait painter ; but his careful painting from nature and a sunny serenity in his rendering of her marked him, even in the absence of imaginative feeling, as a specialist in landscape, to which finally he gave himself entirely. His was a serene and beautiful nature, perfectly reflected in his art, and he first showed American artists what could be done by faithful and unaffected direct study of nature in large studies carefully finished on the spot, though never carried to the elaboration of later and younger painters. But he was so restrained by an excess of humility as to his own work, and so justly diffident of his knowledge of technique, that he could not bring himself to accept a pupil, and I finally applied to F. E. Church, a young painter, pupil of Cole, and for many years after the leading landscape painter of the country. He was then in his first success, and I was his first pupil. Church in many respects was the most remarkable painter of the phenomena of nature I have ever known, and had he been trained in a school of wider scope he might have taken a place among the great individualities of his art. But he had little imagination, and his technical training had not emancipated him from an exaggerated insistence on detail, which so completely controlled his treatment of his subject that breadth and repose were entirely lost. A graceful composition and most happy command of the actual effects of the landscape which he had seen were his highest qualities; his retention of the minutest details of the generic or specific characteristics of tree, rock, or cloud was unsurpassed, so far as I know, and everything he knew he rendered with a rapidity and precision which were simply inconceivable by one who had not seen him at work. I think that his memory and retention of the facts of nature once seen by him must have been at the maximum of which human power is capable, but he had no notion of the higher and broader qualities of art. His mind seemed a camera obscura, in which everything that passed before it was recorded permanently ; but he added in the rendering of its record nothing of human emotion, or of that remoulding of the perception which makes it conception and individual. The primrose on the river’s brim he saw with a vision as clear as that of a photographic lens, but it remained to him a primrose, and nothing more, to the end. All that he did or could do was the recording, the form and color, of what had flitted past his eyes, with unsurpassed fidelity of memory; but it left one as cold as the painting of an iceberg. His recognition of art as distinguished from nature was far too rudimentary to fit him for a teacher, for his love of facts and detail blinded him to every other aspect of our relation with nature, in the recognition of which consist the highest gifts of the artist. My study with him lasted one winter, and showed me that nothing was to be hoped for from him, and that the most intimate superficial acquaintance with nature did not involve the perception of her more intimate relation with art.
I learned from Church nothing that was worth remembering, but at his studio I met Edgar A. Poe, a slender, nervous, vivacious, and extremely refined personage, and I made acquaintance with a young portrait painter who had a studio in the same building, an Irishman named Boyle, a pupil of Inman, whose ideas of art were of a far higher order; and to my intercourse with him during that winter and the following summer which we spent together, sketching, in the valley of the Mohawk, I owe the first clear ideas of what lay before me in artist life. But at that juncture I came across Modern Painters, and, like many others, I received from it a stimulus to nature worship, to which I was already too much inclined, that made ineffaceable the confusion in my mind between nature and art. Another acquaintance I made that winter was of great importance in developing my technical abilities, — that of a well-known amateur, Dr. Edward Ruggles, a physician whose love of painting finally drove him out of medicine. I had then met no one with so catholic and correct a taste. He introduced me to William Page, the most remarkable portrait painter, in many respects, America has ever produced, and whose talks on art used to make me sleepless with excitement. Page was the most brilliant talker I ever knew, and a dear friend of Lowell.
Returning to Schenectady the summer afterward, I made my first direct and complete studies from nature, and among these was one, — a view from my window across gardens and a churchyard, with the church spire in the distance,—a small study which incidentally had a most potent effect on all my later life. It was bought in the autumn by the Art Union of New York; and on the proceeds, thirty dollars, the first considerable sum of money I had ever earned, I decided to go to Europe and see what the English painters were doing ! Of English art I then knew, directly, only the pictures of Doughty, an early artistic immigrant from England, and, as afterward appeared to me, a fair example of the school which had its lead from Constable, to whom he had no resemblance except in choice of motive. He had a comprehension of technique possessed by none of our home painters; a rapid and masterly execution with a limited scale of color, but, within this gamut, of exquisite refinement. Constant repetitions of the same motive wore out his welcome on the part of the American public, but his pictures had a charm which was long in losing its power over me, and had an influence in determining me to go to England at the first opportunity. But to see Turner’s pictures was always the chief motive, and was that which decided me to go.
In knowledge of worldly life, I was scarcely less a child then than I had been when, at the age of ten, I determined to go out into the world and make my own career, free from the obstacles I imagined to be preventing me from following my ideals. The ever present feeling developed in me by the religious training of my mother, that an overruling Providence had my life in keeping, made me quite oblivious of or indifferent to the chances of disaster; for the assurance of protection and leading to the best end left no place for apprehension. It was a mental phenomenon, which I now look back on with a wonder which I think most sane people will share, that, at the age when most boys have become men (for I graduated at twenty), I should have been capable of going out into a strange world like the children of the Children’s Crusade, with an unfaltering faith that I should be led and cared for by Providence as I had been by my parents. I had no solicitude, from the moment that one of the shipowners who was in business relations with my elder brother offered me a free passage on one of his sailing ships to Liverpool, lest I should not find a similar bridge back again; and with my thirty dollars converted into six sovereigns, and a little valise with only a change of clothes, I went on board the Garrick, a packet of the Black Ball line, sailing in the last days of December. There had been a thaw ; the Hudson River was full of floating ice, which in the ebbing of the tide endangered the shipping lying out in the stream, and the captain made such haste to get out of the danger (the extent of which was shown by the topmasts of an Austrian brig appearing above water where she had been sunk by the floating ice) that the ship had her anchor apeak before the boat which carried my brother and myself out to it could reach it. We barely did so in time for me to get aboard, the necessity of threading our way among the masses of ice making our progress difficult. That my childish faith in Providence was a family trait might be deduced from the fact that my brother, who had from boyhood stood to me in loco parentis, had not asked me until I was on the point of going aboard what my means of subsistence were ; and when he found that I had only six sovereigns, he told me to wait at Liverpool for a letter of credit he would send me by the steamer which followed.
That voyage is one of the most delightful memories of my life. I loved the sea ; and every phase of it, storm or calm, was a new joy. I had one fellow passenger, a German doctor of philosophy, named Seeman, who had been an ardent radical in Germany, and after studying in the United States the development of political intelligence under democratic conditions, was returning to his native land with the profound conviction that democratic government was a bad failure. We had hot debates on the subject, in which the doctor adduced his conversations with the intelligent farmers of New England, whom he had especially studied, to show that their political education was such as to endanger the best interests of the community from its extreme superficiality. I, with the unfaltering faith in the processes of universal suffrage, disputed his conclusions, — so hotly, in fact, that we quarreled, and he took one side of the quarter-deck for his promenade, and I the other. But the conditions of sea life, with a companionship limited to two persons, are such that no quarrel that is not mortal, or from rivalry in the affections of a woman, can endure many days, and after a few days of avoidance we drew to the same side of the deck and were better friends than before ; but we dropped politics. This was in January of 1850, and I now feel curiosity as to the subsequent career of the young German savant, who in that state of American political evolution was capable of drawing the horoscope of a nation as it has been in recent times fulfilled ; who saw in the crude notions of political economy of that prosperous yesterday the germs of the political blunders and errors of to-day. I drew his portrait, I made a few studies of sea and sky, but for the most part the sensation of simple existence under the conditions of illimitable freedom in space, with no reminder of anything beyond, was sufficient for me. I used to lie on my back on the roof of the wheelhouse and look into the sky, and try to make friends with the sea gulls which sailed around over me, curiously peering down with their dovelike eyes as if to see what this thing might be. Then the nights, so luminous with the “breeming” of the sea as we got into the Gulf Stream ; the flitting and sudden population of the ocean, always bringing us surprises ; the more exciting and delightful storms which came on us in the region in which they were always to be expected, and which, though we had some that made lying in one’s berth difficult, were never enough to satisfy my desire for rough weather, — all these things filled my life so full of the pure delight in nature that when, at the end of nearly three weeks at sea, we came in sight of the Irish coast, I hated the land. Life was enough under the sea conditions, and the prospect of the return to the limitations of living among men was absolute pain. We made Liverpool in twenty - one days from New York, and the steamer which had left that city the week after us did not arrive for three or four days, so that my waiting for the letter of credit involved a hotel bill which nearly exhausted my money in hand. The kindly captain, knowing my circumstances, made the hotelkeeper throw off fifty per cent of his bill (for I went to the “captain’s hotel”); and thus I succeeded in getting to London with the money which was to have paid my expenses for six weeks — according to the careful calculations I had made, at the rate of a pound a week — reduced to provision for three, after which Providence was expected to provide me with a passage home. I had planned in these weeks to see Turner’s pictures, Copley Fielding’s, with Creswick’s and all the others Ruskin had mentioned. But the railways and hotels had never come into my arithmetic, and such arithmetic was always, and remains, my weak point. Still, the letter of credit was for fifty pounds, and so I felt justified in my faith in Providence, my brother going to the general credit of that account.
Arrived at Euston Station in the small hours of the morning, I bought a penny loaf, and walked the streets eating it and carrying my valise. When the day was sufficiently advanced, I went and presented a letter of introduction given me by G. P. Putnam, the publisher, to his agent in England, Mr. Delf, who at once took me to a lodging house in Bouverie Street, where I got a room for six shillings a week, service included, and found an honest, kindly landlady, to whom I still feel indebted for the affectionate interest she took in me. I had letters to Mr. S. C. Hall, editor of the Art Journal, and the Rev. William Black, pastor of a little Seventh - Day Baptist church at Millyard in Goodmansfields, Leman Street, a very ancient and well-endowed foundation, made by some Sabbatarian of centuries ago, with a parsonage and provision for two sermons every Saturday. Under Mr. Black’s preaching I sat all the time I was in London. He was a man of archæological tastes, whose researches had led him to the conviction that the seventh day was the true Christian Sabbath, and to fellowship with the congregation of Millyard. I was admitted to honorary membership of the church, and the listening to the two dry-as-dust sermons was compensated for by the cordial friendship of the pastor, an invitation to dinner every Saturday, and the motherly interest of his wife and daughters. My childhood’s faith and my mother’s creed still hung so closely to me that the observances of our ancient church were to me sacred, and the Sabbath Day at Millyard still held me to the simple ways of home. In that secluded nook, out of all the rush and noise of London, we lived as we might have lived in an English village ; it was an impasse, and one who entered from the narrow and squalid alleys which led to it was surprised to find the little square of the old and disused graveyard, with its huge hawthorn trees and its inclosure of the parsonage appendages, as peaceful and as far from the world as if it had been in far-off Devon.
My letter to Mr. Hall led to introductions to Leslie, Harding, Creswick, and several minor painters, all of whom found me attentive to the lessons they gave me on their own excellences, and led me no further; but it also brought me into contact with J. B. Pyne, a painter of a higher and more serious order, one of the few thinkers and impartial critics I found among the English painters. Every Sunday I went out to Pyne’s house in Fulham, walking the six or seven miles in the morning, and spending the day there. Kitchen gardens and green fields then lay between Kensington and Fulham, where are now the Museums, and there the larks sang and the hawthorn bloomed. After an early dinner we passed the afternoon in talk on art and artists. Pyne was one of the best talkers on art I ever knew, and a critic of ability ; his art had great qualities and as great defects, but in comparison with some of the favorites of the public of that day he was a giant, and in certain technical qualities he had no equal in his generation except Turner. He had the dangerous tendency, for an artist, of putting everything he did under the protection and direction of a theory, — a course which invariably checks the fertility of technical resource, and which in his case had the unfortunate effect of causing him to be regarded as a mere theorist, whose work was done by line and rule. But I had good reason to know that Turner thought more highly of him than the English public, and I am convinced that as time goes on, and his pictures acquire the mellowness of tone for which he carefully calculated in his method and choice of material, he will be more highly esteemed than in his own time, while the careful and systematic technique which characterized his work, and which is so opposed to the random and hypothetically inspired methods which are the admiration of a half-educated public, will find its true appreciation in the future. Of all the English artists of that day with whom I became acquainted, Pyne impressed me as by a considerable measure the broadest thinker, and, except Turner in his water color, the ablest landscape painter; old John Linnell, in this respect, standing nearest him in technical power, with a more complete regard for nature and her sentiment. In Harding I took no interest ; his conventions and tricks of the brush repelled me, and generally his work left me cold and discouraged. For this is the effect of wasted cleverness: that it disheartens a man who, knowing that his abilities are less, finds the achievement of cleverer men so poor in what the artist of feeling demands. In Harding’s works I saw an exaggeration of Pyne’s defects, and a feeble emulation of his good qualities. Creswick had a better feeling for nature, but in his methods convention gave place to trick, and I remember his showing me the way in which he produced detail in a pebbly brookside by making the surface of his canvas tacky, and then dragging over it a brush loaded with pigment, which caught only on the prominences, and did in a moment the work of an hour of faithful painting.
A painter who taught me more than any other, at that time, was Edward Wehnert, mainly known then as an illustrator, and hardly known now even in that capacity. Attracted by one of his water colors, I went to him for lessons, which he declined to give, while really giving me instruction informally, and in the most kindly and generous way, during the entire stay I made in London. Of the lives of artists I have known, Wehnert’s was, with the exception of Sexton’s, the most pathetic. His native abilities were of a very high order, and his education was far above that possessed by the British artist of that day. He was a pupil of Paul Delaroche, and the German blood he had from his father gave him an imaginative element, which the Englishman in him liberated entirely from the German prescriptive limitations. He painted both in oil and in water color, with a facility of design I have never known surpassed, completing at a single sitting, and without a model, a drawing in which were many figures. He was, at the moment I knew him, engaged in illustrating Grimm’s stories, for a paltry compensation, but, as it seemed to me, in a spirit the most completely concordant with the stories. He had several sisters, who had been accustomed to a certain ease in life, and to maintain this all his efforts were devoted, even to the sacrifice of his legitimate ambitions; he was overworked with the veriest hackwork of his profession, and I never knew him but as a jaded man. He was a graduate of Göttingen, widely read and well taught in all that related to his art as well as in literature. I used to sit much with him while he worked, and most of my evenings were passed in the family. The sisters were women who had been of the world, clever, accomplished, and with a restricted and most interesting circle of friends, but over the whole family there rested an air of tragic gravity, as if of some past which could never be spoken of, and into which I never felt inclined to inquire. Among the memories of my first stay in London the Wehnerts awaken the tenderest, for through many years they proved the dearest and kindest of friends. The hospitality of London, wherever I found access to it, was indeed unmeasured, and the kindly feeling which showed itself to a young and unknown student, without recommendation or achievement, made on me an indelible impression. I now and then met some one who asked me where I had learned to talk English, or if all the people in the section from which I came were as white as I was ; but except in a single case — that of a lady who proposed to make me responsible for slavery in the United States — I never experienced anything but friendship and courtesy, and generally the friendliness took the form of active interest.
Most of my time was passed in hunting up pictures by Turner, and of course I made the early acquaintance of Griffiths, a dealer in pictures, who was Turner’s special agent, and at whose gallery were to be seen such of his pictures as he wished to sell; for no inducement could be offered which would prevail on him to dispose of some of them. Griffiths told me that in his presence an American collector, Mr. James Lennox, of New York, after offering Turner £5000, which was refused, for the old Téméraire, offered him a blank check, which was equally rejected. Griffiths’ place became one of my most common resorts, for Griffiths was less a picture dealer than a passionate admirer of Turner, who seemed to have drifted into his business because of his love for the artist’s pictures, and to share in his admiration for Turner was to gain his cordial friendship. Here I first saw Ruskin, and was introduced to him. I was looking at some little early drawings of Turner, when a gentleman entered the gallery ; and after a conversation with him, of some length, Griffiths came to me and asked if I would not like to be presented to the author of Modern Painters, to which I naturally replied in the affirmative. I could hardly believe my eyes, expecting to find in him something of the fire, enthusiasm, and dogmatism of his book, and seeing only a gentleman of the most gentle type, blonde, refined, and with as little selfassertion or dogmatic tone as was possible consistently with the holding of his own opinions; suggesting views rather than asserting them, and as if he had not himself come to a conclusion on the subject of conversation. A delightful and to me instructive conversation ended in an invitation to visit his father’s collection of drawings and pictures at Denmark Hill, and later to spend the evening at his own house in Grosvenor Street. After the lapse of forty-eight years, it is difficult to distinguish between the incidents which took place in this first visit to England, in 1850, and those belonging to another, a little later ; but the impression is very strong that it was during the former that I spent the evening at the Grosvenor Street residence, at which I met several artists of Ruskin’s intimacy, and among them G. F. Watts. I then saw Mrs. Ruskin, and have a very vivid impression of her personal beauty, saying to a friend to whom I gave an account of the visit just after that she was the most beautiful woman I had seen in England. As I went up the street to their house there was a bagpiper playing near it, and the pipes entered into the conversation in the drawing room. On my expressing a very disparaging opinion of their music, which I then had heard for the first time, Mrs. Ruskin flamed up with indignation, but, after an annihilating look, she said mildly, “ I suppose no southerner can understand the pipes,” and we discussed them calmly, she telling some stories to illustrate their power and the special range of their effect.
At that time Ruskin held very strong Calvinistic notions, and as I kept my Puritanism unshaken we had as many conversations on religion as on art, the two being then to me almost identical, and to him closely related ; and I remember his saying once, in speaking of the doctrine of foreordination (to me a dreadful bugbear), as I was drinking a glass of sherry, that he believed that it had been ordained from all eternity whether I should set that glass down empty or without finishing the wine. This was to me the most perplexing problem of all that Ruskin put before me, for it was the first time that the doctrine of Calvin had come before me in a concrete form. Another incident gave me a serious perplexity as to Ruskin’s perceptions of art. Leslie had given me a card to see Mr. Holford’s collection of pictures, in which was one of Turner’s, the balcony scene in Venice, — called, I think, Juliet and her Nurse. It was a moonlight, with the most wonderful rendering of a certain effect seen with the moon at the spectator’s back ; and I noted, in speaking to Ruskin, later on, that no other picture I had ever seen of moonlight had succeeded so fully in realizing it; to which he replied that he had never noticed that it was a moonlight picture. But when I called his attention to the display of fireworks on the Grand Canal, he admitted that it was not customary to let off fireworks by day, and that it must be a night scene.
My acquaintance with Ruskin lasted, with varying degrees of intimacy and some interruptions, till 1870, when it was terminated by a trivial personal incident to which his morbid state of mind at the time gave an undue importance. We separated more and more widely in our opinions on art in later years, and the differences came to me reluctantly ; for my reverence for the man was never to be shaken, while my study of art showed me finally that, however correct his views of the ethics of art might be, from the point of view of pure art he was entirely mistaken, and all that his influence had done for me had to be undone before any true progress could be made. What little I had learned from the artists I knew had been in the main correct, and had aided to show me the true road ; but the teaching of Modern Painters, and of Ruskin himself later, was in the end fatal to the career to which I was then devoted. But the first mistake was my own. What I needed was practical study, the training of the hand; for my head had already gone so far beyond my technical attainment that I had entered into the fatal condition of having theories beyond my practice. My execution was so far in arrears of my conceptions of what should be in the result that, instead of the delight with which I had, untaught and in my stolen hours, given myself to painting, I felt the weight of my technical shortcomings so heavily as to make my work full of distress, instead of that content with which the artist should be able to work. Everything became conscious effort, and the going was too much uphill. I had always been groping my own way, scarcely as much assisted by the fragmentary good advice I received as laid under heavier disabilities by the better knowledge of what should be done. In art education, the training of the hand should be kept in advance of the thinking powers, so that the young student should feel that his ideal is just before him, if not at his fingers’ end. That this is so rarely the case with art students in our day is, I am convinced, the chief reason of the technical inferiority of our modern painters, and the root of the inferiority of modern art. I was already belated, and every advance I made in the study of the theory of art put me the more behind, practically.
The hope of getting much technical instruction from competent masters in England was speedily dispelled. Lessons in water color I could get at a guinea an hour, and to enter as a pupil with one of the better painters was impossible. Pyne received from his pupils one hundred pounds a month! I had carefully calculated how far I could make my fifty pounds go, and put it at six months. By the advice of Wehnert I applied to Charles Davidson, a member of the New Water Color Society, for instruction, and went down into Surrey, where he lived, to be able to follow him in his work from nature. He lived at Red Hill, and in the immediate vicinity John Linnell had built his then new home, and in the few weeks I lived there I saw a great deal of the old man. He was one of the most remarkable examples of the old English type I have known, and to me as interesting a problem from the religious point of view as the artistic. Barring differences of creed, of which I knew nothing or little (for my own religious horizon had always included all “ good-willing men,” and I had never learned the distinctions of creed which would send on one side of the line of safety an Established Churchman, and on the other a nonconformist), we agreed very well, and in the general impression I set Linnell down as a devout Christian of the Cromwellian type ; he certainly was a man of remarkable intellectual powers both in art and in theology. His Christianity might have taken a form of less domestic sternness, but I remembered my own father too well to find it inconsistent with genuine piety, though not even my mother ever inspired the awe Linnell and his religious severity excited in me. His landscape seemed to me the full expression of a healthy love of the world, possible only to a man of entire moral sanity, with a cheery, Wordsworthian enjoyment of nature, which, as a rule, I have never found in perfection except in the English school and its derivatives, the outcome of a robust nature which sees the outer world with the spectacles of no school, and through the memory of no other man. He was not self-taught in the sense of owing nothing to another mind, but in the sense that what he had learned had been digested and forgotten, except as a chance word in the universal gospel of art; technically weak, slovenly in style, but eminently successful in telling the story he had to tell. Even then, with my limited knowledge of painting, he seemed to me to furnish the antithesis to Pyne, — one too careful of style, and running to excessive precision, the other too negligent and running into indecision; and this judgment still holds. From Davidson, my immediate teacher, there were only to be got certain ways of doing certain things, limited to the elements of landscape : how to wash in the sky, to treat foliage in masses, and those tricks of the brush in which the English water-color school abounds, but no larger, or more individual, views of art itself. What he taught was, perhaps, what I most needed to learn, but I was already too far on the way to learn it easily.
I made a visit of ten days to Paris, and saw with great profit the work of the landscape painters and of Delacroix, the other figure painters in general not interesting me much. But to accomplish all that I did with my fifty pounds, it may be easily understood that I had to cut my corners close; and in fact they were so closely cut in my Continental excursion, that I landed at Newhaven, on my return, with one shilling in my pocket; and when, at the end of my stay in England, I took the train for Liverpool, I had only sixpence (my passage being provided for). My good friend Delf, who saw me off, on finding the state of my purse, insisted at the railway station on my taking a sovereign for contingencies. This habit of making no provision for accidents had been, as I have said, a part of my moral training, the faith in the overruling Providence never forsaking me for an instant, so that, whatever I set about to do, I made no provision for accidents. To go ahead and do what I thought I ought to do, and let the consequences take care of themselves, has been the habit of mind in which I have always worked, and probably still work. If the thing to be done was right, I never thought of what might come after, or even if the means to carry resolution into effect were provided beforehand. I took it for granted that they would be, because the thing was to be done. I retain the distinct recollection of an expression of my mother while I was making preparations for this first voyage to Europe, and she was packing my clothes for the voyage ; her lips were silently moving, and the slow tears running down her cheeks, when she exclaimed in her low and murmuring voice, as if in comment on her prayer, “ Oh no, he is too pure-hearted,” and I knew that her petition was for my protection from the temptations of that world of which she only knew the terrors and dangers from her Bible, and that she was so wrapt in her spiritual yearnings that she had quite forgotten my presence. And though I never deserved the great trust she had in me, the memory of those words thus uttered has served in many devious moments to keep me in the path. But if I had no such virtues as those which she attributed to me, I had what was perhaps more potent, the intuitions which I inherited from her, such as often take a man out of temptation before he is aware of its strength, and before it becomes a real danger ; nor can any man remember such confidence on the part of his mother without, from very shame, if no sterner motive should exist, maintaining a higher tone of life.
I did not leave London without a sight of Turner himself, due to the friendly forethought of Griffiths, who so appreciated my enthusiasm for the old man that he lost no opportunity to satisfy it. Turner was taken ill while I was on this visit, with an attack of the malady which later killed him, and I had begged Griffiths to ask him to let me come and nurse him ; but he declined the offer, yet was not, Griffiths told me, quite unmoved by it. One day, after his recovery, I received a message from Griffiths that Turner was coming to the gallery at a certain time on a business appointment, and if I would happen in just before the hour fixed for it I might see him. At the appointed hour Turner came, and found me in an earnest study of the pictures in the further end of the gallery, where I remained, unnoticing and unnoticed, until a sign from Griffiths called me to him. He then introduced me as a young American artist who had a great admiration for the master’s work, and who, being about to return home, would be glad to take him by the hand. I was amazed at the sight of this little old man with a nose like an eagle’s beak and an eye like the eagle’s, but in every other way insignificant, and half awed and half surprised I held out my hand. He put his behind him, regarding me with a humorous, malicious look, saying nothing. Confused and not a little mortified, I turned away, and, walking down the gallery, went to studying the pictures again. When I looked back, a few minutes later, he held out his hand to me, and we entered into a conversation which lasted until Griffiths gave me a hint that Turner had business to transact which I must leave him to. He gave me a hearty hand-shake, and in his oracular way said, “ Hmph — [nod] if you come to England again — hmph — [nod] hmph—[nod]” and another handshake with more cordiality, and a nod for good-by. I never saw a keener eye than his, and the way that he held himself up, so straight that he seemed almost to lean backwards, with his forehead thrown forward, and his piercing eyes looking out from under their heavy brows, and his diminutive stature coupled with the imposing bearing, combined to make a very peculiar and vivid impression on me. Griffiths afterward translated his laconism for me, as an invitation to come to see him if I ever came back to England, and added that though he was in the worst of tempers when he came in, and made him expect that I should be insulted, he was, in fact, unusually cordial, and he had never seen him receive a stranger with such amiability, except in the case of Cattermole, for whom he had taken a strong liking. In the conversation we had, during the interview, I alluded to our good fortune in having already in America one of the pictures of his best period, a seacoast sunset, in the possession of Mr. Lennox, and Turner exclaimed, “ I wish they were all put in a blunderbuss and shot off ! ” but he looked pleased at the simultaneous outburst of protest on the part of Griffiths and myself. When I went back to England for another visit, he was dead.
I may frankly say, that as to Turner’s art, I enjoyed most the water colors of the middle period, though the latest gave me another kind of delight, — that of the reading of a fairy story or the building of glorious castles in the air in my younger days, that of something to desire and despair of. The drawings of the England and Wales series in the possession of Ruskin, and especially the Llanthony Abbey, seemed to my critical faculty the ne plus ultra of water-color painting, and I still remember that drawing 1 with the greatest distinctness. I saw in the Academy exhibition the last pictures he ever exhibited, some whaling subjects, fresh from his retouching of two days before, — gorgeous dreams of color art, but only dreams ; the actuality had all gone out. Years after, when I saw them again, they had become mere wrecks, hardly recognizable.
I saw also that year a picture by Rossetti and one by Millais, and the latter impressed me very strongly ; in fact, it determined me in the manner in which I should follow art on my return home. I did not, and could not, put it on the same plane as the Llanthony Abbey, but the straight thrust for the truth was evidently the shortest way to a certain excellence, and this of the kind most akin to my own faculties. I remember saying to Delf, who was with me at the exhibition of the Academy, that if ever English figure painting rose out of mediocrity it would be through the work of the P. R. B. My impression is that the picture in question was the Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop, but of this I cannot be sure, only that it was in the exhibition of 1850. The Rossetti was in the old National Society, and was either the Childhood of the Virgin Mary or the White Lady. Beautiful as it was, it did not impress me as did the temper of Millais’ work, the scrupulous conscientiousness of which chimed with my Puritan education. I left England with a fermentation of art ideas in my brain, in which the influence of Turner, Pyne, the teachings of Wehnert, and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites mingled with the influence of Ruskin, and especially the preconception of art work derived from the descriptions, often strangely misleading, of the Modern Painters.
I received from my brother, as I had anticipated, the order for a passage on the Atlantic, of the Collins line of steamers, and one of my fellow passengers was Jenny Lind, on her way for her first visit to America, under the guidance of Barnum. She gave a concert on board for the benefit of the firemen and sailors, and to this the half of Delf’s sovereign contributed ; the other half going for a bottle of Rhine wine, to return the compliment of my next neighbor at the table, who had invited me to take a glass of wine one day. Thus, as usual, I landed penniless from my venture, but fortunately found my brother on the wharf awaiting the arrival of the steamer. In those days, a voyage of fourteen days was not considered a bad one. A day’s run of three hundred and thirty-six knots was a triumph of steaming, and rarely attained. But we were at the beginning of the contest between the Collins and the Cunard steamers, and up to that time the American line had generally a little the better of it.
The rest of that year and the year following were given to hard and monotonous painting from nature while the weather permitted, and in the winter to working out clumsily the mysteries of picture-making,—a work which, being without direction or any correct appreciation of what I had it in me to do, became a drudgery, which I went through as an indispensable duty, but with no selfsatisfaction. My larger studies from nature (twenty-five by thirty inches) attracted attention, and had been hung on the line, getting for me the election to the Associateship of the Academy of Design and the appellation of the “ American Pre-Raphaelite,” — all which, for a man so lately embarked in the profession, was considered a high honor, as it really was. But the success so far as it affected me was injurious, for it carried me further from the true path. As studies from nature, the fidelity and completeness of them, even in comparison with Durand’s, was something which the conventional landscape known then and there had never approached, and to the respectable amateurs of that day they were puzzles. For one of them, a study of a wood scene, with a spring of water overshadowed by a beech tree, all painted at close quarters, I had transplanted a violet which I wanted in the near foreground, so as to be sure that it was in correct light and proportion. This was in the spirit of the Ruskinian doctrine, of which I made myself the apostle. On that study I spent such hours of the day as the light served, for three months, and then the coming of autumn stopped me. Any difficulty in literal rendering of a subject was incomprehensible to me; and in fact, in that kind of work there is little difference, for it is but copying, and requires only a correct eye and infinite patience, both of which I had ; and it was a puzzle to me rather than a compliment when the veteran Durand said of one of my studies that it was a subject he would not have dared attack, on account of the difficulty of the effect of light, for to me it was simply a question of time and sticking to it. It was not art, but the public did not know this any more than I did, and I was admitted to a place which I believe was one of the highest among my contemporaries at home, in a way that led to little even in its complete success. I influenced some of my fellow artists and gave a jog to the landscape painting of the day, and there my influence as an artist ended, by a diversion of my ambition to another sphere; but there it must have ended even if I had never been so diverted.
William James Stillman.
- I saw it again in the Guildhall exhibition of 1899.↩