Autobiography of W. J. Stillman
IV. EUROPEAN ADVENTURE AND LIFE IN THE WILDERNESS.
AT this juncture the arrival of Kossuth, the Hungarian patriot, on his mission for the redemption of Hungary, set all America in a flame of shallow enthusiasm, and I went to hear his appeals. What he asked for was money to arm his country to renew the struggle with the house of Hapsburg. His eloquence carried away all deliberation in the Northern states, and even shook the government at Washington, but in the end the only practical result was his gain of the dollars which the hearers paid to hear him speak, and which no one regretted who heard him ; for such oratory no one in the country had ever heard, even from men to whom the English language was native. Before making his discourse in any town he took the pains to find out something of the local history, which he skillfully used to touch the patriotism of his audience in the parish bounds, while he recalled the past glories of America in terms of a new and strange flattery. Before he left New York I had volunteered to fight or conspire, or take any part in the struggle which might fall to me. I kept my counsel from my family, and when Kossuth went on his westward tour it was settled that on or after his return to Europe I was to follow.1
While waiting for the result of the proposed insurrectionary movement in Italy, in the spring of 1853, I went to Paris and entered the atelier of Yvon.
The popular atelier at that time, for the English and American students, was that of Couture, and my only Englishspeaking companion in Yvon’s atelier was a younger brother of Edward Armitage, the Royal Academician. Yvon had about thirty pupils, to whom his attentions were given, gratuitously and conscientiously, three times a week, with rare omissions of the Saturday visit, which was regarded by the pupils as the least important. Of the thirty, there were not more than half a dozen who showed any degree of special aptitude for their work, and only two who were regarded by their colleagues as likely to be an honor to the atelier in the future; and of these, unless they have changed their names, no renown has come in later times. There was a marquis whose income was one hundred francs a month, and a count whose father gave him five sous and a piece of bread for his breakfast when he left home ; but the rest were plebeians, with neither past nor future, whose enthusiasm in the face of their weekly failures, and patience in following an arid path, were most interesting as a social phenomenon. I have always found more to wonder at in the failures than in the great successes in artist life, seeing the content and even happiness which some of the hopelessly enthusiastic find in their futile and endless labor. We used to go to work at six in the morning, draw two hours, and then — those who had the means — go to a little laiterie, for our bowl of café au lait and a small loaf of bread, returning thence to draw till noon, when we went home for the second breakfast. Armitage and I used to breakfast at the Palais Royal, or some other place where the bill of fare was considered luxurious by the other men, so that we were dubbed the “ aristocrats ” of the atelier; my breakfast, however, cost but one franc and a half, and my dinner two francs. I had fixed my expenses, as in London, at the limit of one pound a week, which had to pay all the expenses of atelier, food, and lodging ; and it was surprising how much comfort could be got for that sum.
I had found a tiny room in a maison meublée in the Cité d’Antin, where Mrs. Coxe lived, and Mr. Coxe, in returning to America, had given me charge of his wife and daughter, so that I had a social resource and a relief from tedium which gave me no expense. On Sunday the daughter came home from school, and we all went out to dine at one or another of the Palais Royal restaurants, or made, in fine weather, an excursion into the environs. Now and then Mrs. Coxe invited me to take them to the theatre, and thus I saw some of the famous actors, Rachel and Frédéric Lemaître being still vividly impressed on my memory. The afternoons of the week days were given to the galleries and to visiting the studios of the painters whose work attracted me and who admitted visitors. I thus made the acquaintance of Delacroix, Gérôme, Théodore Rousseau, and by a chance met Delaroche and Ingres.
Delacroix most interested me, and I made an application to him to be received as a pupil, which he in a most amiable manner refused ; but he seemed interested in putting me on the right way, and gave me such advice as was in the range of casual conversation. I asked him what, in his mind, was the principal defect of modern art as compared with ancient, and he replied, “ The execution.” He had endeavored to remedy this, in his own case, by extensive copying of the old masters. In fact, if we consider the differences in the system of education in painting and that in music or any other art or occupation in which the highest executive ability is required, we shall see that there is comparatively little pains taken to secure for the hand similar subtle skill to that of the successful violinist or pianist, a skill due to the early and incessant practice in the manual operations of his art. The fact is recognized that the education of a violinist must begin in the early years, when the will and hand are flexible ; and not merely the training, but the occupation, is almost exclusive, for the specialist is made only by a special and relatively exclusive devotion to the particular faculties to be trained. It is useless to attempt to develop the finest qualities of the draughtsman without similar attention to the training to that which we insist on in the musician. The theory may come later, the intellectual element may develop under many influences and healthily later in life, but the hand is too fine and subtly constituted an implement to be brought into its best condition and efficiency unless trained from the beginning to the definite use imposed on it. Admitting, therefore, as I do, that the criticism of Delacroix was just, it is evident that until we give to the modern student of painting similar training to that which students in former times had, we cannot expect to rival the executive powers of the artists of the Italian Renaissance. Nor can we be sure that we appreciate the subtlety of their work, any more than the member of a village choir can understand the finesse of the highest order of musical execution, or its first violinist appreciate the touch of a Joachim or a Sarasate ; for it is just in the last refinement of touch of a Raphael drawing or the rapid and expressive outline of a Mantegna that we find the analogy between the two arts, a refinement of touch which is lost on the public, and appreciated only by the practiced student either of music or of painting. This final attainment of the hand is possible only to a man who has been trained as a boy to his work. We find it in a water-color drawing of Turner as in a pencil drawing of Raphael, and in the outlines of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in modern figure painting never, even in France, where the youth generally takes up the training at fourteen to sixteen. I believe that the reason why supreme excellence of art is so completely lacking even in French art that, so far as I know, only Meissonier has attained a measure of it, is that the seriousness of life and purpose necessary for any consummate achievement is so rarely found there in conjunction with this early and sound training.
Of the acquaintances made in these days, the one which has always remained a delight to me was that of Théodore Rousseau, to my mind the greatest of the French landscape painters. Though living and working mostly at Barbison, he had a studio in Paris, and there I used to see him, always received in the friendly and helpful way which was characteristic of most of the French artists of the higher order; and later I went to Barbison, where, besides Rousseau, I knew J. F. Millet, and a minor but in his way a very remarkable painter, Charles Jacque. Rousseau was a most instructive talker on art, beyond the sphere of which he hardly seemed to care to go in his thinking. He had never been out of France, had never seen the Alps, and seemed to take little interest in mountain scenery, but concentrated all his feeling and labor on what he used to call sujets intimes, the picturesque nooks of landscape which one can always find in a highly cultivated country, where nature is tamed to an intimacy with the domestic spirit, or where she vainly struggles against the invasion of culture, as on the borders of the forest of Fontainebleau. In such material nature leaves a wider margin for art, and the relation of the two becomes more subtle and playful.
It has always seemed to me that, with all the differences inherent in the respective characters of the two men, the essential feature of the art of Rousseau and Turner was the same : pure impressionism based on the most intimate and largest knowledge of the facts of nature, and without direct copying of them. Working from memoranda or memories, neither ever painted directly from nature ; while both possessed the same conception of the subject as a whole, dealing with its rhythmic and harmonic unity as opposed to the fragmentary manner of treatment of most of their contemporaries ; the same lyric passion in line and tint; the same waywardness in the treatment of the subject in itself, the same revolt from all precedent, and the same delight in subtle gradation and infinite space, air, and light. These are the fundamental agreements of the art of the two great masters, and in these no other man of their countries and epoch has equaled them, but outside of these the contrasts are of the most pronounced. Turner neglected trees; Rousseau worshiped them. Turner loved the mountains ; Rousseau never cared to see them, and to my knowledge never painted one. Turner, a colorist, reveled in color like a bacchanal; Rousseau, a tonalist, felt it like a vestal; but both had the sense of color in the subtlest measure.
Rousseau used to say that if you had not your picture in the first five lines, you would never have it, and he laid down as a rule that whenever you worked on it you should go over the whole and keep it together, proceeding in all parts pari passu. Wishing to give me a lesson in values, one day as he was painting, he turned his palette over and painted a complete little scheme of a picture on the back of it, suggested by the subject before us as we looked out of the studio window. He showed me his studies from nature, — mere notes of form and of local color in pastel. It was to me always a puzzle that even in the educated art circles of Paris Corot should have found so great a popularity as compared to that of Rousseau. Without in the least disparaging the greatness of Corot’s best work, — such for instance as the St. Sebastian and some other pictures the names of which I cannot recall, — the range of conception and treatment, in comparison with that of Rousseau, is so limited as to constitute a distinct inferiority, in the absence of a marked superiority in special high qualities, — superiority which does not exist, for the picked work of Rousseau possesses technical excellences all its own, as consummate as anything in the world’s landscape art.
Of Millet I saw much less, but enough to know the man and his art, simple and human, the one as the other. His love for manhood in its most primitive attainable type, that is the peasant, was the outcome of his conception of art, and of the honest, open nature of the man himself, averse from all sophistication of society, and intolerant of affectations of any kind. He conceived and executed his pictures in the pure Greek spirit, working out his ideal as his imagination presented it to him, not as the model served him. The form is of his own day, the spirit of his art that of all time and of all good art, the elaboration of a type, and not merely the reproduction of a picturesque model. It is the custom now to class all peasant subjects emulating the forms of Millet as belonging to his art. Nothing is more absurd, for the art of Millet was subjective, not realistic ; it was in the feeling of the art of Phidias and the Italian Renaissance, not in the modern pose plastique. Millet was himself a peasant, he used to say, and his moral purpose, if he had any, was the glorification, so far as art can effect it, of his class, — the class which above all others, in his eyes, dignified humanity. This feeling was with him no affectation, but the deliberate, final conclusion of his life. He reverenced the sabot and the blouse, the implements of tillage and work, as the Greek did his gods and the implements of war and glory ; but he lacked the perception of the types of pure beauty of the Greek.
The personal relations between Rousseau and Millet were in the best sense of the word fraternal, and from neither did I ever hear a word to the disparagement of a brother artist, while Rousseau used to talk in the subtlest vein of critical appreciation of his rival landscape painters, the Duprés, Ziem, Troyon, and others; so that I regret that in those days I thought only of my own instruction, and not of putting on record the opinions of a man whose ideas of art were amongst the most exalted I have known.
A charming nature was that of Troyon, a simple, robust worker, and, like all the larger characters in the French art world with whom I became acquainted, full of sympathy and guidance for those who wanted light and leading. But the lives of these three great painters, like that of Corot (whom I never knew personally), show how completely the French public, so proud of its intelligence of art, ignored the best qualities of it till outsiders pointed to them. Troyon told me that for the first ten years of his career he never sold a picture, but lived by painting for Sèvres ; the prosperity of Millet came from the patronage of American collectors, led by the appreciation of a Boston painter, William Hunt. I well remember his famous Sower on the highest line in the Salon, so completely skied that only one who looked for a Millet was likely to see it; while Rousseau, at the time I speak of, was glad to accept the smallest commission, and sold mostly to American collectors. Nor is it otherwise with the Rousseaus, Millets, and Troyons of today ; the public taste, and the banal criticism of a journalism at best the late echo of the opinions of the rare wise man, discover genius only when it has ceased to have the quality of the new and unforeseen.
Yvon, in whose atelier I worked, was essentially a teacher, and his more recent appointment to the directorship of the Ecole des Beaux Arts put him in his true place, that of a master of style in drawing and the elements of art instruction. He was engaged, when I knew him, on the battle pieces of the Crimean war, the chief of which were already at Versailles. His was an earnest, indefatigable nature, and he was as kindly and zealous a teacher as if he were receiving, like his English confrères, a guinea a lesson. Nothing so strongly marked the difference between the French and the English feeling for art as this characteristic feature of the disinterestedness of the French artist in giving instruction without compensation, while the English artist of distinction gave instruction only at a price impracticable for a poor artist, if indeed he would give it at any price. And even thus, the English drawing master did not teach art, but facile tricks of the brush. Is any other reason needed for the curious fact that, with the marked display of the highest attainment which English art occasionally shows, there is nothing which can be properly called an English school, while France has become the school of Europe, than that in England the master will teach only on terms which are prohibitive of the formation of a school, while in France the most eminent painters, with few exceptions, regard it as a duty to open their ateliers to pupils, often gratuitously, but in any case freely, and on terms which are practicable to the most modest means ? In how different a position in relation to the art of the world would English art now be, had Sir Joshua, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Turner, and two or three others liberally thrown open their studios to pupils, and thus enabled the young enthusiasts of sterling talents, who have never been wanting in England, to profit by the experience and art of their elders, instead of groping their way alone to efficiency, generally arriving too late to arrive successfully !
Waiting the word from Kossuth which should call me to join the ever impending and ever postponed insurrection, I thus passed the winter, profiting as I could by all opportunities for the study of art and making acquaintance with the artists. My money was running to an end, but this was a matter in which my faith in Providence did not allow me to borrow trouble, and I made it a rule not to run in debt. That I never borrowed I cannot say, but I never did so except in cases where I was in such personal relations with the lender that if I died without paying the debt, it would matter little to him.
One Saturday, when I had paid for my dinner at the Palais Royal restaurant, I found myself with fifty centimes in my pocket, and went on a long walk in the streets of Paris to meditate on my immediate future. Mrs. Coxe, one of the kindest of friends, would, I knew, gladly lend me what I needed; but I did not allow her to know that I needed, and how to pay for my next day’s dinner I did not see, yet, confident that something would turn up, I walked toward my lodgings through the Rue Royale and its arcades feeling the ten-sous piece in my pocket, when I saw a young girl dart out from one of the recesses of the arcade, dragging after her a boy of two or three years, and then, as if her courage failed, turn and hide herself and him again in the doorway from which she had come. I saw her case at once, want and shame at begging, gave her the ten-sous piece, and went to bed feeling better. The next day being Sunday, and no atelier, I slept late, and was awaked by a knock at my door, followed by the entrance of no other than my friend Dr. Ruggles, between whom and myself there were various communities of feeling which made us like brothers. He sat down by my bedside, and, salutations passed, broke out, “ Do you want any money ? ” His grandfather, just dead, had left him a legacy, and he had come to Paris, artistlike, to spend it. I took from him, as I would have given him the half of my last dollar, a hundred francs, and on this I lived my normal life until, some weeks later, a friend of my brother, arriving from New York with instructions to find me out and provide for my wants, if I had any, supplied me for any probable emergency, including an order for a free passage home on a steamer of which my brother was part owner. I waited till the spring homesickness made it too irksome to live quietly in Paris, and finding that the revolution so long waited for was not to occur, I went home and to my painting.
In American landscape the element of the picturesque is seriously deficient. What is old is the rude and savage, the backwood and the wild mountain, with no trace of human presence or association to give it sentiment; what is new is still in the crude and angular state in which the utilities are served and the comfort of the man and his belongings chiefly aimed at. Nothing is less paintable than a New England village; nothing is more monotonous than the woodland mountain of either of the ranges of eastern North America. The valley of the Mohawk is one of the earliest settled and least unpicturesque sections of the Eastern states, with its old Dutch farmhouses and the winding of the beautiful river, but I had explored it on foot and in every direction for miles around my birthplace, and found nothing that seemed to “ make up ” except trees and water. I spent one summer after my return among these familiar scenes, but found the few subjects which repaid study too remote from any habitable centre to repay the labor needed to get at them. I made long foot excursions through the valleys of the Connecticut and Housatonic, but after my experience in rural England it was very discouraging to ransack that still unhumanized landscape for pictures. Everything was too fresh and trim, and I remember that one day, when I was on my search for a “ bit,” I found a dilapidated barn which tempted me to sit down before it, when the farmwife, guessing my intentions, ran out to beg me not to take the barn yet; they were going to do it up the next week as good as new, and would n’t I wait ?
An accident drove me to pass one summer in as complete seclusion from society as I could find and where I should be able to do nothing but paint. I had been struck in the face, during one of the snowballing saturnalia the roughs of New York indulged in after every fall of snow by a huge block of frozen snow-crust, which flattened my nose on my face and broke the upper maxillary inclosing all the front teeth. I modeled the nose up on the spot, for it was as plastic as clay; but the broken bone became carious, and after enduring for two years the fear of having my head eaten off, I decided, after I had resigned the chance of having it shot off in the revolution, to let my brother operate. The bone inclosing the front teeth was taken out with the teeth, and I went into retirement for three months at least while the jaw was getting ready for the work of the dentist.
I had seen, when last in England, the picture by Millais, The Proscribed Royalist, which gave me a suggestion of the treatment of a landscape that should be mainly foreground, such as I particularly delighted in, and, hoping to find a woodland subject of the desired character, I went to pass the summer on the farm of the old uncle where I had caught my first trout, knowing it to be largely wooded. Of course, when one goes out to look for a particular thing he seldom finds it, nor did I then find the tree subject I wanted, but I found a little spring under a branching beech and surrounded by mossy boulders, and taking a canvas of my usual size, twenty-five by thirty inches, I gave three months to the work, and carried it home still unfinished. It was an attractive subject, though not what I had wanted, and the picture was hung in one of the best places in the Academy exhibition, making its mark and mine. It was absolutely unconventional, and the old stagers did not know what to say of a picture which was all foreground. There was much discussion, and among the younger painters much subsequent emulation, but it did not find a purchaser at my price, two hundred and fifty dollars. Anything so thoroughly realistic that, as President Durand said, “ the stones seemed to be, not painting, but the real thing,” puzzled the ordinary picture buyer. As the negative photographic process had just then been introduced in America, I had the picture photographed, and a friend took a print of it to the head of the old school without any explanation. My antagonist looked at it carefully, and exclaimed, “ What is the use of Stillman making his Pre-Raphaelite studies when we can get such photographs from nature as this ? ” As I had my brother’s generosity to fall back on I was not obliged to sell, and the picture remained in my studio for two or three years. Later Agassiz saw it, and was so delighted with its botany that I decided to give it to him ; but when a fellow painter offered, as I was leaving again for Europe, to “ raffle it off,” I allowed him to do so, and he appropriated the proceeds. I had made a rule of giving the pictures which were not sold in the exhibition to the person who had shown the finest appreciation of them, a habit which did not contribute to pecuniary success, but which helped my amour propre, and I have always regretted not having sent that picture to Agassiz, who in later years became one of my best friends.
Under the stimulus in part of the desire for something out of the ordinary line of subjects for pictures, and in part with the hope that going into the “ desert ” might quicken the spiritual faculties so tantalized by a long and profitless experience of the circles of the spiritualists, I decided to pass a summer in the great primeval forest in the northern part of New York State, known as the Adirondack wilderness. It was then little known or visited; a few sportsmen and anglers had penetrated it, but for the most part it was known only to lumberers. Here and there, at intervals of ten to twenty miles, there were log houses, some of which gave hospitality in the summer to the sportsmen, and in the winter to the “ loggers ” and “ river-drivers ” who worked for the great lumber companies. It was a tract of two hundred miles, more or less, across, mainly of unbroken forest, without roads and to a large extent without paths, but intersected by rapid rivers, impossible of navigation other than by canoes and light skiffs which could be carried on the backs of the woodsmen from river to river and from lake to lake. I hoped here to find new subjects for art, spiritual freedom, and a closer contact with the spiritual world.
I was ignorant of the fact that art does not depend on a subject, or spiritual life on isolation from the rest of humanity, and I found, what a correct philosophy would have led me to expect, nature with no suggestion of art, and the dullest form of intellectual or spiritual existence. One of my artist friends, S. R. Gifford, landscape painter, like myself on the search fpr new subjects, who had been the year before to the Saranac Lakes, gave me the clue to the labyrinth, and I found on Upper Saranac Lake a log cabin, inhabited by a farmer and his family, consisting of his wife, son, and daughter, and from him I hired the spare bedroom and hospitality at two dollars a week for board and lodging. There I passed the whole summer, finding a subject near the cabin, at which I painted assiduously for nearly three months. I spent the whole day in the open air, wore no hat, and only cloth shoes, hoping that thus the spiritual influences would have easier access to me ! I carried no gun, and held the lives of beast and bird sacred; but I had no principle against fishing, and my rod and fly book provided much of the food of the household. For trout swarmed : in precisely an hour’s fishing I caught, that summer, where a trout is now never seen, as large a string as I could well carry a mile. All the time that I was not painting I was in the boat on the lake or wandering in the forest.
My quest was an illusion. The humanity of the backwoods was on a lower level than that of a New England village, — more material if less worldly ; the men got intoxicated, and some of the women — nothing less like an Apostle could I have found in the streets of New York. I saw one day a hunter who had come into the woods with a motive in some degree like mine, — impatience of the restraints and burthens of civilization, and pure love of solitude. He had become, not bestialized, like most of the men I saw, but animalized: he had drifted back into the condition of his dog, and with his higher intellect inert. He had built himself a cabin in the depth of the woods, and there he lived in the most complete isolation he could attain. He interested me greatly, and as he often spent the night at the cabin where I was living, we had much talk together. He cared nothing for books, but enjoyed nature, and only hunted in order to live, respecting the lives of his fellow creatures within that limit. He went to the “ settlements ” only when he needed supplies, abstained from alcoholic drinks, the great enemy of the backwoodsman, and was happy in his solitude.
As he was the first man I had ever met who had tried to solve the problem which so interested me, the effect of solitude on the healthy intellect, I encouraged him to talk, which he was inclined to do when he found that there was a real sympathy between us on this question. He seemed to have no desire for companionship, but there was nothing morose or misanthropic in his love of seclusion. Though he had no care for intellectual growth and no longing for books, he thought a good deal in his own way, and mingled with his limited thinking and tranquil emotion before nature was a large element of spiritual activity, and this had kept him mentally alive. He had heard of spiritism, and his own experience led him to acceptance of its reality. In his solitary life, in the unbroken silence which reigned around him, he heard mysterious voices, and only the year before he had heard one say that he was wanted at home. He paid no attention to it, thinking it only an illusion, but after an interval the message was repeated so distinctly that he packed his knapsack, took his dog, and went out with the intention of going home. On the way he met a messenger sent after him, who told him that his brother had met with an accident which disabled him from work, and begged him to come to his assistance. The voice had spoken to him at the time of the accident. As a rule, however, the voices seemed vagarious, and he attached no importance to them, except as phenomena in which he took slight interest. There was nothing flighty about him, no indication of monomania. He reasoned well, but from the point of view of a man who has had only an elementary education ; he had no religious crotchets, and apparently thought little or not at all of religious matters, — was, in fine, a natural and healthy man, satisfied with the moment he lived in, and giving no consideration to that which would come after. He had a great contempt for his fellow woodsmen, and avoided contact with them.
The backwoods life, as a rule, I found led to hard drinking, and even the old settler with whom I had taken quarters, though an excellent and affectionate head of his family, and in his ordinary life temperate and hard-working, used at long intervals to break bounds, and, taking his savings down to the settlement, drink till he could neither pay for more nor “ get it on trust,” and then come home, penitent and humiliated. About two weeks after I entered the family, the old man took me aside and informed me, mysteriously, that he was going to the settlement for a few days, and asked me to take one of the boats and come down for him on a fixed day, when he would row the boat back. I rowed down, accordingly, sixteen miles, and found Johnson at the landing in a state of fading intoxication, money and credit exhausted, as usual, and begging for a half pint of rum “ to ease up on.” He was “ all on fire inside of him,” and begged so piteously that I got him a half pint ; and we started out, he at the oars and I steering. A copious draught of rum, neat, brought his saturated brain to overflow, and before we had gone a mile he was so drunk that I had to guide the oars from behind to insure their taking the water. Then he broke out into singing, beating time on the gunwale with such violence that it menaced to capsize the boat, and to all my remonstrances he replied by jeering and more uproarious jollity. It was no joke, for he was too drunk even to hold on to the boat, while I was a poor swimmer, and in the deep and cold lake water should never have reached the shore ; so I found myself obliged to threaten violence. I raised the steering paddle over his head, and told him, with a savageness that reached even his drunken brain, that I would knock him on the head and pitch him overboard if he did not keep perfectly quiet. There was imminent danger, for the slight boat of that region requires to be treated with the care of a bark canoe. The menace cowed him so that he quieted down, and watched me like a whipped dog. I tried to get the bottle away from him, but his drunken cunning anticipated me, and he put it far behind him, now and then taking a mouthful of rum to keep down the burning; and, he pulling and I guiding the oars, we ran through the lower lake, seven miles, to a “ carry ” where the boat had to be lifted out and carried over into the river above, around a waterfall. Here fortunately I caught the bottle and sent it down the lake, and we labored on through another lake, three miles, and up a crooked river to another carry into the third lake, on the edge of which we lived. He was still too drunk to be trusted, and, leaving the boat at the landing with him beside it, I carried the load we had brought from the settlement over to the lake and waited for him to get sober. After an interval, I started to go back for him, but before long to my amazement he met me, apparently in his right mind, and we reached home without further incident. But that night, about midnight, poor Mrs. Johnson awoke me, begging that I would help her and her daughter to search for her husband who had disappeared from the house. Then she told me that he had the habit of falling into desperate melancholy after his drunken fits, that he had even attempted suicide, and they had once cut the rope by which he had hanged himself, barely in time, and she always expected to find him dead somewhere. We ransacked the house, the barn, the stable, every shed and nook about the premises, and were returning hopeless to wait for daylight to look for him in the lake, when, as I passed the woodyard (where the firewood was stored and chopped), X heard a groan, and, guided by it, found him lying on the chips in the torpor of drunken sleep. The poor wife, with my assistance, dragged him home and put him to bed ; and when I saw him the next morning he was full of vows and resolutions, of repentance and pledges never to touch liquor again.
I passed a very happy summer, enjoying my work, and wandering in the forest or exploring the brooks which flowed into the lake for subjects. The pure air, the tranquillity of the life as well as its simplicity, and a certain amount of boating exercise which I took every day in going to my subject brought me to the highest point of physical health I had ever known. The great danger to the uninitiated in forest life is of getting lost in this wild maze of trees, with no landmark to serve as a clue. Not a few rash wanderers have become bewildered, lost all conception of their whereabouts, and perished of starvation within a short walk of a place of refuge. The houses are invariably built by the waterways, and the lines of communication are by water, so that there is no necessity for roads. One finds the “ runways,” or paths made by the deer traversing the woods in every direction, a perfect labyrinth of byways, often bringing the incautious wanderer who follows them back to his starting place, with the result that he becomes bewildered beyond recovery. Of this danger I was well informed ; and beside, I was more or less a child of the woodlands and had no apprehension of it, having, moreover, an implicit faith in what I considered a kind of spiritual guidance in all I did, — a delusion which at least served to keep me in absolute self-control under all circumstances. It was probably this which kept me, during my wanderings, from falling into the panic, which constitutes the real danger, by depriving the victim temporarily of the use of his reasoning powers. I had, however, an interesting experience which gave me a clearer comprehension of the phenomenon, which is a very curious one.
One of the woodsmen had told me of a waterfall on a trout stream of considerable size which emptied into a lake near by us, and, in the hope of finding a subject on it, I took the boat one afternoon, and began to follow the stream up from the mouth. After a half mile of clear and navigable water it became so clogged with fallen trees that more lifting than paddling was required, and as its course was extremely tortuous I occasionally got out to examine if perchance there might be better navigation beyond. On one of these digressions I suddenly came on the stream running contrary, as it seemed, to its previous direction and parallel to it. Instantly, in the twinkling of an eye, the entire landscape appeared to have changed its bearings ; the sun, which was clear in the sky, it being about three o’clock, looked to me out of the north, and it was impossible to convince myself that my senses deceived me, or accept the fact that the sun must be in the southwest. Then began to come over me, like an evil spell, the bewilderment, and the panic which accompanied it. I was aware that if I gave way to it I was a lost man beyond any finding by the woodsmen, even if they attempted to track me. Fresh wolf-tracks were plenty all along the bank of the stream, panthers and bears abounded in that section, and the wilderness beyond me was unexplored and hardly penetrable, so dense was the undergrowth of dwarf firs and swamp cedars. I had one terrible moment of consciousness that if I went astray at that juncture no human being would ever know where I was, and the absolute necessity of recovering my sense of the points of the compass was clear to me. By a strong effort of the will, I repressed the growing panic, sat down on a log and covered my face with my hands, and waited, — I had no idea how long, but until I felt quite calm; and when I looked out on the landscape again, I found the sun in his proper place and the landscape as I had known it. I walked back to my boat without difficulty and went home, and I never lost my head again while I frequented the wilderness. I grew in time to know the points of the compass even when the sky was covered, and often came home from my excursions after sunset without confusion, but I know that I then owed my escape from a terrible death entirely to my presence of mind, which was probably largely due then, and always, to my supreme confidence in the protection of a superior power, of which I have already spoken.
My studies in spiritism had developed in me another feeling which was kin to this, — a belief in a spiritual insight, the possession of which would always tell one at the moment what should be done, — an intuition which would guide him, but only on the condition that it was trusted absolutely. And at that period of my life I followed it with unfaltering confidence. A curious illustration of this state of mind and its effect had already occurred to me in the spring, and as it relates to this topic and involves a very curious psychological phenomenon, I describe it in connection with the so similar experience of the backwoods. I had made an engagement with Mr. Brown, the sculptor, to meet him on a trout brook that ran through my uncle’s farm, in Rensselaer County, New York, a hundred and fifty miles from New York city ; but I lost the last train by which I should have met him at the appointed time, daybreak of the following day. Determined to keep the engagement, I took another railway, which ran through western Massachusetts and a section of country which was entirely strange to me. From the station at Pittsfield, where I left the railway, there was a distance of several miles to the place of rendezvous, which was in the town of Hancock, close to the boundary line between New York and Massachusetts.
At the station I inquired the way to Hancock, and was told that as the crow flies — that is, across an intervening mountain — it was twelve miles, without even a footpath, but by the road through a pass in the hills twenty, and that unless I knew the mountain I could not possibly find my way over it. It was just sunset as I left Pittsfield, and I decided to risk the mountain. Following what seemed to be a wood road, I climbed the steep declivity, and proceeding in what I took to be a nearly direct course, after an hour’s walk I recognized a gap in the hill crest and a distant view with two little lakes reflecting the sky, which I had already seen nearly an hour before. I had been following a charcoal-burner’s road in a circle ; daylight had gone, and the mists were coming on, heavy as rain, making it impossible to see many yards before me. There was no recourse, if I was to keep the rendezvous, but to go in the direction which the inner sense dictated to me. I determined to obey the monitor, and plunged on in unhesitating obedience. I did not guess nor did I try to make any kind of calculation, — I felt that I must go in a certain direction ; and as the darkness increased I had to grope my way, walking with my hands out before me, not to run against the trees; for the way lay for the most part through dense woods, amidst which were scattered boulders and fallen tree trunks. The fog was so thick and the trees were so wet that every leaf and twig dripped on me, till I was soon drenched as completely as if I had been plunged into a lake. I passed the ridge and began to descend. I felt with my foot before me, and when the foot could find nothing to rest on I drew it back and moved sidewise till I found a step down, hanging on all the time to the branches of the trees. I descended in this way a long distance, then came to a marsh, which I recognized only by the croaking of the frogs in it, and skirting the sound made my way past it, always keeping the general direction through the divergences made necessary by the nature of the land.
At last the fog lifted and I came to an open field, beyond which I saw the outlines of trees against the clouded sky, and keeping on came to a road. A few yards farther on a light was visible in a roadside cottage, and other houses were near, but all dark, as it was late. I knocked at the door of the house where the light was, and asked the way to Hancock. “ Why, you are in Hancock,” the man replied ; and to my inquiry as to an inn, he answered that a hundred yards farther on there was an inn, to which I went. I asked for a fire by which to dry my clothes, and for food, both of which were soon ready ; and then the landlord inquired where I came from, and by what road. When I told him that I came from Pittsfield, by the mountain, he exclaimed in amazement, “ Why, there is no path by which a white man could come over in broad daylight! — an exaggeration, as I could testify, but it proved that the passage was held to be dangerous to the ordinary foot traveler.
The incident in itself has no importance, but the singular feeling under which I crossed a trackless mountain, in complete darkness for the most difficult part of the way, with perfect confidence in a mysterious guidance which justified that confidence, was a mental phenomenon worthy of note. While I was on the wood road, in the earlier portion of the walk, I followed the visible path and made no question of guidance ; but when thrown on the occult influence in which I confided, I walked unerringly to my destination with the precision of an animal which nature had never deserted. In subsequent years, in the wilderness, the fascination of which became absorbing, this occult faculty strengthened, so that I was never at a loss, when in the trackless forest, for my path homeward. I then thought it a newly acquired faculty ; I now regard it as simply a recovered one, inherent in all healthy minds, but lost, as many others have been, in civilization.
The tendency of the imagination, even healthy, acting in solitude, is to create illusions, or, if there be a certain occult mental activity, such as that I have just told of in my Pittsfield experience, to intensify its action to such a degree that it finally usurps the function of the senses. In the loneliness of the great wilderness, where I have passed months at a time, generally alone, or with only my dog to keep me company, airy nothings became sensible ; and in the silence of those nights in the forest, the whisperings of the night wind through the trees forced meanings on the expecting ear. I came to hear voices in the air, words so clearly spoken that even an incredulous mind could not ignore them. I sat in my boat one evening out on the lake, watching the effects of the sky between the gaunt pines which, under the prevalence of the west winds, grew up with an easterly inclination of their tops, like that of a man walking, and thus seemed to be marching eastward into the gathering darkness. They gave a sudden impression of a procession, and I heard, as distinctly as I ever heard human speech, a voice in the air which said, “ The procession of the Anakim.” Over and over again, as I sat alone by my camp fire at night, dreaming awake, I heard a voice from across the lake calling me to come and fetch somebody, and once I rowed my boat in the darkness more than a mile, to find no one. Watching for deer from a treetop one day, in broad sunlight, and looking over a mountain range, along the crest of which were pointed firs and long level ridges of rock in irregular alternation, the eery feeling suddenly came over me, the mountain top seemed a city with spires and walls, I heard bands of music, and then hunting horns, coming down on the wind, and there was a perfect illusion of the sound of a hunting party hurrying below into the valley, which gave me a positive panic, as if I were being pursued, and must run. I remember also, on another occasion, a transformation of the entire landscape in colors — a glorification of nature such as I had never conceived, and cannot now comprehend. The fascination of indulgence in this illusory life became such that I lingered every summer longer, and finally until November, when in that high and northern locality the snow had fallen and the lake began to freeze. I was living only under a bark roof, open to the air, and to the snow, which fell on my bed during the night. I can easily imagine the life leading to insanity. Probably my interest in nature and my painting kept me measurably free from this danger, but not from illusions sometimes more real than physical facts. One evening, when I was lying awake in a troubled state of mind, I bad a vision of a woman’s face, utterly unlike anybody I had ever seen, and so beautiful that, with the sheer delight of its beauty, I remained for several days in a state of ecstasy as if it were constantly before me; I remember it still, after more than forty years, as more beautiful than any face I ever saw in the flesh ; it was as real while it lasted as any material object could have been, though it was a head without a body, like one of the vignetted portraits which used to be fashionable in my early days.
In all these years, whether in the wilderness or in the city, I lived a life more or less visionary and absorbed in mental problems, in the solution of which I passed days of intense thought; and when no solution appeared to my unaided reason, I used to fast until the solution appeared clear, which was often not until after days of entire abstinence from food of any kind. On more than one occasion the fast lasted for three days, when the diminishing mental energy brought with it a diminution of the perplexity, and I came out of the morbid state in which I had been, to find that there was probably no significance in the question. I do not remember the particular character of these problems, save that they were generally questions of right and wrong in motive or conduct, but from the fact that they did not leave a permanent impression, I suppose they were of the trash which seems at times to worry the theological world, the stuff that dreams are made of. Up to this time all the doctrines of my early creed held me in bondage, — the observance of the Seventh-Day Sabbath and the perplexing demands of the letter of the law, which entirely hid the worth of its spirit, were imperative on me, and out of the complication I derived little happiness and much distress. This kind of Christianity seems to me now of the nature of those burthens which the Pharisees of old laid on the consciences of their day ; and it was only years later than the time I am here writing of, when I finally moved to Cambridge and came under the influence of the broadest form of Christianity, that these perplexities were removed. I owe it to one of the truest friends of my early manhood, Charles Eliot Norton, the friend as well of Emerson, Lowell, and Longfellow, that the real nature of these questions of formal morality was finally made clear to me, and life made a relatively simple matter.
This is an anticipation of the sequence of my development, and given here not to leave occasion to recur to the subject again. On my return from the first summer in the wilderness I took a studio again in New York, and entered move formally into the fellowship of the painters of landscape. Being under no necessity of making the occupation pay, I probably profited less than I ought by the régime, and followed my mission of art reformer as much by a literary propaganda as by example. This, as all know who have ventured it, was more or less an effectual preventive of practical attainment in art.
William James Stillman.
- Mr. Stillman has already told, in the Century Magazine, vol. xlviii., the story of his adventures in the service of Kossuth, who sent him to Hungary upon the singular mission of rescuing the Hungarian crown jewels, hidden at some point on the Danube. This portion of the Autobiography is therefore omitted here. — EDITORIAL NOTE.↩