A Magazine of Literature, Art, and Politics.
VOL. XV.—FEBRUARY, 1865.—NO. LXXXVIII.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1865, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk's Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
OUR FIRST GREAT PAINTER, AND HIS WORKS.
On the 8th of July, 1843, Washington Allston died. Twenty-one years have since gone by; and already his name has a fine flavor of the past added to its own proper aroma.
In twenty-one years Art has made large advances, but not in the direction of imagination. In that rare and precious quality the works of Allston remain preeminent as before.
It is now so long ago as 1827 that the first exhibition of pictures at the Boston Athenaeum took place; and then and there did Allston first become known to his American public. Returned from Europe after a long absence, he had for some years been living a retired, even a recluse life, was personally known to a few friends, and by name only to the public. The exhibition of some of his pictures on this occasion made known his genius to his fellow-citizens; and who, having once felt the strange charm of that genius, but recalls with joyful interest the happy hour when he was first brought under its influence? I well remember, even at this distance in time, the mystic, charmed presence that hung about the "Jeremiah dictating his Prophecy to Baruch the Scribe," "Beatrice," "The Flight of Florimel," "The Triumphal Song of Miriam on the Destruction of Pharaoh and his Host in the Red Sea," and "The Valentine." I was then young, and had yet to learn that the quality that so attracted me in these pictures is, indeed, the rarest virtue in any work of Art,—that, although pictures without imagination are without savor, yet that the larger number of those that are painted are destitute of that grace,—and that, when, in later years, I should visit the principal galleries of Europe, and see the masterpieces of each master, I still should return to the memory of Allston's works as to something most precious and unique in Art. I have also, since that time, come to believe, that, while every sensitive beholder must feel the charm of Allston's style, its intellectual ripeness can be fully appreciated only by the aid of a foreign culture.
Passing through Europe with this impression of Allston's genius, in the Venetians I first recognized his kindred; in Venice I found the school in which he had studied, and in which Nature had fitted him to study: for his eye for color was like his management of it,—Venetian. His treatment of heads has a round, ripe, sweet fulness which reminds one of the heads in the "Paradiso" of Tintoretto,—that work which deserves a place in the foremost rank of the world's masterpieces. The great praise implied in this comparison is justly due to Allston. The texture and handling of his work are inimitable. Without any appearance of labor, all crudeness is absorbed; the outlines of objects are not so much softened as emptied of their color and substance, so that the light appears to pass them. The finishing is so judicious that the spectator believes he could see more on approaching nearer. The eye searches the shade, and sees and defines the objects at first concealed by it. The eye is not satiated, but by the most artful means excited to greater appetite. The coloring is not so much harmonious as harmony itself, out of which melodies of color play through the picture in a way that is found in no other master but Paul Veronese. As Allston himself expressed it, he liked to echo his colors; and as an echo is best heard where all else is silence, so the pure repose of these compositions gives extraordinary value to such delicate repetitions of color. The effect is, one might say, more musical than pictorial. This peculiar and musical effect is most noticeable in the landscapes. They are like odes, anthems, and symphonies. They run up the scale, beginning with the low-toned "Moonlight," through the great twilight piece called "After Sunset," the "Forest Scene," where it seems always afternoon, the gray "Mountain Landscape," a world composed of stern materials, the cool "Sunrise on the Mediterranean," up to the broad, pure, Elysian daylight of the "Italian Landscape," with atmosphere full of music, color, and perfume, cooled and shaded by the breezy pines, open far away to the sea, and the sky peopled with opalescent clouds, trooping wide on their celestial errands.
Of this last landscape the poetic merit is as great as the artistic excellence is unrivalled. Whoever has made pictures and handled colors knows well that a subject pitched on a high key of light is vastly more difficult to manage than one of which the highest light is not above the middle tint. To keep on that high key which belongs to broad daylight, and yet preserve harmony, repose, and atmosphere, is in the highest degree difficult; but here it is successfully done, and again reminds us of the Paul Veronese treatment. Though a quiet picture, it is full of brilliancy. It represents a broad and partly shaded expanse, full, also, of light and sweet sunshine, through which the eye travels till it rests on the distant mountain, rising majestically in grand volcanic forms from the horizon plains. The sky is filled with cloudy veils, floating, prismatic; some quiet water, crossed by a bridge which rests on round arches, is in the middle distance; and a few trees near the foreground form the group from which rises the stone-pine, which is the principal feature in the picture, and gives it its character. As I write this, I fear that any reader who has not seen the picture to which I refer will immediately think of Turner's Italian landscapes, so familiar to all the world through engravings, where a stone-pine is lifted against the sky as a mass of dark to contrast with the mass of light necessarily in the same region of the picture. But such effects, however legitimate and powerful in the hands of Turner, were not in Allston's manner; they would ruin and break the still harmony which was the law of his mind and of his compositions. Under this tree, on the path, fall flickering spots of sunshine, in which sit or stand two or three figures. The scarlet and white of their dresses, catching the sunshine, make the few high notes that cause the whole piece to throb like music.
There is also a large Swiss landscape, possessing in an extraordinary degree the pure, keen atmosphere, as well as the grand mountain forms, of the Alpine spaces. To look on this piece exhilarates as does the sight of the Alps themselves; and it strikes the eye as a shrill trumpet sound the ear. This landscape, a grand antithesis to the last described, marks a great range of power in the mind that produced them both.
But Allston was not a landscape-painter. His landscapes are few in number, though great in excellence. They are poetic in the truest sense; they are laden with thought and life, and are of "imagination all compact." They transport the beholder to a fairer world, where, through and behind the lovely superficies of things, he sees the hidden ideal of each member,—of rock, sea, sky, earth, and forest,—and feels by a clear magnetism that he is in presence of the very truth of things.
We now come to a class of Allston's pictures which are known chiefly, perhaps only, in Boston. They are justly prized by their owners as possessions of inestimable value; they are the works that more than others display his peculiar genius. I allude to certain ideal heads and figures called by these names: "Beatrice," "Rosalie," "The Bride," "The Spanish Girl," "The Evening Hymn," "The Tuscan Girl," "Miriam," "The Valentine," "Lorenzo and Jessica," "The Flight of Florimel," "The Roman Lady," and others; and I shall give a short description of the most important of these, sometimes in my own words, and sometimes in those of one who is the only writer I can find who has said anything distinctive about the works of Allston. I refer to William Ware, who died in the act of preparing a course of lectures on the Genius of Allston,—a task for which he was well qualified by his artistic organization, his long study of Art, and his clear appreciation of Allston's power.
In these smaller ideal pieces Allston seems to have found his own genius, so peculiar are they, so different from the works of all other masters, and so divine in their expressive repose. I say divine in their repose with full intention; for this is a repose, not idle and voluptuous, not poetic and dreamy, but a repose full of life, a repose which commands and controls the beholder, and stirs within him that idealism that lies deep hidden in every mind. These pieces consist of heads and figures, mostly single, distinct as individuals, and each a heaven of beauty in itself.
The method of this artist was to suppress all the coarser beauties which make up the substance of common pictures. He was the least ad captandum of workers. He avoided bright eyes, curls, and contours, glancing lights, strong contrasts, and colors too crude for harmony. He reduced his beauty to her elements, so that an inner beauty might play through her features. Like the Catholic discipline which pales the face of the novice with vigils, seclusion, and fasting, and thus makes room and clears the way for the movements of the spirit, so in these figures every vulgar grace is suppressed. No classic contours, no languishing attitudes, no asking for admiration,—but a severe and chaste restraint, a modest sweetness, a slumbering intellectual atmosphere, a graceful self-possession, eyes so sincere and pure that heaven's light shines through them, and, beyond all, a hovering spiritual life that makes each form a presence.
Perhaps the two most remarkable and original of the pieces I have named above are the "Beatrice" and the "Rosalie." Of the "Beatrice" there has been much discussion whether she could have been intended to represent the Beatrice of Dante. To me it appears that there is nothing like that world- and heaven-renowned lady in this our Beatrice. She sits alone: one sees that in the expression of her eyes. Her dress is of almost conventual simplicity; the colors rich, but sober; the style flowing and mediaeval. She has soft brown hair; soft, velvet-soft, brown eyes; features not salient, but rounded into the contours of the head; her whole expression receptive, yet radiant with sentiment. The complexion of a tender rose, equally diffused, gives an indescribable air of healthful delicacy to the face. The expression of the whole figure is that of one in a very dream of sentiment. Her twilight eyes see without effort into the very soul of things, as other eyes look at their surfaces. The sentiment of this figure is so powerful that by its gentle charm it fastens the beholder, who gazes and cannot withdraw his eyes, wondering what is the spell that can so hold him to that face, which is hardly beautiful, surely without surface beauty. I once heard a person who was unaccustomed to the use of critical terms say of these creations of Allston, "Here is beauty, but not the beauty that glares on you"; and this phrase, so odd, but so original, well describes the beauty of this Beatrice, who, though now transfigured by sentiment and capable of being a home-goddess, does not seem intended to shine in starry circles.
But for the beauty of execution in this picture, it is unsurpassed. It is in this respect like the most beautiful things ever painted by Raphael,—like the Madonna del Cardellino, whose face has light within, "luce di dentro," as is the expressive Italian phrase,—and is also like another picture that I have seen, attributed to Raphael, in the collection of the late Baron Kestner at Rome.
Visiting the extremely curious and valuable gallery of this gentleman, the Hanoverian Minister at Rome, after making us begin at the beginning, among the very early masters, he led us on with courteous determination through his specimens of all the schools, and made us observe the characteristics of each school and each master, till at last we rested in the last room, where hung a single picture covered with a silken curtain. This at last, with sacred and reverent ceremony, was drawn aside, and revealed a portrait by Raphael,—the portrait of a lady, young and beautiful, and glowing with a tender sentiment which recalled to my remembrance these heads by Allston, not alone in the sentiment, but in the masterly beauty of the painting. M. Kestner told us he supposed the picture to be a portrait of that niece of Cardinal Bibbiena to whom Raphael was betrothed. The picture had come into his possession by one of those wonderful chances which have preserved so many valuable works from destruction. At a sale of pictures at Bologna, he told us he noticed a very ordinary head, badly enough painted, but with very beautiful hands,—hands which betrayed the work of a master; and he conjectured this to be some valuable picture, hastily covered with coarse work to deceive the emissaries of a conqueror when they came to select and carry off the most valuable pictures from the galleries of the conquered city. He gave his agent orders to purchase it, and when in his possession a little careful work removed the upper colors and discovered one of the most beautiful heads ever painted even by Raphael. Though it may and will seem extravagant, I am satisfied that there are several heads by Allston that would lose nothing by comparison with this admirable work. Indeed, though M. Kestner's picture is a portrait, it is a work so entirely in the same class with the "Beatrice," the "Rosalie," the "Valentine," and some other works of Allston, in sentiment and execution, that the comparison is fairly challenged.
"Rosalie" is different from "Beatrice." She seems listening to music; and so the little poem written by the author, and recited by him when showing the picture newly finished to his friends, describes her. The face indicates, not a dream of sentiment, like that of "Beatrice," but rather a rapture. She is "caught on a higher strain." She is a creature as passionate as tender; more like Juliet than like Miranda; fit to be the love of a poet, and to reward his song with the overflowing cup of love. In this figure also beauty melts into feeling. The composition of color is masterly; in the draperies it is inlaid in opposing fields, by which means the key of the whole is raised, and the rising rapture of expression powerfully seconded. Did I not fear to insist too much on what may be only a private fancy, I should say that these colors reverberate like some rich orchestral strain of music.
"The Roman Lady reading." This Roman lady might be the mother of the Gracchi, so stately and of so grand a style is she. But she is a modern, for she reads from a book. She might be Vittoria Colonna, the loved of Michel Angelo, so grave, so dignified is her aspect. The whole figure is reading. A vital intelligence seems to pass from the eyes to the book. Nothing tender in this woman, who, if a Roman, takes life after the "high Roman fashion." The beauty and perfect representation of the hands should be noticed here, as well as in the "Rosalie" and "Beatrice."
"Triumphal Song of Miriam on the Destruction of Pharaoh and his Hosts in the Red Sea." This is a three-quarter length figure. She stands singing, with one hand holding the timbrel, the other thrown aloft, the whole form up-borne by the swelling triumphal song. I hardly know what it is in this picture which takes one back so far into the world's early days. The figure is neither antique nor modern; the face is not entirely of the Hebrew type, but the tossing exultation seems so truly to carry off the wild thrill of joy when a people is released from bondage, that it is almost unnecessary to put the words into her mouth,—"Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea." This figure is dramatically imaginative. In looking at it, one feels called on to sing triumphal songs with Miriam, and not to stand idly looking. The magnetism of the artist at the moment of conception powerfully seizes on the beholder.
"The Valentine" is described by William Ware[A] as follows.
"For the 'Valentine' I may say, though to some it may seem an extravagance, I have never been able to invent the terms that would sufficiently express my admiration of that picture,—I mean, of its color; though as a whole it is admirable for its composition, for the fewness of the objects admitted, for the simplicity and naturalness of the arrangement. But the charm is in the color of the flesh, of the head, of the two hands. The subject is a young woman reading a letter, holding the open letter with both the hands. The art can go no further, nor as I believe has it ever gone any further. Some pigments or artifices were unfortunately used, which have caused the surface to crack, and which require the picture now to be looked at at a further remove than the work on its own account needs or requires; it even demands a nearer approach, in order to be well seen, than these cracks will permit. But these accidental blemishes do not materially interfere with the appreciation and enjoyment of the picture. It has what I conceive to be that most rare merit,—it has the same universal hue of nature and truth in both the shadows and the lights which Nature has, but Art almost never, and which is the great cross to the artist. The great defect and the great difficulty, in imitating the hues of flesh, lies in the shadows and the half-shadows. You will often observe in otherwise excellent works of the most admirable masters, that, the moment their pencil passes to the shadows of the flesh, especially the half-shadows, truth, though not always a certain beauty, forsakes them. The shadows are true in their degree of dark, but false in tone and hue. They are true shadows, but not true flesh. You see the form of a face, neck, arm, hand in shadow, but not flesh in shade; and were that portion of the form sundered from its connection with the body, it could never be told, by its color alone, what it was designed to be. Allston's wonderful merit is, (and it was Titian's,) that the hue of life and flesh is the same in the shadow as in the light. It is not only shadow or dark, but it is flesh in shadow. The shadows of most artists, even very distinguished ones, are green, or brown, or black, or lead color, and have some strong and decided tint other than that of flesh. The difficulty with most seems to have been so insuperable, that they cut the knot at a single blow, and surrendered the shadows of the flesh, as an impossibility, to green or brown or black. And in the general imitation of the flesh tints the greatest artists have apparently abandoned the task in despair, and contented themselves with a correct utterance of form and expression, with well-harmonized darks and lights, with little attention to the hues of Nature. Such was Caravaggio always, and Guercino often, and all their respective followers. Such was Michel Angelo, and often Raffaelle,—though at other times the color of Raffaelle is not inferior in truth and glory to Titian, greatest of the Venetian colorists: as in his portraits of Leo X., Julius, and some parts of his frescos. But for the most part, though he had the genius for everything, for color as well as form, yet one may conjecture he found color in its greatest excellence too laborious for the careful elaboration which can alone produce great results, too costly of time and toil, the sacrifice too great of the greater to the less. Allston was apparently never weary of the labor which would add one more tint of truth to the color of a head or a hand, or even of any object of still life, that entered into any of his compositions. Any eye that looks can see that it was a most laborious and difficult process by which he secured his results,—by no superficial wash of glaring pigments, as in the color of Rubens, whose carnations look as if he had finished the forms at once, the lights and the darks in solid opaque colors, and then with a free, broad brush or sponge washed in the carmine, lake, and vermilion, to confer the requisite amount of red,—but, on the contrary, wrought out in solid color from beginning to end, by a painful and sagacious formation, on the palette, of the very tint by which the effect, the lights, shadows, and half-shadows, and the thousand almost imperceptible gradations of hue which bind together the principal masses of light and shade, was to be produced."
Here Mr. Ware undoubtedly errs in attributing the success of Allston's flesh tints to the use of solid color alone. Such effects are not possible without the aid of transparent colors in glazing; but it is the judicious combination of solid with transparent pigments, combined not bodily on the palette, but in their use on the canvas, that gives to oil-painting all its unrivalled power in the hands of a master. Allston was accustomed to inlay his pictures in solid crude color with a medium that hardened like stone, and to leave them months and even years to dry before finishing them with the glazing colors, which worked in his hands like magic over such a well-hardened surface. By this method of working he was able to secure solidity of appearance, richness of color, unity of effect, and atmospheric repose and tenderness enveloping all objects in the picture. Many of his unfinished works are left in the first stage of this process, showing precisely how far he relied on the use of solid color; and by comparing the works left in this state with his finished pictures, one may see how much he was indebted to the use of transparent glazes for the beauty, tenderness, and variety of color in the last stages of his work.
In 1839 there was an exhibition in Boston of such of the works of Allston as could be borrowed for the occasion. This was managed by the friends of the artist for his benefit. The exhibition was held in Harding's Gallery, a square, well-lighted room, but too small for the larger pictures. It was, however, the best room that could be procured for the purpose. Here were shown forty-five pictures, including one or two drawings. There was something peculiarly happy in this exhibition of works by a single mind. On entering, the presence of the artist seemed to fill the room. The door-keeper held the door, but Allston held the room; for his spirit flowed from all the walls, and helped the spectator to see his work aright. This accompaniment of the artist's presence, which hangs about all truly artistic works, is disturbed in a miscellaneous collection, where jarring influences contend, and the worst pictures outshine and outglare the best, and for a time triumph over them. But in this exhibition no such disturbance met one, but rather one was received into an atmosphere of peace and harmony, and in such a temper beheld the pictures.
The largest picture on the walls was "The Dead Man restored to Life by touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha." This is a great subject, greatly treated, full of power and expression.
The next in size was "Jeremiah dictating his Prophecy to Baruch, the Scribe." This picture contains two figures, both seated. It is a picture the scale of which demands that it be seen from a distance, though its perfect execution makes a nearer view desirable also. If it were seen at the end of some church aisle, through arches, and with a good light upon it, the effect would be much enforced. It is a picture of extraordinary expression. The Prophet, the grandest figure among the sons of men, with those strange eyes that Allston loved to paint,—eyes which see verities, not objects,—is looking not upward, but forward, not into space, but into spirit; with one hand raised, as if listening, he receives the heavenly communication, which the beautiful youth at his feet is writing in a book. The force and beauty of this work are unsurpassed. It is a perfect picture: grand in design, perfect in composition, splendid in color, successful in execution, and the figures full of expression,—for the inspiration of the Prophet seems to overflow into the Scribe, whose attitude indicates enthusiastic receptiveness; it is, indeed, in every pictorial quality that can be named, admirable.
The other pictures in this collection, with the exception of the large Swiss landscape, were of cabinet size. Some of them have been already described in this paper. I will give Mr. Ware's description of "Lorenzo and Jessica," and of "The Spanish Girl." Mr. Ware says:—
"But perhaps the most exquisite examples of repose are the 'Lorenzo and Jessica,' and 'The Spanish Girl.' These are works also to which no perfection could be added,—from which, without loss, neither touch nor tint could be subtracted. We might search through all galleries, the Louvre or any other, for their equals or rivals in either conception or execution. I speak of these familiarly, because I suppose you all to be familiar with them. The first named, the 'Lorenzo and Jessica,' is a very small picture, one of the smallest of Allston's best ones; but no increase of size could have enlarged its beauty or in any sense have added to its value. The lovers sit side by side, their hands clasped, at the dim hour of twilight, all the world hushed into silence, not a cloud visible to speck the clear expanse of the darkening sky, as if themselves were the only creatures breathing in life, and they absorbed into each other, while their eyes, turned in the same direction, are turned upon the fading light of the gentle, but brilliant planet, as it sinks below the horizon: the gentle brilliancy, not the setting, the emblem of their mutual loves. As you dwell upon the scene, your only thought is, May this quiet beauty, this delicious calm, never be disturbed, but may
'The peace of the scene pass into the heart!'
In the background, breaking the line of the horizon, but in fine unison with the figures and the character of the atmosphere, are the faint outlines of a villa of Italian architecture, but to whose luxurious halls you can hardly wish the lovers should ever return, so long as they can remain sitting upon that bank. It is all painted in that deep, subdued, but rich tone, in which, except by the strongest light, the forms are scarcely to be made out, but to which, to the mind in some moods, a charm is lent, surpassing all the glory of the sun.
"'The Spanish Girl' is another example to the same point. It is one of the most beautiful and perfect of all of Mr. Allston's works. The Spanish girl gives her name to the picture, but it is one of those misnomers of which there are many among his works. One who looks at the picture scarcely ever looks at, certainly cares nothing for, the Spanish girl, and regards her as merely giving her name to the picture; and when the mind recurs to it afterwards, however many years may have elapsed, while he can recall nothing of the beauty, the grace, or the charms of the Spanish maiden, the landscape, of which her presence is a mere inferior incident, is never forgotten, but remains forever as a part of the furniture of the mind. In this part of the picture, the landscape, it must be considered as one of the most felicitous works of genius, where, by a few significant tints and touches, there is unveiled a world of beauty. You see the roots of a single hill only, and a remote mountain-summit, but you think of Alps and Andes, and the eye presses onwards till it at last rests on a low cloud at the horizon. It is a mere snatch of Nature, but, though only that, every square inch of the surface has its meaning. It carries you back to what your mind imagines of the warm, reddish tints of the Brown Mountains of Cervantes, where the shepherds and shepherdesses of that pastoral scene passed their happy, sunny hours. The same deep feeling of repose is shown in all the half-developed objects of the hill-side, in the dull, sleepy tint of the summer air, and in the warm, motionless haze that wraps sky, land, tree, water, and cloud. It is quite wonderful by how few tints and touches, by what almost shadowy and indistinct forms, a whole world of poetry can be breathed into the soul, and the mind sent rambling off into pastures, fields, boundless deserts of imaginary pleasures, where only is warmth and sunshine and rest, where only poets dwell, and beauty wanders abroad with her sweeping train, and the realities of the working-day world are for a few moments happily forgotten."
"The Flight of Florimel" is an upright landscape. Florimel, on a white horse, is rushing with long leaps through the forest. The horse and rider are so near the front of the picture as to occupy an important space in the foreground. The lady, in her dress of beaten gold, with fair hair, and pale, frightened face, clings with both hands to her bridle, and half looks back towards her pursuer. The color of this picture is of exquisite beauty. The tender white and pale yellows of the horse and rider show like fairy colors in a fairy forest. The whole is wonderfully light and airy, flickering between light and shade. The forest has no heavy glooms. The light breaks through everywhere. The forms of the trees are light and piny; the red soil is seen, the roots of the trees, the broken turf, the sandy ground. All the colors are delightfully broken up in the mysterious half-light which confuses the outlines of every object, without making them shadowy. Such a picture one might see with half-shut eyes in a sunny wood, if one had more poetry than prose in one's head, and were well read in the "Faerie Queen."
"A Mother Watching her Sleeping Child." This is a very small picture, remarkable only for its tender sentiment and delightful coloring. The child is nude; the flesh tints of a tender rose, painted with that luminous effect which leaves no memory of paint or pencil-touch behind it.
"American Scenery." This is a small landscape, with something of the Indian Summer haze; and a solitary horseman trotting across the foreground with an indifferent manner, as if he would soon be out of sight, wonderfully enhances the quietness of the scene.
"Isaac of York." This head of a Jew is powerfully painted, warm and rich; as also are two heads called "Sketches of Polish Jews," which were painted at one sitting.
"A Portrait of Benjamin West, late President of the Royal Academy," has all the most admirable qualities that a simple portrait can have.
"A Portrait of the Artist, painted in Rome," is very interesting, from the youthful sweetness of the face.
"Head of St. Peter" is a study for the head of St. Peter in a large picture of the Angel delivering Peter from Prison. In this large picture, lately brought from England to Boston, the head of the angel is of surpassing beauty, and makes a powerful contrast with that of the Apostle, whose strong Hebrew features are flooded with the light which surrounds his heavenly deliverer.
"The Sisters." This picture represents two young girls of three-quarter size, the back of one turned toward the spectator. In the Catalogue is a note by the artist, who says,—"The air and color of the head with golden hair was imitated from a picture by Titian, called the Portrait of his Daughter,—but not the character or the disposition of the hair, which in the portrait is a crop; the action of the portrait is also different, holding up a casket with both hands. The rest of the picture, with the exception of the curtain in the background, is original." Now this is a very modest as well as honest statement of the artist; for both the figures seem perfectly original, and do not recall Titian's Daughter to the memory, except as an example of a successful study of Titian's color, which I believe all are permitted, nay, recommended, to imitate, if they can. It is, however, quite true, that this picture is less Allstonian than the rest, which makes his explanation welcome. It was undoubtedly painted as a study, and was not an original suggestion of his own mind, as almost everything he has left evidently was,—if internal evidence is evidence enough. Allston himself said, that he never painted anything that did not cost him his whole mind; and those who read his genius in his works can easily believe this statement.
"The Tuscan Girl." This is a very lovely little picture. It is not a study of costume, but a picture of dreamy girlhood musing in a wood. The sentiment of this charming little picture is best described in a little poem with which its first appearance was accompanied, and which opens thus:—
"How pleasant and how sad the turning tide Of human life, when side by side The child and youth begin to glide Along the vale of years: The pure twin-being for a little space, With lightsome heart, and yet a graver face, Too young for woe, but not for tears!"
I will not occupy any more space with describing the pictures in this unique collection. All were not brought together that might have been. One very remarkable small picture, called "Spalatro, or the Bloody Hand," was not with these. Its distance from Boston probably prevented its being risked on the dangers of a long journey.
There are several pictures by Allston in England. Of these I cannot speak, as I have not seen them. Of one, however, "Elijah in the Desert," Mr. Ware gives so striking a description, that I will quote nearly the whole of it.
"I turn with more pleasure to another work of Mr. Allston, even though but few can ever have seen it, but which made upon my own mind, when I saw it immediately after it was completed, an impression of grandeur and beauty never to be effaced, and never recalled without new sentiments of enthusiastic admiration. I refer to his grand landscape of 'Elijah in the Desert,'—a large picture of perhaps six feet by four. It might have been more appropriately named an Asian or Arabian Desert. That is to say, it is a very unfortunate error to give to either a picture or a book a name which raises false expectations; especially is this the case when the name of the picture is a great or imposing one which greatly excites the imagination. What could be more so than this, 'Elijah in the Desert, fed by Ravens'? Extreme and fatal was the disappointment to many, on entering the room, when, looking on the picture, no Elijah was to be seen; at least you had to search for him among the subordinate objects, hidden away among the grotesque roots of an enormous banyan-tree; and the Prophet, when found at last, was hardly worth the pains of the search. But as soon as the intelligent visitor had recovered from his first disappointment, the objects which then immediately filled the eye taught him, that, though he had not found what he had been promised, a Prophet, he had found more than a Prophet, a landscape which in its sublimity excited the imagination as powerfully as any gigantic form of the Elijah could have done, even though Michel Angelo had drawn it. It is meant to represent, and does perfectly represent, an illimitable desert, a boundless surface of barrenness and desolation, where Nature can bring forth nothing but seeds of death, and the only tree there is dead and withered, not a leaf to be seen nor possible. The only other objects, beside the level of the desert, either smooth with sand or rough with ragged rock, are a range of dark mountains on the right, heavy lowering clouds which overspread and overshadow the whole scene, the roots and wide-spread branches of an enormous banyan-tree, through the tortuous and leafless branches of which the distant landscape, the hills, rocks, clouds, and remote plains are seen. The roots of this huge tree of the desert, in all directions from the main trunk, rise upward, descend, and root themselves again in the earth, then again rise, again descend into the ground and root themselves, and so on, growing smaller and smaller as the process is repeated, till they disappear in the general level of the plain, or lose themselves among the rocks, like the knots and convolutions of a huge family of boa-constrictors. The branches, which almost completely fill the upper part of the picture, are done with such truth to general Nature, are so admirable in color, so wonderful in the treatment of their perspective, that the eye is soon happily withdrawn from any attention to the roots, among which the Prophet sits, receiving the food with which the ravens, as they float towards him, miraculously supply him.... You forgot the Prophet, the ravens, the roots, and almost the branches, though these were too vast and multitudinous to be overlooked, and were, moreover, truly characteristic, and dwelt only upon the heavy rolling clouds, the lifeless desert, the sublime masses of the distant mountains, and the indeterminate misty outline of the horizon, where earth and heaven became one. The picture was, therefore, a landscape of a most sublime, impressive character, and not a mere representation of a passage of Scripture history. It would have been a great gain to the work, if the Scripture passage could have been painted out, and the desert only left. But, as it is, it serves as one further illustration of the characteristic of Mr. Allston's art, of which I have already given several examples. For, melancholy, dark, and terrific almost, as are all the features of the scene, a strange calm broods over it all, as of an ocean, now overhung by black threatening clouds, dead and motionless, but the sure precursors of change and storm; and over the desert hang the clouds which were soon to break and deluge the parched earth and cover it again with verdure. But at present the only motion and life is in the little brook Cherith, as it winds along among the roots of the great tree. The sublime, after all, is better expressed in the calmness, repose, and silence of the 'Elijah,' than in the tempests of Poussin or Vernet, Wilson or Salvator Rosa."
"Belshazzar's Feast." Any criticism of Allston's works would be very imperfect which did not speak of his "Belshazzar's Feast,"—because, though the picture was never finished, it occupied so large a part of the life and thoughts of Allston, that it demands some mention. It had been an object of great interest among Allston's friends before it had been seen by one of them. It was intended by him to fulfil a commission from certain gentlemen of Boston for a large picture, the subject of which was to be chosen by himself. A sum of money was also placed at his disposal with the commission, in order to secure to him leisure and freedom from care, that he might work at his ease, and do justice to his thought. This commission was the result of the confidence in him and his genius which was felt by those friends who knew him best.
The picture was begun, went forward, and was nearly completed, when an important change in the structure of the work was determined on, and undertaken with great courage. As often unfortunately happens in such cases, the interruption to the flow of thought was fatal to the success of the picture. It was laid aside for many years, but was the work actually in hand at the time of Allston's death. When, after that event, his studio was entered by his nearest friends, and the picture so long guarded with jealous reserve was first seen, it was found to be in a disorganized, almost chaotic state. But though fragmentary, the fragments were full of interest. Many passages were perfectly painted, and the whole intention was full of grandeur and beauty. But a picture left in that state should never have been publicly shown. Deeply interesting to artists, and to those familiar with the genius of Allston, it could be only a puzzling wonder to those who go to an exhibition to see finished pictures, and who do not understand those which are not finished. With this work such persons could have no concern. Yet, by what appears a great error of judgement, this worse than unfinished picture was made the subject of a public exhibition, though in a state of incompleteness which the artist during life would not permit his nearest friend to behold. And as if this violation of his wishes were not enough, a stolen and travestied copy soon appeared, and was heralded by placards, on which the words "Great Picture by Washington Allston" were seen in letters large enough to be read across the street, and on which the words "Copy of" were in such very small type that they were unnoticed, except by those who looked for them. This copy went to other cities, and gave of course a most erroneous impression of the great painter's genius.
Among the half-finished pictures found in the studio of Allston after his death were several designs on canvas in chalk or umber. These seemed so valuable, and their condition so perishable, that it was thought best to have them engraved. This was undertaken by a friend and admirer of the artist, Mr. S. H. Perkins, who arranged the designs and superintended the engraving, and published the work with the aid of a partial subscription and at his own risk. The brothers Cheney engraved the outlines, and with peculiar skill and feeling imitated the broadly expressive chalk lines by combining several delicately traced lines into one. These outlines and sketches were published in 1850.
There are, first six plates of outlines from heads and figures in a picture of "Michael setting the Watch." This picture must have been painted in England, and in unknown here except by these outlines. From these alone great strength of design might be inferred. There are, besides, "A Sibyl," sitting in a cave-like, rocky place, the eyes dilated with thought, the mouth tenderly fixed; the cave is open to the sea. This design would have proved one of the most characteristic works of Allston, had it been painted. "Dido and AEneas." Then four plates from figures of angels in "Jacob's Dream." This is a picture painted in England for Lord Egremont, and is mentioned in Leslie's Recollections, by the editor of that work, in a minor key of praise. Then comes the outline of a single figure, "Uriel sitting in the Sun." This picture was also painted in England. As Allston was fond of referring to it, and describing the methods he used to represent the light of the sun behind the angel, as if he felt satisfied with the result, it may be inferred that the effort to do so difficult a thing was successful. The sun was painted over a white ground with transparent glazings of the primary colors laid and dried separately, thus combining the colors prismatically to produce white light. The figure of the sitting angle is grandly original,—of the most noble proportions, and full of watchful life, as of one conscious of a great trust.
Then come three compositions, with many figures,—"Heliodorus," "Fairies on the Seashore," and "Titania's Court." These show as much power in composition as the single figures do in design.
The "Fairies on the Seashore" is an exquisitely graceful design, both in the figures and the landscape. It is a perfect poem, even as it stands in the outline. A strip of sea, a breaking wave, a rocky island, and on the beach begins a stream of fairies, diminishing as it curves up into the sky. The last one on the shore seems lingering, and the next one to her draws her upwards. The design when painted would have had the lower part of the picture in the shadow of night, and the coming morn in the sky, the light of which should be caught on the distant figures up among the clouds.
"Titania's Court" is in a moon-lighted space in the forest. Six fairies are dancing in a ring. More are coming out of the depths of the wood and off its rocky heights, hand in hand,—a flow of graceful figures. On the right side of the picture sits Titania, served by her Indian page, who kneels before her, holding an acorn-cup. This page is delicately differenced from the fairies by his straight hair, his features, Asiatic, though handsome, his girdle and bracelets of pearls, and a short striped skirt about his loins. The fairies all have flowing drapery or none, and features regular as Greeks. Two little figures in the air above Titania's head are fanning her with butterflies' wings; others are bringing water in shells and flower-cups; others playing on musical instruments. This is better than most pictures of this often-painted subject, because in it fancy does not override imagination, but helps and serves it.
Another design was in chalk, on a dark canvas, of a ship at sea in a squall. This is wonderfully imitated in the engraving,—even all the blotches and erasures are there. The curves of the waves in a rolling sea were never better caught in all their subtle force. The clouds have great suggestions.
There is a figure of "The Prodigal Son," from a pencil drawing; and a "Prometheus," also from a pencil sketch.
Allston seemed equally at home in drawing powerful figures in action, or delicate dreamy figures in repose. He had the true imaginative power which realizes and understands all natural forms.
We have thus given a few words of description to some of these remarkable pictures. We do not hope to convey any idea of them to those who have not seen them, for a picture is by its very nature incapable of being described in words. That which makes it a picture takes it out of the sphere of words. Neither do we attempt to analyze the genius of this great painter. We can enumerate some of his artistic qualities: his power in color, so creative; the still, reposeful spirit of his creations, reminding one of Beato Angelico; his grandly expressive forms; his powerful color compositions; and above all, that greatest crowning merit, that his works are, almost without exception, vitalized by an imaginative force which makes them living presences. Such effects are not produced by talent, however great, by culture, however perfect, but by a mind which is a law to itself,—in other words, a genius. Such, and nothing less, was Washington Allston.
[A] Lectures on the Works and Genius of Washington Allston. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, & Co. 1852.
In the summer of 1812, when the good people of Connecticut were feeling uncommonly bitter about the declaration of war against England, and were abusing Mr. Madison in the roundest terms, there lived in the town of Canterbury a fiery old gentleman, of nearly sixty years, and a sterling Democrat, who took up the cudgels bravely for the Administration, and stoutly belabored Governor Roger Griswold for his tardy obedience to the President in calling out the militia, and for what he called his absurd pretensions in regard to State sovereignty. He was a man, too, who meant all that he said, and gave the best proof of it by offering his military services,—first to the Governor, and then to the United States General commanding the Department.
Nor was he wholly unfitted: he was erect, stanch, well knit together, and had served with immense credit in the local militia, in which he wore the title of Major. It does not appear that his offer was immediately accepted; but the following season he was invested with the command of a company, and was ordered back and forth to various threatened points along the seaboard. His home affairs, meantime, were left in charge of his son, a quiet young man of four-and-twenty, who for three years had been stumbling with a very reluctant spirit through the law-books in the Major's office, and who shared neither his father's ardor of temperament nor his political opinions. Eliza, a daughter of twenty summers, acted as mistress of the house, and stood in place of mother to a black-eyed little girl of thirteen,—the Major's daughter by a second wife, who had died only a few years before.
Notwithstanding the lack of political sympathy, there was yet a strong attachment between father and son. The latter admired immensely the energy and full-souled ardor of the old gentleman; and the father, in turn, was proud of the calm, meditative habit of mind which the son had inherited from his mother. "There is metal in the boy to make a judge of," the major used to say. And when Benjamin, shortly after his graduation at one of the lesser New England colleges, had given hint of his possible study of theology, the Major answered with a "Pooh! pooh!" which disturbed the son,—possibly weighed with him,—more than the longest opposing argument could have done. The manner of the father had conveyed, unwittingly enough, a notion of absurdity as attaching to the lad's engaging in such sacred studies, which overwhelmed him with a sense of his own unworthiness.
The Major, like all sound Democrats, had always been an ardent admirer of Mr. Jefferson and of the French political school. Benjamin had a wholesome horror of both,—not so much from any intimate knowledge of their theories, as by reason of a strong religious instinct, which had been developed under his mother's counsels into a rigid and exacting Puritanism.
The first wife of the Major had left behind her the reputation of "a saint." It was not undeserved: her quiet, constant charities,—her kindliness of look and manner, which were in themselves the best of charities,—a gentle, Christian way she had of dealing with all the vagrant humors of her husband,—and the constancy of her devotion to all duties, whether religious or domestic, gave her better claim to the saintly title than most who wear it. The Major knew this, and was proud to say it. "If," he was accustomed to say, "I am the most godless man in the parish, my wife is the most godly woman." Yet his godlessness was, after all, rather outside than real: it was a kind of effrontery, provoked into noisy display by the extravagant bigotries of those about him. He did not believe in monopolies of opinion, but in good average dispersion of all sorts of thinking. On one occasion he had horrified his poor wife by bringing home a full set of Voltaire's Works; but having reasoned her—or fancying he had—into a belief in the entire harmlessness of the offending books, he gratified her immensely by placing them out of all sight and reach of the boy Benjamin.
He never interfered with the severe home course of religious instruction entered upon by the mother. On the contrary, he said, "The boy will need it all as an offset to the bedevilments that will overtake him in our profession." The Major had a very considerable country practice, and had been twice a member of the Legislature.
His second wife, a frivolous, indolent person, who had brought him a handsome dot, and left him the pretty black-eyed Mabel, never held equal position with the first. It was observed, however, with some surprise, that under the sway of the latter he was more punctilious and regular in religious observances than before,—a fact which the shrewd ones explained by his old doctrine of adjusting averages.
Benjamin, Eliza, and Mabel,—each in their way,—waited news from the military campaign of the Major with great anxiety; all the more because he was understood to be a severe disciplinarian, and it had been rumored in the parish that two or three of his company, of rank Federal opinions, had vowed they would sooner shoot the captain than any foreign enemy of the State. The Major, however, heard no guns in either front or rear up to the time of the British attack upon the borough of Stonington, in midsummer of 1814. In the defence here he was very active, in connection with a certain artillery force that had come down the river from Norwich; and although the attack of the British Admiral was a mere feint, yet for a while there was a very lively sprinkling of shot. The people of the little borough were duly frightened, the "Ramilies" seventy-four gun-ship of his Majesty enjoyed an excellent opportunity for long-range practice, and the militia gave an honest airing to their patriotism. The Major was wholly himself. "If the rascals would only attempt a landing!" said he; and as he spoke, a fragment of shell struck his sword-arm at the elbow. The wound was a grievous one, and the surgeon in attendance declared amputation to be necessary. The Major combated the decision for a while, but loss of blood weakened his firmness, and the operation was gone through with very bunglingly. Next morning a country wagon was procured to transport him home. The drive was an exceeding rough one, and the stump fell to bleeding. Most men would have lain by for a day or two, but the Major insisted upon pushing on for Canterbury, where he arrived late at night, very much exhausted.
The country physician declared, on examination next morning, that some readjustment of the amputated limb was necessary, which was submitted to by the Major in a very irritable humor. Friends and enemies of the wounded man were all kind and full of sympathy. Miss Eliza was in a flutter of dreary apprehension that rendered her incapable of doing anything effectively. Benjamin was as tender and as devoted as a woman. The wound healed in due time, but the Major did not rally. The drain upon his vitality had been too great; he fell into a general decline, which within a fortnight gave promise of fatal results. The Major met the truth like a veteran; he arranged his affairs, by the aid of his son, with a great show of method,—closed all in due time; and when he felt his breath growing short, called Benjamin, and like a good officer gave his last orders.
"Mabel," said he, "is provided for; it is but just that her mother's property should be settled on her; I have done so. For yourself and Eliza, you will have need of a close economy. I don't think you'll do much at law; you once thought of preaching; if you think so now, preach, Benjamin; there's something in it; at least it's better than Fed—Federalism."
A fit of coughing seized him here, from which he never fairly rallied. Benjamin took his hand when he grew quiet, and prayed silently, while the Major slipped off the roll militant forever.
The funeral was appointed for the second day thereafter. The house was set in order for the occasion. Chairs were brought in from the neighbors. A little table, with a Bible upon it, was placed in the entrance-way at the foot of the stairs, that all might hear what the clergyman should say. The body lay in the parlor, with the Major's sword and cocked hat upon the coffin; and the old gentleman's face had never worn an air of so much dignity as it wore now. Death had refined away all trace of his irritable humors, of his passionate, hasty speech. It looked like the face of a good man,—so said nine out of ten who gazed on it that day; yet when the immediate family came up to take their last glimpse,—the two girls being in tears,—in that dreary half-hour after all was arranged, and the flocking-in of the neighbors was waited for, Benjamin, as calm as the dead face below him, was asking himself if the poor gentleman, his father, had not gone away to a place of torment. He feared it; nay, was he not bound to believe it by the whole force of his education? and his heart, in that hour, made only a feeble revolt against the belief. In the very presence of the grim messenger of the Eternal, who had come to seal the books and close the account, what right had human affection to make outcry? Death had wrought the work given him to do, like a good servant; had not he, too,—Benjamin,—a duty to fulfil? the purposes of Eternal Justice to recognize, to sanction, to approve? In the exaltation of his religious sentiment it seemed to him, for one crazy moment at least, that he would be justified in taking his place at the little table where prayer was to be said, and in setting forth, as one who knew so intimately the shortcomings of the deceased, all those weaknesses of the flesh and spirit by which the Devil had triumphed, and in warning all those who came to his burial of the judgments of God which would surely fall on them as on him, except they repented and believed. Was he not, indeed, commissioned, as it were, by the lips of the dead man to "cry aloud and spare not"?
Happily, however, the officiating clergyman was of a more even temper, and he said what little he had to say in way of "improvement of the occasion" to the text of "judge not, that ye be not judged."
"We are too apt," said he, (and he was now addressing a company that crowded the parlors and flowed over into the yard in front, where the men stood with heads uncovered,) "we are too apt to measure a man's position in the eye of God, and to assign him his rank in the future, by his conformity to the external observances of religion,—not remembering, in our complacency, that we see differently from those who look on from beyond the world, and that there are mysterious and secret relations of God with the conscience of every man, which we cannot measure or adjust. Let us hope that our deceased friend profited by such to insure his entrance into the Eternal City, whose streets are of gold, and the Lamb the light thereof."
The listeners said "Amen" to this in their hearts; but the son, still exalted by the fervor of that new purpose which he had formed by the father's death-bed, and riveted more surely as he looked last on his face, asked himself, if the old preacher had not allowed a kindly worldly prudence to blunt the sharpness of the Word. "Why not tell these friendly mourners," thought he, "that they may well shed their bitterest tears, for that this old man they mourn over has lived the life of the ungodly, has neglected all the appointed means of escape, has died the death of the unrighteous, and must surely suffer the pains of the second death? Should not the swift warning be brought home to me and to them?"
Sudden contact with Death had refined all his old religious impressions to an intensity that shaped itself into a flaming sword of retribution. All this, however, as yet, lay within his own mind, not beating down his natural affection, or his grief, but struggling for reconcilement with them; no outward expression, even to those who clung to him so nearly, revealed it. The memorial-stone which he placed over his father's grave, and which possibly is standing now within the old churchyard of Canterbury, bore only this:—
HERE LIES THE BODY OF REUBEN JOHNS. A GOOD HUSBAND; A KIND FATHER; A PATRIOT, WHO DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY, 1ST SEPT., 1814.
And a little below,—
"Christ died for all."
It will be no contravention of the truth of this epitaph, to say that the Major had been always a most miserable manager of his private business affairs; it is even doubtful if the kindest fathers and best husbands are not apt to be. Certain it is, that, when Benjamin came to examine, in connection with a village attorney, (for the son had inherited the father's inaccessibility to "profit and loss" statements,) such loose accounts as the Major had left, it was found that the poor gentleman had lived up so closely to his income—whether as lawyer or military chieftain—as to leave his little home property subject to the payment of a good many outstanding debts. There appeared, indeed, a great parade of ledgers and day-books and statements of accounts; but it is by no means unusual for those who are careless or ignorant of business system to make a pretty show of the requisite implements, and to confuse themselves, in a pleasant way, with the intricacy of their own figures.
The Major sinned pretty largely in this way; so that it was plain, that, after the sale of all his available effects, including the library with its inhibited Voltaire, there would remain only enough to secure a respectable maintenance for Miss Eliza. To this end, Benjamin determined at once that the residue of the estate should be settled upon her,—reserving only so much as would comfortably maintain him during a three years' course of battling with Theology.
The younger sister, Mabel,—as has already been intimated,—was provided for by an interest in certain distinct and dividend-bearing securities, which—to the honor of the Major—had never been submitted to the alembic of his figures and "accounts current." She was placed at a school where she accomplished herself for three or four years; and put the seal to her accomplishments by marrying very suddenly, and without family consultation,—under which she usually proved restive,—a young fellow, who by aid of her snug fortune succeeded in establishing himself in a thriving business; and as early as the year 1820, Mabel, under her new name of Mrs. Brindlock, was the mistress of one of those fine merchant-palaces at the lower end of Greenwich Street in New York City, which commanded a view of the elegant Battery, and were the admiration of all country visitors.
Benjamin had needed only his father's hint, (for which he was ever grateful,) and the solemn scenes of his death and burial, to lead him to an entire renunciation of his law-craft and to an engagement in fervid study for the ministry. This he prosecuted at first with a devout old gentleman who had been a pupil of President Edwards; and this private reading was finished off by a course at Andover. His studies completed, he was licensed to preach; and not long after, without any consideration of what the future of this world might have in store for him, he committed the error which so many grave and serious men are prone to commit,—that is to say, he married hastily, after only two or three months of solemn courtship, a charming girl of nineteen, whose only idea of meeting the difficulties of this life was to love her dear Benjamin with her whole heart, and to keep the parlor dusted.
But unfortunately there was no parlor to dust The consequence was that the newly married couple were compelled to establish a temporary home upon the second floor of the comfortable house of Mr. Handby, a well-to-do farmer, and the father of the bride. Here the new clergyman devoted himself resolutely to Tillotson, to Edwards, to John Newton, and in the intervals prepared some score or more of sermons,—to all which Mrs. Johns devoutly listening in their fresh state, without ever a wink, entered upon the conscientious duties of a wife. From time to time some old clergyman of the neighborhood would ask the Major's son to assist him in the Sabbath services; and at rarer intervals the Reverend Mr. Johns was invited to some far-away township where the illness or absence of the settled minister might keep the new licentiate for four or five weeks; on which occasions the late Miss Handby was most zealous in preparing a world of comforts for the journey, and invariably followed him up with one or two double letters, "hoping her dear Benjamin was careful to wear the muffler which his Rachel had knit for him, and not to expose his precious throat,"—or "longing for that quiet home of their own, which would not make necessary these cruel separations, and where she should have the uninterrupted society of her dear Benjamin."
To all such the conscientious husband dutifully replied, "thankful for his Rachel's expression of interest in such a sinner as himself, and trusting that she would not forget that health or the comforts of this world were but of comparatively small importance, since this was 'not our abiding city.' He trusted, too, that she would not allow the transitory affections of this life, however dear they might be, to engross her to the neglect of those which were far more important. He permitted himself to hope that Rachel" (he was chary of endearing epithets) "would not murmur against the dispensations of Providence, and would be content with whatever He might provide; and hoping that Mr. Handby and family were in their usual health, remained her Christian friend and devoted husband, Benjamin Johns."
It so happened, that, after this discursive life had lasted for some ten months, a serious difficulty arose between the clergyman and the parish of the neighboring town of Ashfield. The person who served as the spiritual director of the people was suspected of leaning strongly toward some current heresy of the day; and the suspicion being once set on foot, there was not a sermon the poor man could preach but some quidnunc of the parish snuffed somewhere in it the taint of the false doctrine. The due convocations and committees of inquiry followed sharply after, and the incumbent received his dismissal in due form at the hands of some "brother in the bonds of the Gospel."
A few weeks later, Giles Elderkin of Ashfield, "Society's Committee," invited, by letter, the Reverend Benjamin Johns to come and "fill their pulpit the following Lord's day"; and added,—"If you conclude to preach for us, I shall be pleased to have you put up at my house over the Sabbath."
"There you are," said Mr. Handby, when the matter was announced in family conclave,—"just the man for them. They like sober, solid preaching in Ashfield."
"I call it real providential," said Mrs. Handby; "fust-rate folks, and 't a'n't a long drive over for Rachel."
Little Mrs. Johns looked upon the grave, earnest face of her husband with delight and pride, but said nothing.
"I know Squire Elderkin," says Mr. Handby, meditatively,—"a clever man, and a forehanded man, very. It's a rich parish, son-in-law; they ought to do well by you."
"I don't like," says Mr. Johns, "to look at what may become my spiritual duty in that light."
"I wouldn't," returned Mr. Handby; "but when you are as old as I am, son-in-law, you'll know that we have to keep a kind of side-look upon the good things of this world,—else we shouldn't be placed in it."
"He heareth the young ravens when they cry," said the minister, gravely.
"Just it," says Mr. Handby; "but I don't want your young ravens to be crying."
At which Rachel, with the slightest possible suffusion of color, and a pretty affectation of horror, said,—
There was an interuption here, and the conclave broke up; but Rachel, stepping briskly to the place she loved so well, beside the minister, said, softly,—
"I hope you'll go, Benjamin; and do, please, preach that beautiful sermon on Revelations."
Thirty or forty years ago there lay scattered about over Southern New England a great many quiet inland towns, numbering from a thousand to two or three thousand inhabitants, which boasted a little old-fashioned "society" of their own,—which had their important men who were heirs to some snug country property, and their gambrel-roofed houses odorous with traditions of old-time visits by some worthies of the Colonial period, or of the Revolution. The good, prim dames, in starched caps and spectacles, who presided over such houses, were proud of their tidy parlors,—of their old India china,—of their beds of thyme and sage in the garden,—of their big Family Bible with brazen clasps,—and, most times, of their minister.
One Orthodox Congregational Society extended its benignant patronage over all the people of such town; or, if a stray Episcopalian or Seven-Day Baptist were here and there living under the wing of the parish, they were regarded with a serene and stately gravity, as necessary exceptions to the law of Divine Providence,—like scattered instances of red hair or of bow-legs in otherwise well-favored families.
There were no wires stretching over the country to shock the nerves of the good gossips with the thought that their neighbors knew more than they. There were no heathenisms of the cities, no tenpins, no travelling circus, no progressive young men of heretical tendencies. Such towns were as quiet as a sheepfold. Sauntering down their broad central street, along which all the houses were clustered with a somewhat dreary uniformity of aspect, one might of a summer's day hear the rumble of the town mill in some adjoining valley, busy with the town grist; in autumn, the flip-flap of the flails came pulsing on the ear from half a score of wide-open barns that yawned with plenty; and in winter, the clang of axes on the near hills smote sharply upon the frosty stillness, and would be straightway followed by the booming crash of some great tree.
But civilization and the railways have debauched all such quiet, stately, steady towns. There are none of them left. If the iron cordon of travel, by a little divergence, has spared their quietude, leaving them stranded upon a beach where the tide of active business never flows, all their dignities are gone. The men of foresight and enterprise have drifted away to new centres of influence. The bustling dames in starched caps have gone down childless to their graves, or, disgusted with gossip at second hand, have sought more immediate contact with the world. A German tailor, may be, has hung out his sign over the door of some mouldering mansion, where, in other days, a doughty judge of the county court, with a great raft of children, kept his honors and his family warm. A slatternly "carryall," with a driver who reeks of bad spirit, keeps up uneasy communication with the outside world, traversing twice or three times a day the league of drive which lies between the post-office and the railway-station. A few iron-pated farmers, and a few gentlemen of Irish extraction who keep tavern and stores, divide among themselves the official honors of the town.
If, on the other hand, the people maintain their old thrift and importance by actual contact with some great thoroughfare of travel, their old quietude is exploded; a mushroom station has sprung up; mushroom villas flank all the hills; the girls wear mushroom hats. A turreted monster of a chapel from some flamboyant tower bellows out its Sunday warning to a new set of church-goers. There is a little coterie of "superior intelligences," who talk of the humanities, and diffuse their airy rationalism over here and there a circle of the progressive town. Even the meeting house, which was the great congregational centre of the town religion, has lost its venerable air, taken off by some new fancy of variegated painting. The high, square pews are turned into low-backed seats, that flame on a summer Sunday with such gorgeous millinery as would have shocked the grave people of thirty years ago. The deep bass note which once pealed from the belfry with a solemn and solitary dignity of sound has now lost it all amid the jangle of a half-dozen bells of lighter and airier twang. Even the parson himself will not be that grave man of stately bearing, who met the rarest fun only benignantly, and to whom all the villagers bowed,—but some new creature full of the logic of the schools and the latest conventionalisms of manner. The homespun disciples of other days would be brought grievously to the blush, if some deep note of the old bell should suddenly summon them to the presence of so fine a teacher, encompassed with such pretty appliances of upholstery; and, counting their chances better in the strait path they knew on uncarpeted floors and between high pews, they would slink back into their graves content,—all the more content, perhaps, if they should listen to the service of the new teacher, and, in their common-sense way, reckon what chance the dapper talker might have,—as compared with the solemn soberness of the old pastor,—in opening the ponderous doors for them upon the courts above.
Into this metamorphosed condition the town of Ashfield has possibly fallen in these latter days; but in the good year 1819, when the Reverend Benjamin Johns was invited for the first time to fill its pulpit of an early autumn Sunday, it was still in possession of all its palmy quietude and of its ancient cheery importance. And to that old date we will now transfer ourselves.
Every other day the stage-coach comes into Ashfield from the north, on the Hartford turnpike, and rumbles through the main street of the town, seesawing upon its leathern thoroughbraces. Just where the pike forks into the main northern road, and where the scattered farm-houses begin to group more thickly along the way, the country Jehu prepares for a triumphant entry by giving a long, clean cut to the lead-horses, and two or three shortened, sharp blows with his doubled lash to those upon the wheel; then, moistening his lip, he disengages the tin horn from its socket, and, with one more spirited "chirrup" to his team and a petulant flirt of the lines, he gives out, with tremendous explosive efforts, a series of blasts that are heard all down the street. Here and there a blind is coyly opened, and some old dame in ruffled cap peers out, or some stout wench at a back door stands gazing with her arms a-kimbo. The horn rattles back into its socket again; the lines are tightened, and the long lash smacks once more around the reeking flanks of the leaders. Yonder, in his sooty shop, stands the smith, keeping up with his elbow a lazy sway upon his bellows, while he looks admiringly over coach and team, and gives an inquisitive glance at the nigh leader's foot, that he shod only yesterday. A flock of geese, startled from a mud-puddle through which the coach dashes on, rush away with outstretched necks, and wings at their widest, and a great uproar of gabble. Two school-girls—home for the nooning—are idling over a gateway, half swinging, half musing, gazing intently. There is a gambrel-roofed mansion, with a balustrade along its upper pitch, and quaint ogees of ancient joinery over the hall-door; and through the cleanly scrubbed parlor-windows is to be seen a prim dame, who turns one spectacled glance upon the passing coach, and then resumes her sewing. There are red houses, with their corners and barge-boards dressed off with white, and on the door-step of one a green tub that flames with a great pink hydrangea. Scattered along the way are huge ashes, sycamores, elms, in somewhat devious line; and from a pendent bough of one of these last a trio of school-boys are seeking to beat down the swaying nest of an oriole with a convergent fire of pebbles.
The coach flounders on,—past an old house with stone chimney, (on which an old date stands coarsely cut,) and with front door divided down its middle, with a huge brazen knocker upon its right half,—with two St. Luke's crosses in its lower panels, and two diamond-shaped "lights" above. Hereabout the street widens into what seems a common; and not far below, sitting squarely and authoritatively in the middle of the common, is the red-roofed meeting-house, with tall spire, and in its shadow the humble belfry of the town academy. Opposite these there comes into the main street a highway from the east; and upon one of the corners thus formed stands the Eagle Tavern, its sign creaking appetizingly on a branch of an overhanging sycamore, under which the stage-coach dashes up to the tavern-door, to unlade its passengers for dinner, and to find a fresh relay of horses.
Upon the opposite corner is the country store of Abner Tew, Esq., postmaster during the successive administrations of Mr. Madison and Mr. Monroe. He comes out presently from his shop-door, which is divided horizontally, the upper half being open in all ordinary weathers; and the lower half, as he closes it after him, gives a warning jingle to a little bell within. A spare, short, hatchet-faced man is Abner Tew, who walks over with a prompt business-step to receive a leathern pouch from the stage-driver. He returns with it,—a few eager townspeople following upon his steps,—reenters his shop, and delivers the pouch within a glazed door in the corner, where the postmistress ex officio Mrs. Abner Tew, a tall, gaunt woman in black bombazine and spectacles, proceeds to assort the Ashfield mail. By reason of this division of duties, the shop is known familiarly as the shop of "the Tew partners."
Among the waiting expectant, who loiter about among the sugar-barrels of the grocery department, there presently appears—with a new tinkle of the little bell—a stout, ruddy man, just past middle age, in broad-brimmed white beaver and sober homespun suit, who is met with a deferential "Good day, Squire," from one and another, as he falls successively into short parley with them. A self-possessed, cheery man, who has strong opinions, and does not fear to express them; Selectman for the last eight years; who has presided in town-meeting time out of mind; member of the Legislature, and once a Senator for the district. This was Giles Elderkin, Esq., the gentleman who, on behalf of the Ecclesiastical Society, had conducted the correspondence with the Reverend Mr. Johns; and he was now waiting his reply. Thus is presently brought to him by the postmistress, who, catching a glimpse of the Squire through the glazed door, has taken the precaution to adjust her cap-strings and dexterously to flirt one or two of the more apparent creases out of her dingy bombazine. The letter brings acceptance, which the Squire, having made out by private study near to the dusky window, announces to Mrs. Tew,—begging her to inform the people who should happen in from "up the road."
"I hope he'll suit, Squire," says Mrs. Tew.
"I hope he may,—hope he may, Mrs. Tew; I hear well of him; there's good blood in him. I knew his father, the Major,—likely man. I hope he may, Mrs. Tew."
And the Squire, having penned a little notice, by favor of one of the Tew partners, proceeds to affix it to the meeting-house door; after which he walks to his own house, with the assured step of a man who is conscious of having accomplished an important duty. It is the very house we just now saw with the ponderous ogees over its front, the balustrade upon its roof, and the dame in spectacles at the window: this latter being the spinster, Miss Meacham, elder sister to the wife of the Squire, and taking upon herself, with active zeal and a neatness that knew no bounds, the office of housekeeper. This was rendered necessary in a manner by the engagement of Mrs. Elderkin with a group of young flax-haired children, and periodic threats of addition to the same. The hospitalities of the house were fully established, and no state official could visit the town without hearty invitation to the Squire's table. The spinster received the announcement of the minister's coming with a quiet gravity, and betook herself to the needed preparation.
Mr. Johns, meantime, when he had left the Handby parlor, where we saw him last, and was fairly upon the stair, had replied to the suggestion of his little wife about the sermon on Revelations with a fugitive kiss, and said, "I will think of it, Rachel."
And he did think of it,—thought of it so well, that he left the beautiful sermon in his drawer, and took with him a couple of strong doctrinal discourses, upon the private hearing of which his charming wife had commented by dropping asleep (poor thing!) in her chair.
But the strong men and women of Ashfield relished them better. There was a sermon for the morning on "Regeneration the work only of grace"; and another for the afternoon, on the outer leaf of which was written, in the parson's bold hand, "The doctrine of Election compatible with the infinite goodness of God." It is hard to say which of the two was the better, or which commended itself most to the church full of people who listened. Deacon Tourtelot,—a short, wiry man, with reddish whiskers brushed primly forward,—sitting under the very droppings of the pulpit, with painful erectness, and listening grimly throughout, was inclined to the sermon of the morning. Dame Tourtelot, who overtopped her husband by half a head, and from her great scoop hat, trimmed with green, kept her keen eyes fastened intently upon the minister on trial, was enlisted in the same belief, until she heard the Deacon's timid expression of preference, when she pounced upon him, and declared for the Election discourse. It was not her way to allow him to enjoy an opinion of his own getting. Miss Almira, their only child, and now grown into a spare womanhood, that was decorated with another scoop hat akin to the mother's,—from under which hung two yellow festoons of ringlets tied with lively blue ribbons,—was steadfastly observant; though wearing a fagged air before the day was over, and consulting on one or two occasions a little vial of "salts," with a side movement of the head, and an inquiring nostril.
Squire Elderkin, having thrown himself into a comfortable position in the corner of his square pew, is cheerfully attentive; and at one or two of the more marked passages of the sermon bestows a nod of approval, and a glance at Miss Meacham and Mrs. Elderkin, to receive their acknowledgment of the same. The young Elderkins (of whom three are of meeting-house size) are variously affected: Miss Dora, being turned of six, wears an air of some weariness, and having despatched all the edible matter upon a stalk of caraway, she uses the despoiled brush in keeping the youngest boy, Ned, in a state of uneasy wakefulness. Bob, ranking between the two in point of years, and being mechanically inclined, devotes himself to turning in their sockets the little bobbins which form a balustrade around the top of the pew; but being diverted from this very suddenly by a sharp squeak that calls the attention of his Aunt Joanna, he assumes the penitential air of listener for full five minutes; afterward he relieves himself by constructing a small meeting-house out of the psalm-books and Bible, his Aunt Joanna's spectacle-case serving for a steeple.
There was an air of subdued reverence in the new clergyman, which was not only agreeable to the people in itself, but seemed to very many thoughtful ones to imply a certain respect for them and for the parish. The men of that day in Ashfield were intolerant of mere elegances, or of any jauntiness of manner. But Mr. Johns was so calm and serious, and yet gave so earnest expression to the old beliefs they had so long cherished,—he was so clearly wedded to all those rigidities by which the good people thought it a merit to cramp their religious thinking,—that there was but one opinion of his fitness.
Deacon Tourtelot, sidling down the aisle after service, out of hearing of his consort, says to Elderkin, "Smart man, Squire."
And the Squire nods acquiescence. "Sound sermonizer,—sound sermonizer, Deacon."
These two opinions were as good as a majority-vote in the town of Ashfield,—all the more since the Squire was a thorough-going Jeffersonian Democrat, and the Deacon a warm Federalist, so far as the poor man could be warm at anything, who was on the alert every hour of his life to escape the hammer of his wife's reproaches.
So it happened that the parish was called together, and an invitation extended to Brother Johns to continue his ministrations for a month further. Of course the novitiate understood this to be the crucial test; and he accepted it with a composure, and a lack of impertinent effort to please them overmuch, which altogether charmed them. On four successive Saturdays he drove over to Ashfield,—sometimes stopping with one or the other of the two deacons, and at other times with Squire Elderkin,—and on one or two occasions taking his wife by special invitation. Of her, too, the people of Ashfield had but one opinion: that she was of a ductile temper was most easy to be seen; and there was not a strong-minded woman of the parish but anticipated with delight the power and pleasure of moulding her to her wishes. The husband continued to preach agreeably to their notions of orthodoxy, and at the end of the month they gave him a "call," with the promise of four hundred dollars a year, besides sundry odds and ends made up by donation visits and otherwise.
This sum, which was not an inconsiderable one for those days, enabled the clergyman to rent as a parsonage the old house we have seen, with the big brazen knocker, and diamond lights in either half of its green door. It stood under the shade of two huge ashes, at a little remove back from the street, and within easy walk from the central common. A heavy dentilated cornice, from which the paint was peeling away in flaky patches, hung over the windows of the second floor. Within the door was a little entry—(for years and years the pastor's hat and cane used to lie upon a table that stood just within the door); from the entry a cramped stairway, by three sharp angles, led to the floor above. To the right and left were two low parlors. The sun was shining broadly in the south one when the couple first entered the house.
"Good!" said Rachel, with her pleasant, brisk tone,—"this shall be your study, Benjamin; the bookcase here, the table there, a nice warm carpet, we'll paper it with blue, the Major's sword shall be hung over the mantel."
"Tut! tut!" says the clergyman, "a sword, Rachel,—in my study?"
"To be sure! why not?" says Rachel. "And if you like, I will hang my picture, with the doves and the olive-branch, above it; and there shall be a shelf for hyacinths in the window."
Thus she ran on in her pretty house-wifely manner, cooing like the doves she talked of, plotting the arrangement of the parlor opposite, of the long dining-room stretching athwart the house in the rear, and of the kitchen under a roof of its own, still farther back,—he all the while giving grave assent, as if he listened to her contrivance: he was only listening to the music of a sweet voice that somehow charmed his ear, and thanking God in his heart that such music was bestowed upon a sinful world, and praying that he might never listen too fondly.
Behind the house were yard, garden, orchard, and this last drooping away to a meadow. Over all these the pair of light feet pattered beside the master. "Here shall be lilies," she said; "there, a great bunch of mother's peonies; and by the gate, hollyhocks";—he, by this time, plotting a sermon upon the vanities of the world.
Yet in due time it came to pass that the parsonage was all arranged according to the fancies of its mistress,—even to the Major's sword and the twin doves. Esther, a stout middle-aged dame, and stanch Congregationalist, recommended by the good women of the parish, is installed in the kitchen as maid-of-all-work. As gardener, groom, (a sedate pony and square-topped chaise forming part of the establishment,) factotum, in short,—there is the frowzy-headed man Larkin, who has his quarters in an airy loft above the kitchen.
The brass knocker is scoured to its brightest. The parish is neighborly. Dame Tourtelot is impressive in her proffers of advice. The Tew partners, Elderkin, Meacham, and all the rest, meet the new housekeepers open-handed. Before mid-winter, the smoke of this new home was piling lazily into the sky above the tree-tops of Ashfield,—a home, as we shall find by and by, of much trial and much cheer. Twenty years after, and the master of it was master of it still,—strong, seemingly, as ever; the brass knocker shining on the door; the sword and the doves in place. But the pattering feet,—the voice that made music,—the tender, wifely plotting,—the cheery sunshine that smote upon her as she talked,—alas for us!—"All is Vanity!"
ROGER BROOKE TANEY.
A little more than two centuries ago, Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury published his great treatise on government, under the title of "Leviathan; or, the Matter, Form, and Power of the Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil,"—in which he denied that man is born a social being, that government has any natural foundation, and, in a word, all of what men now agree to be the first principles, and receive as axioms, of social and civil science; and declared that man is a beast of prey, a wolf, whose natural state is war, and that government is only a contrivance of men for their own gain, a strong chain thrown over the citizen,—organized, despotic, unprincipled power. To this faithless and impious work, which at least did good by shocking the world and rallying many of the best minds to develop and defend the true principles of society and the state, he put a fit frontispiece, a picture of the vast form of Leviathan, the Sovereign State, the Mortal God,—a gigantic figure, like that of Giant Despair or the horrid shapes we have sometimes seen pictured as brooding over the Valley of the Shadow of Death,—a Titanic form, whose crowned head and mailed body fill the background and rise above the distant hills and mountain-peaks in the broad landscape which is spread out below, with fields, rivers, harbors, cities, castles, churches, towns and villages, and ships upon the seas and in the ports. Its body and limbs are made up of countless human figures, of every class, all bending reverently toward the sovereign head. Its arms stretch forward to the foreground. In one hand it holds a magnificent crosier, in the other a mighty sword, which reach across and cover the whole. It is surrounded with emblems of power, of which it is the life and embodiment. In the front is a fortified city, with its streets and gate, its cathedral rising high above all other structures, surmounted by the cross, the flag flying from the forts, the sentinel on the ramparts. Its fortresses seem to defy and command the whole empire over which Leviathan predominates. To show more fully how all-pervading and resistless is the power of this monster made of mortal men, and the means and extent of its control in Church and State, to impress the senses, the emblems of its spheres and its instruments are depicted below. First is a castle on a rocky height, with the smoke rolling from its battlements, from which a cannon has just been fired; opposite, a church, with a figure holding the cross above its roof of faith; here a coronet, opposite a mitre; here is a cannon, to thunder in civil war; opposite are the mythic thunderbolts for the fulminations of the Church; below are arms, drums, banners and flags, helmet and halberd, spear and sword and matchlock; opposite appears a front, between the devilish horns of which, marked "dilemma," is formed a sort of trophy, made up of a trident spear, labelled "syllogism," and bifurcated weapons, named "real and intentional," "spiritual and temporal," and one beyond whose long straight point, labelled "direct," there is another sharp, keen one, curving round and covering it, labelled "indirect"; last is the battle-field, with armies rushing together in deadly charge, their flags flying above the long lines whose sloping spears bristle above the clouds of smoke and dust, the cavalry and foot engaged with sabres and pistols, men and horses fallen, the victors, the wounded, the dying, and the dead,—the dread arbitrament of war; opposite, the judges ranged in formal order, with their caps and black robes,—a Rhadamanthine tribunal. Seeing such a summary and embodiment of his idea, a man will shudder the more he ponders on such a conception of the state as such a monstrous idol, which men have fashioned out of their own bodies and invested with the attributes of superhuman power, and worshipped as the creator of Justice and Law, Peace and Order, Truth and Religion, and served and obeyed as their Tyrant and King.