Elihu Vedder.

The digressions of V. online

. (page 11 of 29)
Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 11 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

insisting upon unessential details at the expense of the general
effect, and what appeared an exaggeration of colour, led us to
think, not unnaturally, that his object was dictated more by a
desire to give the style of the P.-R. B. than by a love of Truth
or Nature. Now I see, however, from Holman Hunt's account
of the movement, how sincere they were ; and most undoubtedly,
had I been brought up in England at that time and more imme-
diately under their influence, I should have been of them. I also
in his pages am made to realise how strong was the almost uni-
versal opposition to them. I also see how large a book may be
made by telling of each time you open your box of colours and
pack it up, and of flies and fleas and headaches, and generally
of all those little ills that flesh is heir to especially the flesh of
him who paints from Nature. It is about time to use the expres-
sion, I now find. And what I find is that, if I am going to write
a review of every book I read, these digressions will become end-
less ; and that out of consideration for myself and others I had
better stop, with this little quotation from Hunt's book: "All
his [Whistler's] wit that I heard of was not of that nature which
transfixes truth by a subtile shaft, but only of a kind which amuses
for the moment; like a conjurer's trick, confusing common sense."
Alas, poor Falstaff ! And yet Hunt is a very great man.



Amongst the dispensations of Providence it seems that some,
men are permitted to become great writers without having much
knowledge of Art even when they write about it. Among
these was Walter Savage Landor. I never knew him, but my
friend Kate Field became a favourite of his and through her my
friend Coleman painted his portrait. It was during the sittings
he gave Coleman that the ignorance of Art on his part trans-



LANDOR AND THE NIMBUS 163

pired. You will remember that Richard Grant White in his
"Words and their Uses" says that to transpire means to leak out.
And that was just what happened.

Coleman, wishing to spare his eyes, posed him with his back
to the window. Landor's hair, being white, the light shining
through it formed a luminous fringe about his head. Landor,
getting up to see the progress of the work, at once saw my
friend's attempt to reproduce this effect and cried out :

" Why, you have given me a nimbus. I won't have a nimbus ! "

In vain Coleman tried to explain to him this effect of light;
it was always :

"I won't have a nimbus no nimbus! "

The Savage in his name was very appropriate. They used
to tell of his going into court, during some law trouble he was
having, with a bag of gold which he banged down before the
Judge, saying :

" I hear that this is the place where justice is bought and sold,
and I have come to buy some."

I believe it cost him a pretty penny, for contempt of court.

Speaking of words and their uses, Kate Field used to tell of a
man who, rushing into some country town, asked "where he
would be liable to get a ham ? "

This irresistibly reminds me of what used to happen in the
Villa Landor. If a dish offended him, Landor would "chuck it
out of winder," so that a passer-by might have been liable to get
a ham without his looking for it.

The banks of the Mugnone torrent, which runs around a part
of Florence past the Porta San Gallo, used to be a favourite
walk of the frequenters of the Caffe Michelangelo. There also



164 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

was the ground of the game of Pallone, a noble game, almost
gladiatorial in character, of which I was a passionate admirer.
On the high banks of this stream, overlooking the country
bounded by the great bare hills from which in winter came those
icy blasts that gave us all sore eyes (the eyes having been pre-
viously prepared in the acrid tobacco-smoke of the caffe during
the long winter evenings, or strained, painting by the little smoky,
dim oil-lamps of the Accademia Galli), we walked and settled



<m te



all the great questions of the day. Following up the stream, you
finally reached the spot where it passes under a bridge at the
foot of the long ascent which leads to Fiesole. It was here I
painted two of my best studies, and also a little picture I always
thought highly of. These things show that originally I was a
landscape painter and that now I am only the lively remains
of one.

The little picture was really a sketch I made on a dark stormy
day, of Fiesole with the road and cypresses coming down from
it, into the foreground of which I had painted three Dominican
friars, whose black and white garments carried out the feeling



UNDER FIESOLE 165

seen in hillside and sky. This little picture must have perished
in a Loan Exhibition held in Madison Square Garden, when part
of the building collapsed. The memory of its loss is one of my pet
griefs to this day.

In a house near the bridge, three of us lived and worked. One
was a Mrs. Hay, a strong Pre-Raphaelite and a woman of great
talent. She told me her husband in London was a man who
smoked and painted all night by gaslight, while she was a lover
of the clear dawn and the bright day, and of Fra Angelico. One
might have supposed that such an arrangement would have been
advantageous to both, but such was not the case ; hence Florence,
for her part. The other was Altamura, a wonderfully clever
man, whose style changed with every passing whim of the artistic
world, and whose facile hand often ran away with his head. Mrs.
Hay's little boy was pure Anglo-Saxon with long blond hair, and
Altamura's was a dark Oriental with dreaming eyes and curling
raven locks. In the summer evenings while the moon rose over
Fiesole, stretched on the warm dry grass under the olives, we
used to have our evening meal, and there the little boys told
strange stories of their thoughts and dreams. Of the ingenious
fairy-tales of the Blond, I remember little, but a story which
the dark one said was true, impressed me. He said: "I went
up a mountain up up up, ever so high, and there was
a man with ever so many sheep thousands ; and the sky got
so black and then thunder and then a lightning came and
killed the man and killed all the sheep and then all dead
and all blood. Tutti morti tutto sangue! " All these people
are now in a dim past, like those happy days. I have since heard
that the dark romantic boy went to Paris, became an artist, and
was known as le beau Altamura. Should his life happen to




i66 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

end in a tragedy "tutti morti, tutto sangue!" how this
. . ' story or dream of his would come to mind

and be quoted as a premonition! Happy
days! (How happy are those first days of
the artist's life, passed in some solitary
spot, with no thought of exhibitions or
sales or ambition, painting from the pure
love of it and his delight in Nature. Such
work, Costa used to say, was religion.

The little picture of the monks was
bought by Mrs. Laura Curtis Bullard. She

also bought the "Lost Mind." She was from the beginning, and

always remained, my good friend.

I have told how my friend Cabianca envied me my friends, and
how his friend treated him. That was a bad Italian; I now tell
of a good one, for bad and good are pretty evenly distributed in
all countries.

It was at a time when, owing to some stoppage in my remit-
tances, my funds were so low as to be imperceptible, and I found
the large, roasted Italian chestnut was warm to the hand and
filling to the stomach, thus serving both as food and fuel. I did
not like to ask my Florentine banker for an advance, for while he
was one of the most generous of souls, his partner in Rome held
him to so strict an account that he usually could not oblige me.
Now strange to say, when in Rome afterwards I went to his part-
ner, I heard the same state of affairs: it was always that closefisted
and stingy Florentine partner that checked his naturally generous
impulses ; although I will say the Roman was the noblest of them
all and would lend on compound interest. I fear I digress.



MY LANDLADY 167

My sleeping-apartment in Florence was then in the Via dei
Maccheroni. To be a " maccheroni " was, in the old London
days, to be a great dandy ; I only lived in a street of that name,
and my modest tailor's bill proved me to be no maccheroni,
although well content at that time to get enough of that excellent
food. I told my landlady that I must move into cheaper quarters,
although I did not see how I could well do that ; and she asked
at once, what could they have done to displease me ? After much
trouble I made her believe the true state of the case, and she
begged me to wait until she could consult her husband. The hus-
band was an honest man, much trusted in the pharmacy where
he was employed, and was paid good wages. Then the good
Caterina, after much beating about the bush, told me with emo-
tion that they had become very fond of me, they had no son or
child, and that they had enough, with her husband's earnings,
not to feel it in the least ; but would I only stay with them until
better times or as long as I pleased and was pleased with them,
but not to break their hearts by going away. So I stayed on
until one day the poor man was taken sick, and in spite of our
most affectionate care, after days of watching died in my arms.
In the meantime I had painted a little Madonna for her, with
Santa Caterina and Sant' Eligio at the sides, and so, after I had
left and she was in need, through a friend's buying this picture
I was enabled to help her a little.

In the Florence of my Florentine days, there was a man who,
while resembling Bacon in one respect, differed from him in
another ; for while this man was one of the meanest, he was not
one of the wisest of mankind.

I was so simple in those days that I was astonished on learning



168 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

of the existence of beings called " Conversationalists " ! I laughed
at the idea, but unlike Foote, reserved my guinea, arid noticed
that my friend did not join in the laugh. He talked with great
care, and selecting his words and making emendations as he
proceeded, and could not abide having his sentences disarranged
by interruptions ; indeed he was so fond of carrying them out
that I heard him on one occasion, when I had bidden him good-
bye, finishing a particularly fine one after I had turned the corner.
He was timid also. He pondered long on whether he should pre-
fix Ap to his Welsh name, but refrained for fear of being ridi-
culed. He was the European correspondent of some newspaper
at home ; but while calling himself my friend, never gave me
a little send-off, so useful to a rising young artist, but kept all his
notices for established reputations; he was afraid of making
a mistake.

One day, while walking in the Cascine, he found a little breast-
pin set with four beautifully white diamonds, and asked me what
he should do about it. I said that as it seemed an old-fashioned
trinket, it might possibly be very dear to some one, perhaps an
heirloom, and that I would advertise it in some paper. I fear that
heirloom idea must have acted as a malevolent microbe in his
mind, for shortly after, he borrowed a file of me, and shortly
after that, came out with a set of diamond shirt-studs. I happened
to be present when he was asked where he had found such fine
little diamonds, and heard him reply that they were old family
jewels. I dare say they were, but the family did n't happen to
be his family.

He posed as a great free-thinker with a jolly old priest who
gave him lessons in Italian, but when he fell ill and thought he
was dying, feeling sure on the Protestant side, yet wishing to



TWO DREAMS 169

make assurance doubly sure, he had the same old priest make,
him over into a sound Catholic. On his recovery, however, he
became just as bad as before. By the way, his Italian at that
time was so entirely book Italian that while he corrected my
grammar in that tongue, I had to order his dinner for him at the
trattoria in an Italian more easily understood. He lived a long
while, but I have wondered if, when he came to die, he had made
up his mind on which side of the fence he had concluded to end
his days. Perhaps subsequent events were decided for him. In
any case, in that little affair of the diamonds, though he may not
have been able to explain it away, I am sure the explanation
was made with very select words and in most carefully composed
sentences.

A prattling postscript : The beasts of the field talk ; we may
believe a dog's growl clearly says, " Don't touch that bone ! "
and I dare say Charles Lamb's serious family, sitting in a par-
lour, "all silent and all damned," could talk; but I doubt if they
could converse or had they tried to do so, I am sure it would
have been in growls. Therefore beasts are not conversation-
alists, although some conversationalists are beasts mostly
boars.

In "The Garden of Neglected Opportunities," a title which
might serve for the book, my life, and the life of many another
man, I had several memorable dreams. I here give two of
them.

Dreams are the memory of unconscious cerebration. I am not
good at such subtleties, but what I mean is that memory, when
awake, retains some glimpses of the unconscious mind while at
play, or resting, or springing back from some too-great tension,



170 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

or painfully going on from some too-great impetus given it, or
some absorbing preoccupation. The foregoing is a good speci-
men of Prattling, and quite long enough to serve as introduction
for two such short dreams.

I had been reading Tennyson, and my mind was full of the
gleaming Excalibur, as that good sword whirled over the water
and was "drawn down in under the mere by an arm clad in
white samite, mystic, wonderful." And in my dream I saw a
sword with a crimson and gem-bedight scabbard whirling against
a blue-black sky over a seething, phosphorescent sea. It was
grand, and I at once determined to paint it. But, alas! the
sword at once ceased to whirl and seemed glued to a black
background; the flaming scabbard was vermilion glazed with
lake, and the raging sea stood stock-still and I could no longer
hear it seethe. I concluded that what one reads is not always
what one can paint and so a long farewell to the good blade,
Excalibur.

The other dream was that I had made a pun. Now this pun
was the funniest pun ever made and my laughter was so uproari-
ous that I was broad awake at once and remembered it perfectly,
and discovered that it was not a pun at all, and that by no amount
of ingenuity could I make it into a pun. What was this ? Was
it the pun-mood strong on me ? If there be a pun-mood, then there
must be a youth-mood. I remember we once made an excursion
to Camaldoli from Florence, our friend Waugh, the ex-clown,
was along, and his turning a flip-flap before the astonished
eyes of the passing contadini and his walking on as if nothing had
occurred. How good the sour wine and the coarse bread and the
ham and eggs tasted, and how bright and delightful everything
was, and how funny the jokes. Years after, I took the same walk.



But it was all changed, for I am sorry to say I had to take my last
walk in the Age-mood.

If all this is true, and " I think it be " if some old friend or
some new one will but walk with me through these Digressions
in the Youth-mood, I think he will be able to see things as I
once saw them, and enjoy them as much as I now do, in my Age-
mood ; for life is nothing but a succession of moods.

Moral : Let us cling to the pleasant mood and banish all the
others if we can.

Affairs in America, both public and private, had been going
from bad to worse. The future looked dark. My last remittance
had come, and my last francesconi had been drawn from the
Bank; this little sum, together with the few dollars from my
painting, just served to see me through, and I got home without
a cent the only remaining dollar being given to the good old
steward on board the ship, when I quitted her in Havana.

As I went home from the Gaffe Michelangelo that last evening,
Banti, my fat friend, begged me to stop a moment while he went
into his studio. It was then dark night, but he returned, having
managed to find a little cinquecento iron box which he gave me
as keepsake. This is the only present I remember to have re-
ceived during my four years stay except good advice. I cher-
ish the gift ; but the good advice I have long since forgotten. It
seemed to me then that could my father have managed to keep
up that six hundred dollars a year, I would never have left. But
leave I did. From my studio, where I had packed my pictures
and small belongings, the last thing I remember was wafting a
kiss to a pretty girl at a window opposite and seeing the wave of
a handkerchief with perhaps a tear on it.



172



THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.




And thus I left Eden. The world was all before me, but as to

the where I had no choice ; so I
followed the Arno to where it is
lost in the sunset, and at Leghorn
embarked for Home.

There is nothing to tell of the voy-
age on a Dutch steamer to Mar-
seilles, except that the Captain's
little nephew, who possessed a small
stock of English words when we
started, was able to get on quite
well before we reached port, and
so enabled the Captain and me to
exchange a few ideas, which up to

that had been done by sitting and drinking schnaps at each

other. At Marseilles I took a little

coasting steamer which went to Cadiz,

stopping at every port where she could

find anchorage. Thus I saw Barce-
lona, Alicante, Cartagena, and other

places, but ever I kept close to the

steamer for fear of being left behind,

which would have spelled disaster.
Spain was beautiful and I longed

to stay ; but that glimpse is all I have

ever seen of Spain, in spite of my

having reared so many lordly castles

,
m that country.

But I must hasten and get on the
track of Columbus. At Cadiz I was




ON THE TRACK OF COLUMBUS



173



r




homesick for Italy, and in that mood I drew all the designs in
little for "The Miller, his Son and the Donkey," as a sort of
in memoriam farewell testimonial. A fearful storm raged con-
stantly, and the salt spray could be tasted on the lips blocks
away from the high sea-wall. The monthly steamer had just left
as I arrived, and thinking that
this storm could not keep on
for ever, I took passage in a fast-
sailing clipper ship as per adver-
tisement. May God forgive the
owners ! I never can.

I calculated that the ship would
get to Havana before the next
steamer could ; but the storm kept
on and the steamer came and went
again. I had spent a month in
Cadiz. My funds were at their
last gasp when I boarded that
moss-covered turtle and we set
sail, and behold me at last on the famous track of Columbus!
And now things began to happen.

I was on that track forty days and forty nights ; I was weary
and came to the conclusion that it is not what it has been
cracked up to be.

And it was also, Westward Ho ! I know what westward means,
but have my doubts about the Ho. How we do like to tidy up
disagreeable things.

But it was awful. The passengers were a company of bull-
fighters torreros, they used to be called before Carmen's day ;
and in addition, all the most adventurous barbers in Spain. We




j j^^./^&



174 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

were complete if not perfect. The Captain was a fine old fel-
low and a good navigator and sailor. The first mate was a nice
man, but the second mate was a corker. He was an ex-slaver
and used to tell me long stories of the palmy days of the slave-
trade : how with their smart sailing schooners they would make
a quick run back, even when forced to throw half the cargo over-
board ; how well it paid, and the merry times on shore afterwards.
I often wonder if our Philadelphia friend who is so fond of de-
picting and discoursing of pirates and picaroons, and who does
it so well and has so evidently an admiration for them, has ever
met them face to face. And whether if he had ever seen a gang
of newly-arrived emigrants from Africa, as I have, he would have
the stomach to go on. However, as my Aunt Eveline used to
say, "I make no comment."

Now as the ordinary Spaniard in travelling hides all signs of
wealth and puts on his worst clothes, you may imagine or
rather you can't imagine, what that ship's company looked like.
They were a motley crew and motley was their wear; signals of
distress fluttered from many a rent; in fact the ship presented
such a disreputable appearance that one day a tight little British
cruiser brought us to, by a shot across the bows. However, being
satisfied that it was not a mutiny on board or an uprising of
slaves, she turned her saucy nose and steamed away.

We had to put in at Santa Cruz di Teneriffe owing to some
irregularity in the papers of a passenger, and I went on shore.
The peak looks flat and tame enough from the land, barely show-
ing itself over the broad hills ; but we sailed for days without
losing sight of it ; on the contrary, it seemed to get higher and
higher as the distance increased.

Then we passed the ever-revolving and eddying Sargasso Sea,



THE BULL-FIGHTER 175

but we did not find those meadows of seaweed and that gloomy
fleet of ancient wrecks so well described by my friend Janvier.
How often I have wished he would write another " Robinson
Crusoe" for me, but not put in the dog as an afterthought, as
Defoe has done and above all, supply the island amply with
cocoanut trees. We saw no wrecks, but did come across the re-
sults of one, and it formed the great event of the voyage. But
before I tell that story, however, I must add a few touches to the
picture of the brave ship's company.

In addition to the Villain the slaver with his gold earrings
there were two very interesting passengers. One was an Italian
miner ; we became friends and we had many a long talk in Italian.
I used to describe to him the beauties of Italy, of which he had
seen but few, as most of his life had been passed underground.
His face was literally tattooed with gunpowder, from explosions,
and presented a singular grey appearance.. Our discourses al-
ways ended in his saying that the surface of the earth might be
very fine, but he preferred the inside; there, he would say, you
always had good things to eat and the best of company, and
that it was neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter;
but above all, you escaped all sorts of worries and troubles which
he had invariably met with on the surface.

The other was a fine, strong, good-natured Bull-Fighter. He
one day got out a torrero's costume which he thought would
fit me, and I tried it and it went on like a glove. My! but I was
a fine figure of a man, and deeply regretted I could not afford
to buy it ; but what is one to do with but a single dollar ?

He confided to me all the. secrets of the trade, some of which
are little to its credit ; but one of the main secrets I will disclose,
and think I must be the first who has ever done so, at least as far



176 THE DIGRESSIONS OF V.

as I know. Now, he said, when you stand before a bull and he
lowers his head to charge on you, you must look very carefully
at his ears, for he always twitches slightly sometimes more,
sometimes less the ear on the side he is going to make his toss ;
for he always tosses his head to one side or the other. Then he
lowers his head and makes his rush, and does not see clearly again
until he raises it in making the toss ; then it is too late, for if you
have already chosen the side away from the coming blow, you
may affect all the calmness you please. But mind you, you have
got to be sure of your affair, or it may be all up with you in more
senses than one. And remember this that " El Toro es un
animal muy fino a veces mas fino del Hombre que juega con-
tra el."

The Captain was a good-natured man, and so he let many of
the passengers, who by rights ought to have slept on deck, sleep
on the cabin floor; that is, as many as it would hold, for they
found it was not close enough for them on deck. I had my mat-
tress spread on deck, but kept my stateroom and kept it locked.
Sitting by the skylight at night, the sounds from that cabin were
awful ; it was a complete orchestra ; nothing was lacking from the
loud bassoon to the feeble flageolet. And the variations ! all pass-
ages in music were represented except the rests, and I wondered
how they could sleep through it all ; but they did.

The fresh provisions ran out at once, and those left were not
fresh at all and began to run out also. Where was the generous
fare of the advertisement ? The answer was gone with the



Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 11 of 29)