Elihu Vedder.

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Who knows ? The subject is too deep for me ; I give it up, yet
I wonder if that getting at the heart or mind is not my proper
trade after all, and if I had not better stick to it.

After wondering so much, even at the risk of having the spirit
of Lamb fumbling at my bumps, I will say How wonderful
is the working of the mind ! How wonderfully one idea tacks on
to another, like a string of sausages ! I once saw a man making
sausages at Deerfoot Farm near Boston, and found that in reality
they were nothing but one long sausage divided up by a skilful
twist of the sausage-maker into separate sausages. So consider-
ing this thing a little more curiously, I have thought, Why may
not these Digressions be but one long idea divided by a clever
twist into seemingly separate stories ? no real variety, only
twisted monotony. By the way, although at the farm everything
was sweet and delightful, the glib way those flaccid cases were


suddenly filled with minced meat made me desire to get away ;
I did n't feel safe.

As I have said, every one was spoken of as old in those days.
It was always old Bonner, old Greeley, etc., and so a certain
writer was spoken of as " old Clapp." He was the ugly one of the
crowd, and his face was indeed a living attestation of the truth of
Darwin's theory. At the same time we had in our midst a young
fellow whose bright and handsome face offered as great a con-
trast to Clapp's as it did to his own conversation, which was
uninteresting and flat to a degree. "But," said one, "just let old
Clapp talk, and he will talk that face off in fifteen minutes."
"That," said I, " is precisely the case with our handsome friend."
Whereupon the crowd laughed heartily, but did not give me a
guinea, only more beer.

It must not be thought that I was always frivolous during this
period, because I recount so many frivolous incidents. A char-
acter in Dickens remarks that "when a man's affairs are at the
lowest ebb, he has a strange temptation, which he does not
resist, to indulge in oysters"; whereupon another keen observer
puts in, "It is the same with pickled salmon." And then there
is the thinly-clad man who says that " the weather is cold about
the legs this morning." Well; we ate many oysters, and the
weather was cold about the legs at times, and we always felt that
any moment might be "our next." The theatres were never so
full as during the War. And it was then that this strange tend-
ency in human nature, alluded to above, was developed. Yet
during it all I never wavered in my hope of our ultimate success
or in my hatred of slavery, or in my loyalty to the Nation. I had
the honour and privilege of voting for Lincoln, and paid my
tribute of honest tears when that much-loved man was slain.


There are some things I do not keep on show and " these are of

Yes, indeed ; all was not beer and skittles, particularly during
my Bond Street period, for then occurred the "Draft Riots"
and things looked pretty dark. And to think it is now a dream
and that my children know nothing about it ! I have frequently
been asked, "Were you in the War?" and I have to answer,
"No"; but there were reasons, and I think a certain lady was
rather hasty, who once insulted every man in the room, because
a forefather of hers once " fit in the Revolution," and she had a
relative in the army. In my case I had already been shot once
and could not have carried a gun a block in my left hand ; the
family consisted of two, and half of it was in the navy at Hampton
Roads or thereabouts, and the sight of the Irish corporals order-
ing men about in the Park was not encouraging. However, my
name was down and I stood my chance with the others in the
draft. All people who went into the army were not John Browns.
A friend of mine told me he was going to school at this time,
when, meeting a boy friend in the street, he was asked, "Well,
what shall we do about this thing?" He answered, "I don't
know: let's enlist" ; and they did, and he became a Libby Prison
man, one of those who tunnelled their way out and was recap-
tured, and has been more or less of an invalid ever since. This
he told me only the other day, adding that had he known they
were going to free the Negroes, he would not have enlisted.

Then my friend Coleman came back. He had been shot some-
where near the left corner of his mouth, the ball coming out of
his neck under the ear, and suffered no end of pain and discom-
fort from pieces of jaw-bone coming out way down the neck.
Another friend, George Butler, lost his left arm at Gettysburg, and


ever afterwards made a fine martial figure with his empty sleeve.
Ned Forbes, who had been deprived of the use of his left arm
from youth, went in as a special artist and war-correspondent,
and managed to see everything and leave a series of drawings of
the utmost historical value. Then there was A. Ward and his
brother, special artist at the front. Those were the times when
we made drawings of battles before they had taken place, for
Frank Leslie "old man Carter," as he was called. Longing
eyes were cast on me by the newspaper people, but I said nay,
and am glad I did. It is strange how little one sees of what is
going on when one is in the midst of it.

From the roof of the corner of Bond Street I saw a surging
mass of rioters coming down Broadway. Below was a solid and
orderly body of police. An American flag made its appearance
from a shop-door and was passed from hand to hand until it
reached the front rank: it then leaned forward and the dark
mass of policemen swept on. The two masses the orderly,
and the drunk and disorderly met opposite the old La Farge
House and there came a sound as of chopping wood, the meeting
of clubs and skulls. The riotous crowd seemed to melt away be-
fore the orderly one ; then coming back were seen limp figures
supported on either side by policemen, with arms hanging out
like the flippers of turtles ; and the blood from the broken heads
running down and collecting round the collars, made it look as
if an attempt had been made to decapitate each wretch. These
people had been burning a negro orphan asylum and its inmates,
and hanging Negroes to lamp-posts and burning them.

An apothecary's shop was looted and here a comic touch
comes in. The proprietor of the shop, a German, was looking
on ruefully ; of course the object of the mob was to get at the


brandy, gin, and whiskey which was kept in those days by apo-
thecaries ; suddenly a professional thought came to him " All
right ! Let dem keep on ! yust wait till dey come to dem
brussic acids!" But they were a cowardly set. Josephus was
standing before a stable, with the proprietor and some of his men,
perhaps they were five in all, when a rabble came by with a
wagon on which was stretched one of their dead, stripped to
show the wounds. They seemed in a state of frenzy, but on one of
the stablemen yelling out to them, "And served him jolly well
right ! " the crowd slunk by without an answer. We were totally
unprepared, and had they only been organized it would have
been a very serious affair indeed ; as it was, the city was terrorized
for three days.

Hearing that they were going to break into the armories of
the military regiments and arm themselves, a few of us went
down to an armory next to the old Metropolitan Hotel. A friend
had his studio in the same building at the top ; the armory rooms
came next, and the rest of the building was a carriage-factory,
a regular tinder-box. There was no one to guard it but a fright-
ened care-taker. After seeing that we could escape down a
scuttle in the roof of the neighbouring hotel, we armed ourselves
with rifles, and placed packing-boxes from behind which we
could fire, or roll them down the staircase on the approaching
foe for the staircase went down straight from the upper floor
to the front door on Broadway. We also loosened all the coping-
stones, with which to regale the mob, and placed a great flagstaff
so that we could also send it down to amuse them. And then we
set a guard and retired to our friend Baker's studio, where he
played to us beautifully on his fiddle, for he fiddled better than
he painted. And so with crackers and beerwewhiled away the


peaceful hours. Luckily the approaching foe did not approach,
and finally as usual we repaired to PfafT's and talked things over.

Bond Street must have been a lively place. Diagonally oppo-
site my rooms took place the celebrated murder of Dr. Burdell, in
which Mrs. Cunningham and a weak young fellow by the name of
Snodgrass were implicated. The papers were full of it. I believe
their guilt was not proved, but it was one of those cases of " Don't
do it again." The old La Farge House or Hotel was burned
while I was there. Here I noticed a singular thing: the walls
were left standing, but, threatening to fall at any moment, they
were pulled down by ropes. The building was so high that one
would have thought the walls would have fallen against the house
opposite. Nothing of the sort happened, for no sooner were they
inclined at a slight angle than the material commenced to crum-
ble at the top and then fell straight down, so that the street was
scarcely rendered impassable.

At the time I had my studio in the old Gibson Building on
Broadway ; I used to pass frequently a near corner, where an old
negro woman sold peanuts. Her meekly bowed head and a look
of patient endurance and resignation touched my heart and we
became friends.

She had been a slave down South, and had at that time a son,
a fine tall fellow, she said, fighting in the Union Army. I finally
persuaded her to sit to me and made a drawing of her head and
also had her photograph taken. Having been elected associate
of the National Academy, according to custom I had to send in
a painting to add to the permanent collection, so I sent in this
study of her head and called it simply by her name which was
Jane Jackson. Time went on and I found myself in a mood.
As I always try to embody my moods in some picture, this



From a Coflty Print, copyright, iqoi^ by Curtis & Cameron

mood found its resting-place in the picture of " The Cumean
Sibyl." Thus this fly or rather this bee from my bonnet
was finally preserved in amber-varnish, and thus Jane Jackson
became the Cumean Sibyl.

The story of the Sibyl is well known, having been translated
from Latin into English, but the story of the embodied mood
has not been translated. In plain English it meant: If you don't
buy my pictures now when they are cheap, you will have to pay
dearer for them later on. Thus far the prediction has turned out
true several times.

I received for " The Lair of the Sea-Serpent " three hundred \
dollars in greenbacks equivalent to one hundred fifty dollars
now (but then it seemed to me a thousand). I should get
more for a similar picture now, but I have n't the slightest doubt
but what they will again be cheap enough. It has happened to
many a tall fellow before this and will happen again.

The accompanying reproductions only relate to the head of


the Sibyl, and not to the whole-length figure in the picture at
Wellesley College.

I should like to tell of a bit of cleverness on my part shown
in the pedestal of a small head of the same subject in bronze.
I wished to have the head on a pedestal and at the same time
give an impression that she was seated, so I made the pedestal
like the semi-circular back of a seat and the effect is of her
being seated very comfortably. I made the pedestal of one solid
piece of Rosso Antico in fact had two made, and the marble-
man assured me he had exhausted the market in securing two
blocks of such fine quality.

We will here consider the subject of the Sibyl closed, but the
marble-man must have his story. He was occupied in making
a pedestal for an Egyptian Sphinx, which he had restored. "You
see," he said, "the Sphinx is of grey granite and so I think I have
done well to select for its base ' un Africano blando e serio '
- a bland and serious African marble understood ; which is
only equalled by an advertisement of a trattoria in Turin which
appeared regularly in a certain paper : " Get etablissement est tres
renomme pour son caractere seneux et reserve" I translate this as
meaning very advantageous terms in offered confidence to poor
people who are keeping up an appearance.

What cosy studio and tavern times I have had with Homer
Martin. He was a Bohemian if you will. I remember once getting
him ready for a wedding. He had been shaving, and being of a
rugged countenance his wounds took a long time to stanch, and
time was precious. To be sure, the cuffs were ready, nicely trimmed,
the scissors having been found, but the shirt and collar had not
come home. However, I got him off in good style. M. was apt

H. M. 241

to be late, but it was never too late for him ; he would sit drink-
ing his beer and sometimes not say much, but it always ended
in his saying the best thing of the evening. It might be delayed
but was sure to come. All remember his answer to the lady who
asked him if he did n't think he drank too much beer: "Why,
Madam, I don't think there is too much beer/' Late one day he
was found very busy painting some plants in the foreground of a
picture : on being asked what plant it was, he said, "Why, don't
you know that plant ? that 's the foreground plant ; I use lots
of it." To my great delight I found years afterwards, at the sale
of the effects of Tintoretto, an English book, where, after showing
the proper stroke of the lead pencil for indicating the foliage of the
oak, the willow, and other trees, there was a chapter devoted to
" Foreground Plants." I always intended sending it to him, but
as usual unlike M. and his wit I put it off until it was too

You see every one has been written up : we know Who 's Who
nowadays : so I only go around picking up old bits in odd corners.
Some may be new, and some worth saving, even though they are
old they will be new to some one : think of the increase of the

Let my friends have patience with me while I play this affec-
tation of Vanity, for I have never been vain how could I be ?
Just listen. Each year for three years I sent a picture to the
Academy. On the first "The Questioner of the Sphinx"
Ned Mullin perpetrated an outrageous play upon words; the
second "The Lost Mind" was called by the Boys, "The
Idiot and the Bath-Towel " ; in fact the drapery was a little thick
about the neck. The third "The Lair of the Sea-Serpent"
was simply called the "Big Eel." I have seen it seriously stated


that I painted it from a dead eel. Those were the days of dear
Artemus Ward. Of course all the Boys were his friends and
attended his lectures in full force. His lecture "The Babes in
the Wood" was given at the time the Sea-Serpent was on ex-
hibition. The Babes were only mentioned on the Bill ; he never
once alluded to them in the lecture. That was his joke, and so
he brought in everything else except the Babes and so, again,
he brought in the Sea-Serpent by V. I am real sorry I cannot
tell how the " Big Eel" wriggled in, but that is not the point any-
way : the point is that then I felt what Fame was, for the first
time ; for apart from the applause of the Boys, some five or six of
them, there was a laugh of recognition from perhaps three per-
sons in the audience. They had seen the picture, they knew
who I was, they, the Public. This, I thought, was doing pretty
well ; New York was a big city even then, and what was one Eel
among so many ? Why a most extraordinary Eel of course,
and I was proud while this first glimmer of Fame lasted. It soon
wore off and I have never been proud since. Artemus was most
sympathetic. He looked so frail and delicate that he gave an
impression of one doomed to die young. There was something
comically pathetic as he patiently waited for the audience to
catch on to his jokes ; no wonder, for it was often a case of pearls.
It was to him the man said after a lecture, " I say, it was just as
much as I could do to keep from laffm' right out two or three

Kate Field, with the best intentions in the world, always
seemed bent on improving my mind. So having received free
tickets for a lecture at the Cooper Institute, she haled me to its
gloomy halls. It was winter and the hall was gloomy indeed
and half-lighted. A single lady and ourselves composed the



audience. Also it was cold. At first, as if by mutual consent
to spare the feelings of the lecturer, we scattered ourselves about,
trying, with very inadequate means, to give the semblance of a
larger audience. Afterwards we sat close together for warmth.
This reminded me of my friend Smetham's efforts with the
single glove, trying to create a belief in the public mind that he
could produce the other "an he would." So we sat together and
the lecturer finally appeared. He seemed surprised at the small-
ness of the gathering and remarked on it, but generously deter-
mining to give the lecture entire, drew from his breast-pocket the
longest roll of manuscript I ever saw. My companion shuddered.
We all have our favourite words ; his was the word purlieu. I
never knew how extensive and low down the purlieus were.
The whole of New York seemed to him one vast purlieu. Of the
whole lecture I have only retained that one word. We applauded
the end, for he went on to the bitter end, and the applause
was in quantity just suited to the quality of the lecture.

Kate Field was thorough ; she was also a woman of advanced
views. She not only attempted to improve my mind but gave me
some sound advice as to the body, assuring me most solemnly
that if I did not leave off smoking there was little prospect of
a long line of progeny, in case I got married.

So now it was my health ; and she, going with her mother and
a cousin to Sharon Springs, I must be of the party. Her mother,
the most loveable of women, had endeared herself to the Boys
in Florence as she did to all. She had been an actress of the
old school, and still retained a certain stateliness. The cousin,
a fine figure of a girl, reminded me of a wood-nymph as she ran
about under the beech trees' shade. Of course the mother had
to take the waters, but I resisted ; the consequences in her case


were that her straight raven locks all fell off and when her hair
did come in again, it was beautifully touched with grey and
frizzled up into the most coquettish curls you ever saw, so
much so that I assured her it was most compromising to be seen
in her company. Here I took my friend driving. Now I could
get along with credit on horseback, but what is one to do in
driving when a horse, good at climbing and on the level, takes,
when it comes to a descent, to sitting down and tobogganing?
That is the way we made an entrance to the village on our return
from our drive.

Yes, Kate Field was thorough and of advanced views. We were
stopping with a couple by the name of Morgan ; she at once made
a fervent convert of the wife, in the matter of Woman's Rights,
until it came to such a pass that when the meek husband ven-
tured to give his views, his wife would say with great spirit,
"Now, Morgan, you jest hold your jaw." Morgan would subside
and take me out to the barn and show me his snakes, for he
was a snake-charmer. He kept them in barrels and told me how
careful he had to be to keep only those of the same size together,
from a habit they had of eating each other ; even a difference of
a few inches would provoke these attempts. This Morgan was
also a collector of natural curiosities and had quite a museum.
Among other things he had found a stone which represented
fairly well a leg with its foot, and the period is shown by his call-
ing it St. Anna's leg. This St. Anna, or Santa Anna, was the
president and dictator of Mexico, and for the best of reasons
wore a wooden leg; and the story goes that on one occasion, in
our war with that country, we came very near capturing that
hero, who was forced to decamp so suddenly that his leg was left
behind and thus fell into our hands. Morgan had a habit of


going about with a snake coiled round his wrist as if it were the
most natural thing in the world. I dare say his wife broke him
of the habit when she became advanced enough. Kate Field
thought the wife the better man ; I liked the gentle Morgan best.


Yesterday I received a letter from my old friend, James D.
Smilie, dated Rome, in which he regrets not seeing me ; and I
regret not seeing him, for he has a good memory as well as a
good heart, and could have told me all about my studio days
in Dodsworth's Building. As it is, he tells me in this letter that
it was at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street.
He says but I had better quote this portion of his letter at
length, as it is a veritable bag of tricks in the way of information :
"My sister and her two daughters have told me of your studio
here, and I wished very much to see for myself and to know
how it compares with that little, bare room on the upper floor


of the Dodsworth Building . . . where in ages past we had
studios. Memory goes back to those times lovingly, when Innes,
James Hart, Samuel Coleman, Brevoort, J. Q. A. Ward, Rogers,
and other lights of those days were there. I recall one day's work
of yours a success, a girl's head, beautiful in colour ; and in
expressing your pleasure you said that old landscape studies,
especially if painted in juicy, rich dark greens, were admirable
foundations for colour schemes and flesh-painting. Often in
painting over old canvasses I remember those expressions."

See how leisurely my friend ambles along in his letter: that
would never do in a book, and it's "God's mercy" that I have
a poor memory, for at that pace I should never end. Contrast
indeed, between the little, bare room and the spacious one in
Via Flaminia, and the garden and ivy-clad walls and cypress
trees and fountain. By the way, the fountain has gone to another
old friend, L. C. Tiffany, and it is in consequence of the financial
overflow from it that I am enabled to indulge in this present fad ;
otherwise I might be better employed. " The little bare room "
but in Fifth Avenue and in the midst of well-known "lights"
was but a great bluff. I was trying to take Fortune by storm.
Appearances were kept up, so that the simple mattress I and my
friend Bill Gary slept on, and the buffalo-robe which served as
our simple covering, were carefully hid behind the screen during
the day. No visitors came but the Boys lots of boys. One day
my brother came and was received with mysterious glumness.
On his asking me if I did not feel well, I told him that perhaps
he would not feel particularly chipper if he had gone without his
dinner the day before and without his breakfast and lunch that
day. Poor fellow! he turned pale. He took me at once to a
restaurant and fed me carefully, as you do starved people taken


from a raft : perhaps he remembered our little Negro, Crispino,
and the experiment of letting off Seidlitz powders in him. Any-
way, this marked the culminating point in my troubles, in that re-
spect, for I have suffered more since from indigestion than from
hunger with the exception that I still hunger for little-neck clams
and soft-shell crabs, and in general for all things I cannot get.
"Contrast!" I should say so. Dodsworth's was a dancing-
academy, and the Cubans used to give balls there, and as they
are fond of perfumes, great gusts of odour and strains of the
throbbing habaneros used to come up to us as we lay on the floor
under our buffalo-robe. I lie softer now, but not much happier ;
yet happiness, as it did then, seems just within my reach. Still
youthful ? No : but still foolish.

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Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 15 of 29)