Elihu Vedder.

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ple to this day. But I never doubted his sanity. He was a man


who had broken out of the prison of gentility, but not that of gen-
tleness ; thrown aside the shackles of Society, and lived a free life
a free man. By his own work he kept himself from actual want
and thus was left to wander and dream in the world of his visions ;
this looks to me like sanity. Yet to me there is a lack of balance
and proportion; I see it in his work and in his writings. Ellis
thought he had discovered a key to his utterances and designs
which might explain all the mystery and it was this: Blake took
the world about him and used its names to clothe his description
of the functions of the human soul, mind and body. These last
he divided up into conditions of the soul and states of the mind,
and so forth, giving to these divisions names he thought appro-
priate, such as Albion, America, Africa, London, Cheapside,
Houndsditch, Holborn, and so on. Now, what made me doubt
his complete sanity, or his lack of the sense of proportion, was
coming across such things as his meeting a Fiend raging down
Fleet Street, and finding out that the Fiend was no other than an
engraver with whom he had a quarrel. Well, I could not help
thinking, if such a pother is made about an engraver, what words
will he use when he meets with the Archangel Michael or the
Devil himself? Or how am I to tell, when I come across some
such magnificent outburst of righteous wrath, that it is only his
meeting an engraver or his shoemaker who has disappointed
him ? But as I said before, this does not settle the question of
Blake, by any means.

Any one looking at his head must see that he was a fighter,
a Bismarck, and the business of his life was the founding of a
great kingdom in his mind. He had no time to waste in explan-
ations, for great battles are being fought and the wild wastes of
his world are deluged with blood, and the air tremulous with cries

'The Great Hill of Assist

(From Perugia)


of agony and the bowlings of despair, when not hushed in the icy
silence of eternal cold. And all this you see by the lightof blazing
suns or pale auroras, or flashes of lightning against skies of inky
blackness. Unlike Bismarck, his blood is not real blood and the
darkness is only ink, yet of the two kingdoms I think Blake's
will outlast that of Bismarck.

And then the scenes of serene or solemn peace he leads you into!
To Blake, Death was the stepping from one room to another, for
he was already living in that world of his, and our world was to
him but an illusion and a hindrance. I have thought that, when
I step into that other room, I shall not be afraid to meet St. Peter
and shall not want to argue with St. Paul ; but should I meet
Mr. Blake, I shall remove my nimbus, if I have one, and replace
it on the approach of Bismarck.

In Blake, it depends on what you are looking for. He some-
where sadly remarks, "I know the wicked will turn this into
wickedness, but the wise into wisdom." If you seek for wildness,
extravagance, and the grotesque, you will find it ; for instance
when a friend is invited into his little garden and finds Mr. and
Mrs. Blake sitting in the costume of Nature they were playing
at Adam and Eve ; or when, wishing to be truly Biblical, Blake
had some idea of enlarging the family by the introduction of
a concubine. It is said that Mrs. Blake's bursting into tears put
an end to this last scheme. These two stories, Ellis, who can
prove that black is white, explains away. I think they are worth
saving as stories.

And consider his always contrary way of looking at things. He
sees the same sun you see, but to him it is a red wafer; and the sky
he will just walk down to the end of a lane and touch it with his
stick. No ; his sun is ten thousand angels shouting, Glory to God


in the highest! And angels should the wind sit in that quarter
are mere tools of the Almighty with no wills of their own and
therefore devils ; and devils are angels, with a will capable of defy-
ing the Almighty to all eternity. Another slant of the wind, and
you and I and Blake and God are all one. Of such things in
Blake you will find plenty, and most people will seek no further,
and so, in his art, will stop at his exaggeration, and much of his
writing will repel them. But back of it all is Blake's real world,
where in his art and writings you can find simplicity, grace,
beauty and grandeur, and when these are not fully expressed they
are finely hinted at. But his great wealth of ideas, all clamouring
for expression, must be taken into consideration, and the need of
daily bread, and the empty plate silently set before him by his
patient wife. One wonders what he would have done had his
father been a wealthy wine merchant and left him a great
fortune. I can't imagine him different, for I see him at once
giving it all away. To those who know Blake, nothing need be
said ; I have written this as a hint to those who do not know
him, and also thinking it might interest some to know what
I think. I could easily tell what others think, but that would
be compilation. I do not pretend to measure Blake, that
would be giving my own measure and the comparison would
be disastrous to one I wot of. Also, what I have said may serve
as an answer to a question often asked me, "Why don't you
illustrate the Book of Job?" Let any one look at his illus-
trations of that subject look at them with Blake, not against
him and the "Why?" will be answered. No; that thing has
been done.

To know anything about Blake, it is absolutely necessary to
read the two volumes of Gilchrist's life of him, and all you can of


the three large volumes of Ellis and Yates. Blake is safe ; he will
be more known as time goes on better known to some ; for to
the great majority he will forever remain a sealed book. The key
given us by them is admittedly imperfect ; to me it is like the com-
bination of a combination-lock which I can neither master nor
remember; the explanation is as complicated as the thing ex-
plained. But they are on the right track, and given youth and
a strong mental constitution, under their guidance I might start
on quest for I should like to know. The truth is a temporary
affair constantly changing its position truth to one man,
illusion to another ; or perhaps all is illusion who knows ?

Ellis was always most helpful and also most generous in show-
ing his sketches and stray ideas. Among his drawings was one
with the title, "Vertigo." It represented a gigantic figure stand-
ing on a vertiginous peak, seemingly gazing on limitless space ;
but he was not seeing, he was only staring with wide-open eyes, the
glazed eyeballs devoid of pupils, and you felt dizzy as you looked
at him. In an open sketch-book lying on the table I could not
help seeing a drawing with an inscription which has intrigued me
ever since. It was that of an old woman looking at you but
with such a look. .Under was written "Met her in an old
church in " (and then came the name of town and date) ; "she
gave me the look." The look I saw in the drawing was not of
gladness or sorrow or shame or guilt, but only of wonderful intel-
ligence. What could he have meant by "the look"? Perhaps,
had he told me, the pleasing mystery would have faded away ;
perhaps he did not know what "the look" was himself but it
was a wonderful look. I wonder if there is a secret Society
to which " the look" that look of pure intellect is the pass-
word. Chi lo sa ?


Hotchkiss ! The name how expressive of the man ! I did not
like him at first because I did not understand him, but he became
afterwards my dearest and best-beloved friend.

I remember how once on the occasion of some great festa, on
leaving the Piazza del Popolo with my friend Ross, we left behind
us the crowd and confusion and the noise and blinding glare of the
exploding fireworks, and entered a dark and deserted street and
saw in the sky at the end of it the tranquil moon. I said, " What
a reproof!" and Ross, "Ved., that's a rather good remark
of yours." I thought so myself, and it is just what I feel like
saying again when I meet with a picture by Hotchkiss, after
seeing those of other men. Not a trace of ostentation, but full
of most exquisite, delicate work, and giving just what he saw
and felt some tranquil scene in Nature at her best.

I met Hotchkiss first in Florence. He was a very tall, spare,
delicate-looking man, who had evidently suffered in his youth,
for he had worked in a brickyard under a hard relative who was
strongly opposed to his artistic tendencies, and had evidently
there laid up the germs of that malady which was ultimately to be
the cause of his death. For he died young, and now lies in his neg-
lected grave in the land which he loved so passionately and painted
so lovingly. His art at this time was the pure product of the teach-
ings of Ruskin, and it is strange or has been in my experience
how unsatisfactory that teaching turned out. I was deeply
affected by it myself; Stillman used to avow it had been his artis-
tic ruin ; and Hotchkiss, when I met him again after the War, in
my second return to Europe, vented his indignation in unmistak-
able terms. He said he was honest enough and industrious enough
and loved Nature strongly enough to have gotten on well enough
without having lost years in those Miss-Nancyish efforts so dear



to the readers and practical followers of Ruskin. I know to the
literary mind Ruskin's language is beautifully convincing and
sufficient, and to the moral mind
his real goodness turns aside the
question into a moral question.
Again I must say it is strange
to see how in the practice of his
art-writing, he violates and dis-
regards all those precepts of
strict adherence to truth which
he exacts from the painter. For
instance, the Japanese fulfil to
the letter all his requirements,
and he calls their art the art of
the Devil because they do not
happen to be Christians. But
let all this go ; it is not Hotchkiss,
but has a great deal to do with^

He was somewhat uncouth,
and his recent experience in the
brick-yard an experience use-
less in every way made him somewhat rude, and his insid-
ious malady, pettish ; but he had a sweet smile and the most
beautiful clear eyes I ever saw. Here I will tell of an incident
which I cannot help thinking must have had a great influence
in changing him into the charming companion he became when,
after my equally useless experience during the War, I met him
again in Rome. I go back to Florence. We had been to Volterra
together, where his rudeness must have been at its worst, and


I really began to dislike him. We were now back in Florence,
making careful studies of the Mugnone below Fiesole. He
was on the edge of a little stream, with his long legs twisted
about his three-legged stool in a manner suggesting cork-
screws, when a good old contadinocame down to him and began
talking. He turned to me and said, "V., I wish you would tell
that damned old fool to go away and not bother me." " Do you
know what he is saying ? " " No, and I don't care a damn. "
"Well, I do; you know you are on his land; he says he always
brings down his oxen at this hour to water them, but that he will
take them around another way so as not to disturb you ; and also
that he would like to bring you down a chair, as you must be very
uncomfortable on that stool. In fact, the < damn fool ' is a gentle-
man." He grumbled out something and said no more, but it
must have made him feel very small. Shortly after this I left for
home, and as I have said on my return I found him quite another
man. And then we went sketching on the Campagna, and went
to Perugia, and were always together until he took that last, fatal
trip to Sicily, where, at Taormina, he lies buried.

Our tastes were the same ; we lived together, painted copies in
the Gallery, which was then in an old church where the pictures,
intended for churches, had just the right light, and not as now
in the old Town Hall. I shall never forget those peaceful days
spent in the white light of that calm and spacious church. The
pictures have never seemed the same since they were taken from
their natural home. In Perugia we bric-a-bracked together and
bought all our modest means would allow. It is now heartrend-
ing to think of the treasures we might have secured for almost no-
thing in those days, had we but had the needful money ; Maestro
Giorgio plates, chests, stuffs, rare books, and so forth. Even as


it is, I have some fine things bought after I was married, when we
lived down at the Villa Ansidei.

Hotchkiss was the friend I have told about with whom I went
to see the mountains of Gubbio, and found that the worst plan for
seeing a mountain is to be on it. Remembering the fine views we

had of them when halfway to Gubbio, we went back to a sort of
osteria, and the good people agreed to take us and do what they
could for our comfort. But even then it was a long walk to what
an Englishman would call the sketching-ground. We used to
start early, a boy carrying our traps, and settle near a group of
large oaks on a hill-top. The boy would also bring our lunch.
And there we passed the day and made innumerable sketches of
the mountains, and notes of their ever-changing hues.

It was here that the long, lean, black Perugian pig, with his
enormous snout, afforded us an endless source of interest. The
soil was a yellow clay, and when ploughed was broken up into
large, hard lumps. Over a field of this a drove of pigs, as they


rose and fell with the inequalities of the ground, looked like an-
cient galleys ploughing their way over the sea. I made a drawing
of one for my friend Davies, and called it, in memory of a similar
title in Ruskin ("The Strength of Old Pine"), "The Strength of
Old Pig," and indeed it needed strength to pry apart those
masses of clay, to find, fallen from the trees, an acorn lodged in
some crack, which only the keen scent of the pig could detect.
For the people were desperately poor and every visible thing in
the shape of food was gathered up by the sharp-sighted children.
They were so poor that I saw a man tying up the nose of a dog
winding it round and round with a piece of twine. I said to him,
"What in heaven's name are you doing?" He answered, "He
eats the green Indian corn in the fields." "But," I said, "you
might let him do at least that, if he is so hungry." "There is
not enough for Christians, let alone beasts," he replied. A few
soldi liberated the dog, but it would take more than a few soldi
to help those poor souls. Beasts have no souls in Italy.

Davies, in return for "The Strength of Old Pig," told me the
story of a countryman and a recalcitrant pig. The man, at the
end of his patience, finally addressed the animal in these words,
" May that man die of an apoplexy who wishes you well ! " The
pig was evidently beyond that man's powers of expression. Of
these pigs it might be well said that it would take two of them to
make a shadow but there was one exception, the pig at the
house; he was a Benjamin, he was being fattened up for a pur-
pose, and it was his fate to give an example of the truth of the
proverb that pride goes before a fall. He was one unruffled
mass of chubbiness, the envy of the surrounding swine ; there was
not his like in all the hill-country of Gubbio. I had heard prepara-
tions, and arose early and looked from the window. There on the


white road he was cheerfully ambling along, and in his glee would
wantonly pick up a straw and give it to the merry breezes to be
borne away, as if in sport ; and all the while on a low, long bench
were the sharpened knives and before it a huge, green bowl ; and
more a man of giant frame stood there, holding in his hand
behind his back an apple. All was prepared and he yet went on
with his heedless sport. Blind ! Blind ! How often have I not seen
these preparations and the apple under other forms ! I draw the
veil for a moment. When he next made his appearance, it was in
another character: stuffed with sweet-smelling mountain herbs,
roasted whole, he now came forth the finest roast pig ever seen in
all that countryside. In fact the countryside responded with en-
thusiasm. The wine was broached and soon the back of the land-
lord's door was filled with chalk-marks and crosses. It was a red-
letter day, or rather a white-letter day, long remembered for
afterwards the good man, pointing to those chalk-marks and
crosses, said that that record was all he had to show for this
most successful festa.

Up on the hillside where we worked under the shade of the oaks
while the sun blazed beyond, we took after our lunch our siestas.
Here one day I saw a curious thing. High up in the sun-blanched
sky I noticed a white ring of cloud just such as the smoker makes.
It lasted quite a while and then melted absolutely away. I knew
where it had appeared, for it was just beyond a certain branch of
the tree under which I was lying. After a doze, I was amazed to
see again the ring in precisely the same place it had been be-
fore ; then I watched it with great interest ; it again disappeared
as it did at first. I then waited for it, and again it appeared and
as utterly disappeared as before. It must have been a movement
of the air, which near the water would have produced a water-


spout ; had I had a glass, no doubt I should have seen it revolv-
ing rapidly.

Near this spot I found a beautiful subject. It was one of those
little hermit-like hamlets left over from the Middle Ages ; it had
its strong tower, the houses themselves formed the walls, leaving
in the centre the usual piazza, and outside, the little church. All
is up and down in that country, and so while crowning a hill it
was far below us. It was evening; and so it was in a vast shad-
owed foreground, while the pale, barren mountains back of it
had taken on a rosy glow. A slender thread of blue smoke arose
from one of the houses one evening meal at least was being
prepared. I found this subject, but Hotchkiss fell deeply in love
with it and begged to be allowed to paint it also. This he did
most exquisitely, and I see it with ever-renewed delight in the
house of a friend here in Rome.

Our lodging was rude enough, but the people were simple and
good people, as people go. The beds of corn-husks were so high
that Hotchkiss got into his by means of a chair, while I, trusting
in my agility, tried to jump up on mine, but failed until I had
backed out and taken a running start. Through the cracks in the
floor we could see the contadini drinking in the room below, and
I venture to say that some of them must have spent as much as
three soldi apiece for wine at times but that was not often. I
once asked a boy who had done me a favour, to take a glass of
wine, but he, thanking me, replied that he could not, for wine
made his head ache. Think of a boy saying that in my early days I

The landlady would reach out, grab a passing chicken, and,
wringing its neck, would throw it to the girl and say, "Here,
peel that for the gentlemen's supper ! " Yet both she and the
pretty girl wept when we left, and the good man bade us fare-



well for ever, as he was passing away as Hotchkiss was con-
sumption ; and so those days, never again. And yet I had had,
and was to have, many happy days with my friend before " the
destroyer of delights and the separator of companions" made
his appearance.

On reading this over, I find I have said nothing about his art.
He was careful from the beginning to the end of a picture, taking
every precaution that it should be enduring work. His view of
Mount Etna is marvellous in its detailed accuracy ; the eye seek-
ing for it, can trace the tracks of every eruption ancient and mod-
ern and yet with all this detail the vast space is filled in with
a clear and delicate atmosphere. Some day his name will not be
left out as it is now in the History of American Art.

Monte Cologniola was very much my idea of a hermitage. You
could have people about, or be alone, when you wished. Now at
Perugia, down at the villa, you were surrounded by contadini to
such an extent that you could not stir out of the house without at
least eight pairs of eyes gazing at you. Even up in the trees they
were, with long sacks, stripping off the leaves for the oxen, the
sacks looking like huge caterpillars, making a premature autumn
in the midst of summer. And then no matter how fond you may
be of the family, you can have too much of family complications.
The incessant interruptions are always so reasonable it seems
ungrateful or boorish to complain, and your work suffers. At
Monte Cologniola, all was peace ; no more the anxious question of
what are we to do about our maid and the carabiniere, as it were,
and a thousand other little problems. Count Ansidei's contadino,
who took charge of the villa, had a most convenient way of divid-
ing up history : the Etruscan tombs, for instance, near us were


of the time of the Antichi the Ancients ; anything medieval was
of the time of the Affanni or of the time of the Troubles, which
pretty well describes that complicated period. Monte Cologniola
stands on a hill overlooking the beautiful lake of Trasimeno, and
served to prevent Perugia being taken unaware or by surprise,
from the direction of Florence, and dates from the time of the
"troubles." The lake is the colour of a turquoise, and at sun-
set becomes streaked with ribbons of marvellous hues but
then comes the chill and the malaria ; you see the colour of that
in the faces of all who live on its borders.

It has but two streets, and the kind paternal government had
put a nice new number on each house, for the better collection of
the taxes ; and that was all, unless it gave the name of Corso Vit-
torio Emanuele to the largest street. When I painted this street,
looking toward the only church, I put in it, pacing along, a soli-
tary goose, and called it the "Pride of the Corso." It had a
church and tower, two gates with their towers also, a small town
hall, a wonderful cistern well, and the Count's house, where lived
his esattore. In fact, the Count owned the town, but I took posses-
sion of it in the following manner. I first gave a few soldi to all
the old and infirm, and to make myself solid with the young, who
can be very annoying to the stranger, I had bought in Perugia a
stock of those good, hard, solid balls of candy such as dissolve
slowly in the mouth and can be loaned to a friend for an indefin-
ite period without sensibly diminishing their bulk ; this, and al-
ways giving ten soldi to those who posed, and two adamant balls
to the boy who kept the rest off, made me master of the place. I
made a good old frateof the church my friend, and in the evenings
he and the esattore and I used to have long talks sitting at the
door of the palazzo. At a certain point at Ave Maria the


old frate would rise, cross himself, and muttering a prayer would
resume his seat, saying, " I beg your pardon, you were talking of
the tall buildings in New York ; pray continue." Later, when the
evenings became chilly, we would sit in the only big room, with
the life-sized portraits of the Knights of Malta, and the little girl
would throw on the fire dry ginestra from time to time, and
light up the Knights on their loose canvases, while I told long
stories of strange adventures. I think my whaling stories had the
greatest success, for my friend Y., who came to stop a day or two,
said, " By Jove ! do you know I believe I was as much interested
as any of the others. Where in the world did you pick up such
a lot of stuff?"

My first stay was a month, and I painted all the best bits,
and going back I made another stay about as long and put in all
the figures, for I painted always with reference to that, and kept
about three or four things going each day. It was delightful and
so peaceful. One place a most retired spot overlooking the
lake near a contadino's house I felt persuaded must have been
the spot where some great Roman senator, weary of his cares and
dignities, must have retired to, for rest and peace ; for I always
fancied him in his ample toga sitting in the shade of the trees at
a stone table, and taking fruit and wine brought him by the

Online LibraryElihu VedderThe digressions of V. → online text (page 24 of 29)