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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 27, January, 1860 online

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THE

ATLANTIC MONTHLY,

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. V. - JANUARY, 1860. - NO. XXVII.




OUR ARTISTS IN ITALY.

HIRAM POWERS.


Antique Art, beside affording a standard by which the modern may be
measured, has the remarkable property-giving it a higher value - of
testing the genuineness of the Art-impulse.

Even to genius, that is, to the artist, a true Art-life is difficult
of attainment. In the midst of illumination, there is the mystery: the
subjective mystery, out of which issue the germs - like seeds floated
from unknown shores - of his imaginings; the objective mystery, which
yields to him, through obvious, yet unexplained harmonies, the means of
manifestation.

Behind the consciousness is the power; behind the power, that which
gives it worth and occupation.

To the artist definite foresight is denied. His life is full of
surprises at new necessities. When the present demand shall have been
fulfilled, what shall follow? Shall it be Madonna, or Laocoön? His
errand is like that of the commander who bears sealed instructions; and
he may drift for years, ere he knows wherefore. Thorwaldsen waited,
wandering by the Tiber a thousand days, - then in one, uttered his
immortal "Night."

Not even the severest self-examination will enable one in whom the
Art-impulse exists to understand thoroughly its aim and uses; yet to
approximate a clear perception of his own nature and that of the art to
which he is called is one of his first duties. What he is able to do,
required to do, and permitted to do, are questions of vital importance.

Possession of himself, of himself in the highest, will alone enable the
student in Art to solve the difficulties of his position. His habitual
consciousness must be made up of the noblest of all that has been
revealed to it; otherwise those fine intuitions, akin to the ancient
inspirations, through whose aid genius is informed of its privileges,
are impossible.

Therefore the foremost purpose of an artist should be to claim and take
possession of self. Somewhere within is his inheritance, and he must not
be hindered of it. Other men have other gifts, - gifts bestowed under
different conditions, and subject in a great degree to choice. Talent is
not fastidious. It is an instrumentality, and its aim is optional with
him who possesses it. Genius is exquisitely fastidious, and the man whom
it possesses must live its life, or no life.

In view of these considerations, the efforts of an artist to assume his
true position must be regarded with earnest interest, and importance
must be attached to that which aids him in attaining to his true plane.

Such aid may be, and is, derived from the influences of Italy. Of those
agencies which have a direct influence upon the action of the artist,
which serve to assist him in manifesting his idea and fulfilling his
purpose, mention will be made in connection with the works which have
been produced in Italian studios. They have less importance than that
great element related to the innermost of the artist's life, - to that
power of which we have spoken, making Art-action necessary.

It is not, however, exclusively antique Art which exercises this power
of elevation. Ancient Art may be a better term; as all great Art bears
a like relation to the student. In Florence the mediaeval influences
predominate. Rome exercises _its_ power through the medium of the
antique.

There is much Christian Art in Rome. Yet its effect is insignificant,
compared with that of the vast collection of Greek sculptures to be
found within its walls. Instinctively, as the vague yearnings and
prophecies of youth lift him in whom they quicken away from youth's
ordinary purposes and associations, his thought turns to that far city
where are gathered the achievements of those who were indeed the gods of
Hellas. To be there, and to demand from those eloquent lips the secret
of the golden age, is his dream and aim, and there shall be solved the
problem of his life.

But antique Art, waiting so patiently twenty centuries to afford aid to
the artist, waits also to sit in judgment upon his worth and acts. Woe
to him who cannot pass the ordeal of its power, and explain the enigma
of its speech!

Nothing can be more pitiful and sad than the condition of one who,
having been subjected to the influence of ancient Art, has not had the
ability to recognize or the earnestness of purpose essential to the
apprehension of the truths which it has for his soul instead of his
hands. But if, through truthfulness of aim, and a sense of the divine
nature of the errand to which he seems appointed, he reach the law
of Art, then henceforth its pursuit becomes the sign of life; if the
impulse bear him no farther than rules, then all he produces goes forth
as a proclamation of death. There is no middle path. Art is high or low:
high, if it be the profoundest life of an earnest man, uttering itself
in the _real_, even though it be awkwardly, and in violation of all
accepted methods of expression; low, if it be not such utterance, even
though consummate in obedience to the finest rules of all Art-science.
There can be no other way. The life is in the man, and not in the stone;
and no affectation of vitality can atone for the absence of that soul
which should have been breathed into existence from his own divine life.

As was said, possession of self is the only condition under which the
quantity and quality of the Art-impulse may be determined. It is only
when a man stands face to face with himself, in the stillness of his own
inner world, that his possibilities become apparent; and it is only when
conscious of these, and inspired by a just sense of their dignity, that
he can achieve that which shall be genuine success. _Once_ he must be
lifted away and isolated from worldly surroundings, relieved from all
objective influences, from the pressure of all human relations; once the
very memory of all these must be blotted out; once he must be alone.
This is possible to a Mendelssohn in the awful solitude of Beethoven's
"Sonate Pathétique," to a painter in the presence of Leonardo's "Last
Supper," and to a sculptor in the hushed halls of the Vatican.

But that which lifts the true artist above externals, the externals of
his own individual being, crushes the false, to whom the marble and the
paint are in themselves the ultimate.

This train of thought has been suggested by the fact of the dominion
which classic Art has acquired over sculptors, and by the influence of
the sixteenth and seventeenth century schools upon painters. It is due,
however, to our sculptors in Italy that credit should be given them
for having resisted the influence of forms, of the mere letter of the
classic, to a greater extent than the students of any other nation.
Whether or not they have been receptive of the spirit of the antique
remains to be seen.

American painters have been less fortunate. Too often the lessons of the
old masters, and especially those of the earliest, the Puritan Fathers
of Art, have been unheeded; or the rules and practices which served them
temporarily, subject to the phase of the ideal for the time uppermost,
have passed into permanent laws, to be obeyed under all conditions of
Art-utterance.

The United States have had within the last twenty years as many as
thirty sculptors and painters resident in Italy. At the beginning of the
present year ten sculpture studios in Rome and Florence were occupied
by Americans. We will speak of these artists in the order in which they
entered the profession of an art which they have served to develop
in this first period of its history in America. The eldest bears the
honored name of Hiram Powers.

Three parties have been remarkably unjust to this man, - namely, his
friends, his enemies, and himself.

Neither the artist nor his friends need feel solicitude for his fame.
The exact value of his excellence shall be estimated, and the height of
his genius fully recognized, when the right man comes. Other award than
that from an age on a level with his own life can be of small worth to
one who has attained to the true level of Art. Fame must come to him of
that vision which can pierce the external of his work and penetrate to
the presence of his very soul. His action must be traced to its finest
ideal motive, - as chemist-philosophers pursue the steps of analysis
until opaque matter is resolved to pure, ethereal elements. His fame
must be from such vision, and it will approach the universal just in
proportion as his pulse beats in unison with the heart of mankind.
Whatever may be an artist's plans, or those of his friends, in regard to
his valuation by the world, while he is living, ultimately he himself,
divested of all save his own individuality, must stand revealed.

Those who in other departments of action are necessarily governed
somewhat, or it may be entirely, by rules of conduct general in nature
and universal in application, may fail to receive or may escape justice.
They are to a great degree involuntary agents, and subject to the laws
of science, to the operations of which they are obliged to conform.
The private fact of the man is hidden by the public general truth. If,
however, the energies of the individual overtop the science, enabling
him to assert himself above the summit of its history, then is he
accessible to all generations, and can in no wise avoid or forfeit his
just fame.

In Art, this intimate relation of the result of action to the actor is
complete, - inasmuch as, to _be_ Art, to rise above being something
else, the shadow and mockery of Art, it must be of and from the man, a
spontaneity, a reflection, light for light, shade for shade, color for
color, of his entire being; and with this effect his will has little to
do. Therefore, unless he be an impostor, he need give himself no trouble
regarding his future. His works shall serve as a clue, produced century
after century, along which posterity shall feel its way back to his
studio and heart. No need of thought for _his_ morrow.

But for his to-day he may well be solicitous. If fame be his reflection,
he has also the shadow of himself, his reputation.

It is a great error to assume that these two effects are so related that
the augmentation of the one must increase the other, and as great a
mistake to confound the two. The truth is, that reputation and fame are
rarely coincident. They are not unfrequently in direct opposition, - so
much so, that some names, which the world cannot give up, have to
be filtered through a thick mass of years, to purify them of their
reputations, and leave them simply famous.

No name has suffered more than that of Powers. His friends, blind to the
laws which govern these matters, have wrought bravely to construct for
him a reputation commensurate with his vaguely imagined worth; but upon
his real worth they have evinced no desire to lay their foundation. No
accurate survey has been made of his abilities, no definite plan of
his artist-nature. Often a place has been demanded for his name in the
history of Art, and the first place too, because of his fine frank eye,
or the simplicity of his manners, - because his workmen cut the chain of
the Greek slave out of one piece of stone, or the marble of the statue
itself had no spot as big as a pin-head, - because he himself chooses to
rasp and scrape plaster, rather than model in plastic clay, - because he
tinkered up the "infernal regions" of the Cincinnati Museum years ago,
or spends his time now in making perforating-machines and perforated
files; in fine, for _any_ reason rather than for the right legitimate
one of artistic merit, they have demanded room for their favorite.

Even those who look deeper than this, appreciating Mr. Powers as
a gentleman, an ingenious mechanic, and a skillful manipulator in
sculpture, have been content or constrained to urge his claims to
attention upon false considerations. We have heard it gravely remarked,
as a matter of astonishment, that there were individuals - refined men,
apparently - who looked upon the Venus de' Medici as a finer work than
the Greek Slave. In the files of a New York paper may be found an
article, written by a highly cultivated man, in which Powers's busts are
asserted to be rather the effect of miracles than the results of _human_
effort. The spirit which has prompted these and many kindred expressions
cannot be too much deplored by those who love Art and know the artist.
It has succeeded in creating for him a reputation broad and remarkable,
but most unfortunate, because not his own, because not the reputation
which should have formed about his name here, as fame will yonder;
unfortunate, because, though broad, it is the breadth of an inverted
pyramid, which must naturally topple over of itself, and incumber his
path with ruins.

The false position in which Mr. Powers has been placed by his friends
has of course won him many enemies.

Bold, sincere, working enemies are highly useful in developing an
artist's character, especially if he be a law-abiding follower of the
art. But enemies must be dealers of fair blows, wagers of honorable
warfare; no assassin is worthy of the name of enemy. Sometimes, however,
those who are worthy of the name, and entitled to respect, may make
injudicious and unfair use of censure and invective. It is unwise, when
the necessity arises to set aside a worthless or an imperfect image, to
turn Iconoclast and demolish those surrounding it which are worthy of a
place in the temple. True criticism, for its own sake, if prompted by no
higher motive, deals justly.

The friends of Mr. Powers have, in their estimate of his ability, given
him credit for that which he does not possess, and claimed recognition
for merit unsupported by the value of his works. His enemies have
labored assiduously, not only to deprive the estimate of its unwarranted
quantity, but to overthrow the whole, and leave him merely a mechanic,
a dexterous mechanic, with small views, but large ambition, trying
to pass himself off as an artist. His busts are asserted to be
but more elaborate examples of his skill in the
"perforated-file-and-patent-punch" line.

But as the struggles to elevate this artist's reputation above its
proper level have proved signal failures, so the effort to depreciate
it must ultimately be defeated. Only one kind of injustice ever proves
irreparable wrong: that which a man exercises towards himself. Mr.
Powers _had_ a specialty.

So constituted that the most difficult executive operations are to him
but play and pleasure, he has also, to govern and inform this rare
organization, a broad, manly, and most genial human nature. This
combination decided the question of his proper mission, and in virtue of
it he has been enabled to model a series of most remarkable busts, the
true excellence of which must be recognized in spite of friends and
foes, and the epithets "miraculous" and "mechanical."

It is possible that the highest type of portrait-sculpture is beyond the
limit of this specialty; indeed, it is almost impossible that with the
elements constituting it there should be associated the still rarer
power to achieve the most exalted ideal Art; and such Art we believe the
highest portraiture to be.

A consummate representation of a man in his divinest development, the
last refined ideal of him _then_, would be indeed somewhat miraculous!

The world asks less. It claims to know of a man what the face of him
became under the influences of human, temporal relations. It wants
preserved of the statesman the statesman's face, of the merchant the
merchant's face; and this demand, when governed by a cultivated taste,
is a legitimate one, - as legitimate as is the demand for any history.
The public requires the image of the man whom the public knew, and
they regard as valuable that which can be received as a definite and
trustworthy statement of a great man, or of one whom it esteemed great.
It requires this, has a right to such information; and the generation
which fails to demand of its artists a true record of its prominent men
fails utterly in its duty. The bust of a man goes down to posterity, not
only the history which it is in itself, but as an interpreter of the
history of its age. Were it not for Art, an age would recede into the
unknown, to be recorded as dark, or into the shadowy world of myth.
Portraiture, more than aught else, serves to elucidate the tradition or
story of a people. How impossible to explain to the twentieth century
the bad mystery of our present, without the aid of Powers's head of
Calhoun, the less adequate bust of Stephen A. Douglas, and the one which
_should_ be modelled of Mr. Buchanan! A faithful delineation of the
features of some men is needful. We should be thankful for that black
frown of Nero, for the bald pate of Scipio, for those queer eyes of
Marius, and for the long neck of Cicero, as seen in the newly discovered
bust. These are the signs of the men, and explain them.

Mr. Powers has succeeded in reporting more accurately than any other
recent artist the physical facts of the individual face. From one of his
marbles we derive definite ideas of the human character of its subject,
what its ambition is, and what its weakness; what have been its loves
and its antipathies, its struggles and its victories, its joys and its
sorrows, may be revealed to him who has learned what the human face
becomes under the influence of these incessant forces. No mere _talent_
can accomplish such results. Behind all that kind of strength lies
the fact of peculiar sympathies, relating the artist to this phase of
Art-representation; and within certain limits, which should have been
undebatable, his rule was absolute.

The great mistake with Mr. Powers has been his oversight regarding these
limits. There has been debate, hesitation, and a continual wandering
away from the duties of his errand. Years have been devoted to those
ghosts of sculpture, allegorical figures; other years wasted in the
elaboration of machinery. Not that his ideal statues are worthless, or
fall short of great beauty and exquisite delicacy; not that his skill
as a mechanician is other than great. But the age cannot afford these
things, nor can the sculptor afford them. A year is too great a sum to
give for a statue of California. Better than that, the several portraits
of valued men which might have been acquired, - one bust, even, like
those which surprised and compelled the reverence of Thorwaldsen. Better
the perfected ability which would have given his country the Webster he
should and might have made than a hundred "Americas."

There are two considerations which may have misled Mr. Powers. One, a
pecuniary one, which he should have disposed of as did Agassiz, when
such was advanced to induce him to give lyceum lectures: - "Sir, I
cannot afford to make money!" The other may have been the weight of the
prevailing error that portrait-sculpture is a less honorable branch of
Art.

Less than what? The historical? What finer history than Titian's Paul
III., Raphael's Leo X., Albert Dürer's head of himself? What finer than
the Pericles, the Marcus Aurelius of the Capitol, the Demosthenes of the
Vatican, Chantrey's Scott, Houdon's Voltaire, Powers's Jackson? - Heroic?
what more heroic than the Lateran Sophocles, the Venetian Colleoni, or
Rauch's statue of Frederick the Great? - Poetical? What picture more
sweetly poetical than Raphael's head of himself in the Uffizi, or
Giotto's Dante in the Bargello? What _ideal_ statue surpasses in
poetical power Michel Angelo's De' Medici in the San Lorenzo Chapel?
What ideal head is more beautiful than the Townley Clytie of the British
Museum, or the Young Augustus of the Vatican? What grander than Da
Vinci's portrait of himself?

No, - when the sculptor has wrought the adequate representation of the
individual in its best estate, he may rest assured that he has achieved
"high Art."

Let us not be unjust to Mr. Powers's ideal works. In the qualities of
chasteness of conception, delicacy of treatment, temperate grace, and
that rarer, finer quality of dignified repose, they have not been
surpassed since the time of Greek Art. When the subject chosen has not
been foreign to the artist's nature, as in the "Eve," nor foreign to the
Art's province, as in the "California," his success has been very like a
triumph.

But the success has not been that which he was entitled to grasp; the
seeming triumph has precluded a real victory. We must believe that
the highest lessons of ancient Art have, in a great measure, been
unrecognized by Mr. Powers. The external has been studied. No man can
talk more justly of that exquisite line of the Venus de' Medici's temple
and cheek, or point out more discriminatingly the beauties of the Milo
statue, or detect more quickly the truths of the antique busts. He has
discovered, also, somewhat of the great secret of repose, - has perceived
that it is essential, in some wise, to all greatness in Art, more
particularly in his own department of sculpture. But beyond that simple
recognition of the fact, what? That repose is dependent on power to act,
and must be great in proportion to mightiness of power? No, he could not
have seen this; else had his Webster come to us less questionable in
intent, less remote in its merits from the massive self-possession of
the man.

For what Mr. Powers became before he left America he cannot be praised
too greatly. He carried with him to Europe just that knowledge of Nature
and that executive power which prepared him to take advantage of the aid
that all great Art was waiting to afford. Had he won "the large truth,"
he would have found the scope and purpose of his genius, as in America
he had found that of his talent. He would have seen his specialty to be
worthy of all reverence, for he would have attained to an appreciation
of the high possibilities of portrait-Art. There would have been
developed, under the influence of great principles, the power to make
_statues_ of great men, - colossal, instead of big, - reposeful, instead
of paralyzed, - grand, instead of arrogant, - statues worthy of the hand
that wrought the busts of Calhoun, Jackson, and Webster, worthy to rank
with the few mighty embodiments of power, the Sophocles, the Aristides,
and the Demosthenes. This he might have done; and this he may yet
accomplish.




THE AMBER GODS.


STORY FIRST.

_Flower o' the Peach._


We've some splendid old point-lace in our family, yellow and fragrant,
loose-meshed. It isn't every one has point at all; and of those who
have, it isn't every one can afford to wear it. I can. Why? Oh, because
it's in character. Besides, I admire point any way, - it's so becoming;
and then, you see, this amber! Now what is in finer unison, this old
point-lace, all tags and tangle and fibrous and bewildering, and this
amber, to which Heaven knows how many centuries, maybe, with all their
changes, brought perpetual particles of increase? I like yellow things,
you see.

To begin at the beginning. My name, you're aware, is Giorgione
Willoughby. Queer name for a girl! Yes; but before papa sowed his wild
oats, he was one afternoon in Fiesole, looking over Florence nestled
below, when some whim took him to go into a church there, a quiet place,
full of twilight and one great picture, nobody within but a girl and
her little slave, - the one watching her mistress, the other saying
dreadfully devout prayers on an amber rosary, and of course she didn't
see him, or didn't appear to. After he got there, he wondered what
on earth he came for, it was so dark and poky, and he began to feel
uncomfortably, - when all of a sudden a great ray of sunset dashed
through the window, and drowned the place in the splendor of the
illumined painting. Papa adores rich colors; and he might have been
satiated here, except that such things make you want more. It was a
Venus; - no, though, it couldn't have been a Venus in a church, could it?
Well, then, a Magdalen, I guess, or a Madonna, or something. I fancy the
man painted for himself, and christened for others. So, when I was born,
some years afterward, papa, gratefully remembering this dazzling little
vignette of his youth, was absurd enough to christen me Giorgione.
That's how I came by my identity; but the folks all call me Yone, - a
baby name.

I'm a blonde, you know, - none of your silver-washed things. I wouldn't
give a _fico_ for a girl with flaxen hair; she might as well be a wax
doll, and have her eyes moved by a wire; besides, they've no souls.


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 05, No. 27, January, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 20)