Winslow Homer, The Obtuse Bard
Part II -- Childhood
copyright 1990 Peter W. Bueschen
|Washington Allston was esteemed with veneration as the
living spirit of the great masters of the past. He epitomized the aspiration
for the ideal. Both as a poet and a painter he was accorded universal esteem.
Receiving high honors in England, made an associate member of the Royal
Academy, and recognized as one of the most promising of the younger artists,
on returning to America in 1818, ill in health, he lived in a dream world
of nostalgic memory. Unlike his American predecessors in England, who had
specialized in portraiture, Allston's vision was formulated by the Italian
masters, imbued with the fervor of imaginative contemplation. Reticent
by nature, he did not compete for popularity. His work was intimatedly
known to but few of his contemporaries until his first collective exhibition
in Chester Harding's studio in 1839. Absorbed in poetic and philosophic
reverie, he passed his working days in the studio adjacent to his house
in Cambridgeport. His pictures were the inner vision of his aesthetic contemplation,
and much of his lifework remained secluded in his studio. His Belshazzar's
Feast, the first full-sized study of which was made in London in 1817,
remained unfinished at his death in 1843. Nevertheless, Washington
Allston was the one artist whom all agreed in venerating as a genius. This
was true not only in America. Coleridge, with whom Allston was closely
associated in Rome and later in England, said that "he was gifted
with an artistic and poetic genius unsurpassed by any man of his age,"
while Wordsworth declared that Allston's portrait of Coleridge "is
the only likeness that ever gave me pleasure." Washington Irving writes
in reminiscence of Allston as "a man whose memory I hold in reverence
and affection, as one of the purest, noblest, and most intellectual beings
that ever honored me with his friendship." Griswold, in Poets and
Poetry of America published in 1842, a year before Allston's death, summarized
his eulogy: "Although Allston owed his chief celebrity to his paintings,
which will preserve for his name a place in the list of the greatest artists
of all nations and ages, his literary works alone would have given him
a high rank among men of genius." This high praise was not sustained,
but is a symptom of the cultural aspiration of the age.note
from Eliot Clark, N.A., History of the National Academy of Design 1825-1953
Painter/poet, Washington Allston, was 63 in 1842 when the family of six year old Winslow Homer moved across the Charles River from Boston to a house in Cambridge on Main Streetnote 2 opposite Dana Streetnote 3 . The Homer house was but half a mile from Allston's house and studio at Auburn and Magazine Streets.note 4 Homer's mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, was moving back to her hometown, for she had lived in Cambridge from about 1810 when she was two years old until she married Charles Savage Homer in 1833. Cambridge was still a small rural townnote 5 .
The year the Homers moved to Cambridge, Allston's former student Samuel Finley Morse was in New York experimenting with telegraphy and President of the National Academy of Design, a position he held since its founding in 1826.note 6 Allston had been living in Cambridgeport since 1830, when he married Martha Dana, sister of his friend Richard Henry Dana, Sr. and cousin of his first wife who had died in England in 1815. Allston had most likely known Martha since childhood, for her family had gone each summer to her Grandfather Ellery's home in Newport,note 7 where Allston had been friends with another of Ellery's grandchildren, William Ellery Channing, a schoolmate at Robert Rogers school. One year older, Channing was also the brother of Allston's first wife. Channing died of typhoid fever in the Autumn of 1842, the year the Homer family moved to Cambridge.
That first winter that Winslow Homer lived in Cambridge (1842/1843), Allston read his lectures on art to professor/poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future Harvard president, but then professor, Cornelius Felton. He also often discussed his lectures with his brother-in-law, Richard Henry Dana Sr.note 8
The next Summer, Allston died quite suddenly on July 9th. Winslow Homer was seven years old. After a service in Allston's homenote 9 , there was a funeral procession to the Cambridge Burying Ground, next to the old church across from Harvard Square, where Harvard students joined the procession carrying torches.note 10 Allston's funeral procession was most likely seen by Winslow Homer as it passed in front of his house on Main Street, sometime after eight o'clock in the evening of July 10, 1843.note 11
Winslow Homer grew up surrounded by the legend of Washington Allston. In 1844, William Wetmore Story published his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, giving tribute to Allston. There were annual exhibitions of Allston's unfinished painting Belshazzar's Feast . There was an exhibit of unfinished works in 1847. The first exhibit in the Athenaeum's new building in 1850 was of 49 of Allston's works. Allston's widow remained in the same house, but her nephew, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (author of Two Years Before the Mast ), and his wife moved into the house with her. Allston's Lectures on Art were finally published in 1850, edited by Dana Jr. while he was still living with his Aunt Martha. In 1852, William Ware's Lectures on Allston were posthumously published. In 1857, Elizabeth Peabodynote 12 published an article titled "Last Evening with Allston," which would again be reprinted in her book published in 1886 of the same name. An Allston Association was formed in Baltimore in 1859. In 1866, The Allston Club was formed in Boston, under the leadership of William Morris Hunt (former teacher of William James, Henry James and John LaFarge). Homer's friend John LaFarge, who also admired Allston, had learned of Allston through William Morris Hunt.note 13
Mrs. Homer would have known most anyone with a long association with Cambridge, and probably knew Washington Allston, his wife Martha, and Richard Henry Dana, Sr., but the fact that the Homers were Congregationalists made that even more likely.note 14 In Boston, Homer's father had belonged to the Hanover Street Congregational Church from July 1827 and its replacement, after it burned down, the Bowdoin Street Church. Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and many other famous children) was the pastor until 1832. Gordon Hendricks suggests in his book about Homer that Winslow may have been named after Hubbard Winslow, Beecher's successor at the Bowdoin Street Churchnote 15 . Records show that Mrs. Homer transferred to the Bowdoin Street Church in 1836, from the Park Street Congregational Church.note 16 In the early 1830's, at the height of the controversy between the Trinitarians and Unitarians, Richard Henry Dana Sr. (Allston's brother-in-law) wrote articles published in Beecher's paper, The Spirit of the Pilgrim . The controversy was not just theoretical for Congregational churches had become Unitarian when a majority of the members voted to change. Members who remained Congregationalist had to find a new place to worship. Pastors, who were not part of the change, lost the church buildings and a majority of their flocks. In Cambridge, this happened to Dr. Abiel Holmes (father of medical doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes and grandfather of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) when the First Parish Church (the one next to the Cambridge Burying Ground), founded in February 1636 with Thomas Shepard as minister,note 17 became Unitarian. One history of Cambridge reported,
The majority of the parish dismissed Dr. Holmes, and the church went out with him. Some members remained in the old house, but the church, acting "as a church in a religious point of view, having the ordinances administered and other religious offices performed," went out with the pastor. There were, then, under the decision of the Supreme Court, the church as a purely religious organization, and that connected with the parish.note 18
Sweetser reported in his 1879 biography of Allston,
The Shepard Congregational Society was formed in 1829, when the old First Parish in Cambridge became Unitarian. In 1830-31 the new society built a meeting-house, partly from plans furnished by Allston, who used to lead out his friends and visitors at evening to a point about a third of a mile southeast of the building, and bid them to admire it [the evening], repeating the lines:
"If thou wouldst view fair Melrose aright,
Go visit it by the pale moonlight."
After leaving Boston, Allston usually attended this church, with which his wife and her family were closely connected,note 19 finding there as strong a defence of Trinitarianism as in his own Episcopal Church. On saints's days and other high ecclesiastical festivals he used to attend service at St. Paul's in Boston.note 20
Although Homer's mother was an amateur artist and taught Winslow to draw and paint, it is important to realize just how close the influence of Washington Allston's ideas was to Winslow Homer. Winslow Homer grew up surrounded by the works and ideas of Allston and people who knew and revered him. Allston's ideas must have been the very foundation of Homer's ideas about art.
Coleridge thought Allston's view was unique. Consider this about Allston's view of nature, found in an introduction to an Oxford edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria ,
'To you alone,' writes Coleridge to Allston in 1815, 'does it seem to have been given to know what nature is -- not the dead shapes, the outward letter, but nature revealing itself in the phenomena, or rather attempting to reveal itself. Now the power of producing the true ideals is no other, in my belief, than to take the will for the deed. The great artist does that which nature would do, if only the disturbing forces were abstracted.'note 21
Allston wrote of himself for William Dunlap who in 1834 published a three volume History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States :
To go back as far as I can -- I remember that I used to draw before I left Carolina, at six years of age (by the way no uncommon thing), and still earlier, that my favorite amusement, much akin to it, was making little landscapes about the roots of an old tree in the country -- meagre enough, no doubt; the only particulars of which I can call to mind, were a cottage built of sticks, shaded by little trees, which were composed of the small suckers (I think so called), resembling miniature trees, which I gathered in the woods. Another employment was the converting the forked stalks of the wild ferns into little men and women, by winding about them different colored yarn. These were sometimes presented with pitchers made of the pomegranate flower. These childish fancies were the straws by which, perhaps, an observer might then have guessed which way the current was setting for after life.note 22
But even these delights would sometimes give way to a stronger love for the wild and the marvellous. I delighted in being terrified by the tales of witches and hags, which the negroes used to tell me; and I well remember with how much pleasure I recalled these feelings on my return to Carolina; especially on revisiting a gigantic wild grapevine in the woods, which had been the favorite swing for one of these witches.note 23
Further on Allston is quoted,
I cannot but think that the life of an artist, whether painter or poet, depends much on a happy youth; I do not mean as to outward circumstances, but as to his inward being: in my own case, at least, I feel the dependence; for I seldom step into the ideal world but I find myself going back to the age of first impressions.note 24 The germs of our best thoughts are certainly often to be found there; sometimes, indeed (though rarely), we find them in full flower; and when so, how beautiful seem to us these flowers through an atmosphere of thirty years? 'Tis in this way that poets and painters keep their minds young. How else could an old man make the page or canvas palpitate with the hopes, and fears, and joys, the impetuous, impassioned, emotions of youthful lovers, or reckless heroes? There is a period of life when the ocean of time seems to force upon the mind a barrier against itself, forming, as it were, a permanent beach, on which the advancing years successively break, only to be carried back by a returning current to that furthest deep whence they first flowed. Upon this beach the poetry of life may be said to have its birth; where the real ends and the ideal begins.note 25
Richard Henry Dana, Jr. wrote this of his Uncle Allston, in his preface to Allston's Lectures on Art , which he edited and published in 1850 (when Winslow was 14).
The character of Mr. Allston's religious feelings may be gathered, incidentally, from many of his writings. It is a subject to be treated with the reserve and delicacy with which he himself would have had it invested. Few minds have been more thoroughly imbued with belief in the reality of the unseen world; few have given more full assent to the truth, that "the things which are seen are temporal, the things which are not seen are eternal." This was not merely an adopted opinion, a conviction imposed upon his understanding; it was of the essence of his spiritual constitution, one of the conditions of his rational existence.note 26 To him, the Supreme Being was no vague, mystical source of light and truth, or an impersonation of goodness and truth themselves; nor, on the other hand, a cold rationalistic notion of an unapproachable executor of natural and moral laws. His spirit rested in the faith of a sympathetic God. His belief was in a Being as infinitely minute and sympathetic in his providence, as unlimited in his power and knowledge. Nor need it be said, that he was a firm believer in the central truths of Christianity, the Incarnation and Redemption; that he turned from unaided speculation to the inspired record and the visible Church; that he sought aid in the sacraments ordained for the strengthening of infirm humanity, and looked for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.note 27
Keep the two underlined sections above in mind as we proceed. Do not, however, expect a synopsis of Allston's arguments and detailed logic, for I agree with Richard Dana Jr.'s assistant in his law office, George W. Peck, who wrote this in his review of Allston's Lectures on Art ,
The lectures are written with such a weight of careful thought, and this is so Interwoven and developed, from the preliminary note to the conclusion, that the only way to arrive at a full understanding of them is to study them in the whole. But this very weight of thought gives them at first view a metaphysical air, which may frighten many students, especially among those who might profit most by them.note 28
My main objective here is not to comprehensively relate Allston's aesthetic theory, but to sufficiently reconstruct the reality of Winslow Homer's youth by extracting ideas from Allston and others significant to Homer's childhood, in order to set the stage for a better understanding of the "intensely personal" side of Winslow Homer's art.note 29
Allston's distinctions about imagination found in his Lectures on Art were the same as those that had been made by his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria published in 1817. Coleridge wrote,
The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree , and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital , even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
FANCY , on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE . But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.note 30
According to this view,note 31 the primary imagination facilitates our understanding of things which exist. Whenever we see something, we must imagine what is before us in terms of objects known from previous experience, and then continue to observe, testing the truth of what we have "imagined" before us.note 32 This is also the same as the basic process of "discovery" in science. We first imagine what we see, then we test the truth of our imagined hypothesis.
Primary imagination is not limited to objects present in material form however, but is also used to discern things not physical. Thus, the primary imagination not only allows us to see the body of a child, but we can also see "happiness." We can see the body of a workman, but we can also see "competence." We can see a mother with her child, but we can also see "love." When we recognize these not physical "things" before us, that knowledge is known through a less describable, intuitive process, which has often been termed "intellectual light."note 33 The concept of "intellectual light" is thoroughly discussed by George Berkeley in Siris and is also found in the writings of the American Samuel Johnsonnote 34 and Rev. Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803).note 35 As understood by these men, we all have an "intellectual light" from God, which allows us to intuitively recognize non-material things. The mechanism does not matter here, for whether humans are "preprogrammed" genetically with this capability, whether archtypal concepts exist in human language and are learned,note 36 or some other combination of subsequent causes, it was the view of Berkeley, Johnson, Hopkins, and Allston, among others, that we have "intellectual light," with God as its first cause.note 37
Secondary imagination, on the other hand, is reflective and allows us to see what is not before us, but which still relates to reality. Secondary imagination is used by inventors to imagine what is possible, such as Allston's former student Morse did in his creation of the first telegraph. Thus while primary imagination is used to comprehend what is, secondary imagination is used to realize what is possible. Ideas of our imagination, even the most far out ideas, may be viewed as not strictly of "our" creation, but as archetypes of the ideas of God. From this view, new inventions are seen as but the fulfillment of what has been possible throughtout all time.note 38 Every idea we have is but a discovery of what has preceded us, all of us, if not as to what is, then as to what has always been possible. When Morse conceived the idea of a telegraph, he discovered something that had always been possible. With his creation of the telegraph, Morse's perception of something possible was given form in reality. But although Morse built the telegraph, he was, "in a certain strict sense," not the Creator. As Elizabeth Peabody quoted Allston,
"In a certain strict sense," said he, "imagination does not create, it only sees the spiritual creations of God.note 39
Nevertheless, this creative process imitates God as the actual Creator. It is this perspective that one needs in order to understand Morse's first public telegram in 1844, "What hath God wrought."
Ideas rarely, if ever, belong to a single individual. It is always possible to find someone previous who had a similiar concept, precisely because "new" ideas always are built upon the previous ideas of mankind.note 40 Furthermore, ideas which seek to represent truth are not new creations, but discoveries of what is or can be. Newton did not create gravity, he discovered the idea, which only attempted to be a description of what had existed. The reality represented by the idea of gravity had been there for all time.
Although the writing of Allston's lectures followed Coleridge's Biographia Literaria by about 25 years, the American Samuel Johnson, first President of King's College (called Columbia University since the American Revolution) and friend of George Berkeley, had similiar ideas of imagination in 1720 and 1752.note 41 Johnson wrote in 1720,
Again some of our ideas are real others fantastical. Those that are real have a foundation in nature and a conformity with the real being and existence of things as their archetypes; fantastical ideas on the other hand are mere chimeras, have not any foundation in nature and are only the work of the imagination. Of the first sort are all simple ideas in the reception of which the mind is wholly passive. But when the mind in combining the simple ideas has no regard to anything really existing without it[, ] whatever it then forms is fantastical, as a centaur, and the like, whether it be in modes or substances.note 42
Johnson's statement struggles with the same reality that Coleridge described. Both attempted to state ideas representative of reality, ideas which represent truth and have reality as their source. In Philadelphia in 1752, Ben Franklin published Johnson's Elementia Philosophica , in which Johnson restated his thoughts about imagination, some twenty years after first meeting Berkeley.note 43 Johnson wrote,
This Power of the Mind is called Imagination and Memory , which implies a Consciousnes of the original Impression (tho' indeed the Word Memory may imply the Recollection of intellectual as well as sensible Objects, but chiefly those by Means of these, which is also call Reminiscence ) and these Ideas of the Imagination may be truly said to be Images or Pictures of the Ideas or immediated Objects of Sense. We are moreover conscious of a Power whereby we can, not only imagine Things as being what they really are in Nature, but can also join such Parts and Properties of Things together, as never co-existed in Nature, but are meer Creatures of our Minds, or Chimeras; as the Head of a Man with the Body of an Horse, etc. which must also be referred to the Imagination, but as influenced by the Will.note 44
Note that in 1752 Johnson no longer termed "meer Creatures of our Minds" "fancy," but "imagination" "as influenced by the Will." The distinction between what Coleridge later called primary and secondary imagination was not entirely new. I should not however place too much emphasis on the history of these ideas, for the true value of any idea is not in its history, but rather in its use by our imagination as an aid to understanding what exists either as an object or as a possibility.note 45 Often however, as is the case here, understanding ideas in historical context can be useful in imagining the thoughts of people whose spirit still effects us through their works, although their bodies were buried long ago.
Allston emphasized the distinction between ideas of the primary imagination which represent physical objects and those which represent spiritual objects. The apperception of a physical object is not direct, but depends on the recognition of its characteristics, its "distinctive essentials." Allston reads like Berkeley or Johnson when he writes, "The senses have in themselves no productive, cooperating energy , being but the passive instruments, or medium, through which they are conveyed."note 46 When an object is recognized, it is an "idea" from memory which is affirmed. The second kind of primary ideas represent "spiritual" objects, objects which have no material presence, but have an existence which, nevertheless, we all have the capacity to recognize because of "intellectual light." We can see danger. We recognize good or evil. Millions have risked their lives defending "liberty." These are spiritual objects, not material. We are all able to "see" such things. Allston wrote,
And hence must follow the still more important truth, that, in the conscious presence of any spiritual idea, we have the surest proof of a spiritual object; nor is this the less certain, though we perceive not the assimilant. Nay, a spiritual assimilant cannot be perceived, but, to use the words of St. Paul, is "spiritually discerned," that is, by a sense, so to speak, of our own spirit.note 47
He also wrote,
But here it may be asked, How are we to distinguish an Idea from a mere notion ? We answer, By its self-affirmation. For an ideal truth, having its own evidence in itself, can neither be proved nor disproved by any thing out of itself; whatever, then, impresses the mind as truth, is truth until it can be shown to be false; and consequently, in the converse, whatever can be brought into the sphere of the understanding, as a dialectic subject, is not an Idea. It will be observed, however, that we do not say an idea may not be denied; but to deny is not to disprove. Many things are denied in direct contradiction to fact; for the mind can command, and in no measured degree, the power of self-blinding, so that it cannot see what is actually before it.note 48
It is interesting to note that this same point was made by Allston's friend Coleridge and quoted by John LaFarge, S.J. (youngest son of Homer's friend) in his book An American Amen . Coleridge wrote,
I have known some who have been rationally educated, as it is styled. They were marked by a microscopic acuteness; but when they looked at great things, all became a blank, and they saw nothing, and denied that anything could be seen, and uniformly put the negative of a power for the possession of a power, and called the want of imagination, judgement and never being moved to rapture, philosophy.note 49
Some might deny that happiness, love, good, evil, and liberty exist, but spiritual objects can neither be proved nor disproved. Spiritual things are simply known, felt, and understood without the use of physical objects as proof. For Allston, spiritual knowledge is not limited to the cultivated and educated. He wrote,
The most abject wretch, however animalized by vice, may still be able to recall the time when a morning or evening sky, a bird, a flower, or the sight of some other object in nature, has given him a pleasure, which he felt to be distinct from that of his animal appetites, and to which he could attach not a thought of self-interest. And, though crime and misery may close the heart for years, and seal it up for ever to every redeeming thought, they cannot so shut out from the memory these gleams of innocence; even the brutified spirit, the castaway of his kind, has been made to blush at this enduring light; for it tells him of a truth, which might else have never been remembered, -- that he has once been a man.
And here may occur a question, -- which might well be left to the ultra advocates of the cui bono , -- whether a simple flower may not sometimes be of higher use than a labor-saving machine.note 50
But once again these ideas were neither new nor foreign, for compare this published in 1752 by Ben Franklin and written by the American Samuel Johnson,
...because we take our first Rise to Knowledge from sensible Things or Bodies, and by that Means are so prepossessed with a Notion of their Reality and Importance, that it is with much Difficulty that we rise to the Notion of Spirits and what relates to them; or, when we do, to have any strong Apprehension of their Reality and Importance, or to conceive of them but under corporeal Images. We should therefore labour much in the Business of Reflection, and Abstraction from sensible to intellectual Things, and disengage ourselves from Sense and Imagination as much as possible; and consider, that tho' our Notion of Spirits is intirely of a different Nature and Original, from that of Bodies, it is neither less real and substantial, nor indeed less clear and certain. These we have from Sense and Imagination, and those from Consciousness and Reasoning; but as these Faculties of as much Reality and Certainty, as those (nay more) we are not less certain of the Existence of Spirits than of Bodies, nor have we a less clear Notion of the one than the other. ...I must consider Spirits , as being as much real and intelligible Beings as Bodies , tho' of entirely a different Kind; and indeed as much more real, as they are a more perfect Kind of Beings; as Perception and Action are Things of greater Reality and Perfection, than being perceived and acted...note 51
Ideas of the secondary imagination begin as reflective thoughts inside the mind, representing the possiblity of an objective existence. All "works of the imagination" are products of the secondary imagination. For Allston, a reflected thought was not enough, for an artist must express the private idea in some communicating form. He wrote,
With regard to the other class, that of Secondary Ideas, which we have called the reflex product of the mind, their distinguishing characteristic is, that they not only admit of a perfect realization, but also of outward manifestation, so as to be communicated to others. All works of imagination, so called, present examples of this. Hence they may also be termed imitative or imaginative. For, though they draw their assimilants from the actual world, and are likewise regulated by the unknown Power before mentioned, yet are they but the forms of what, as a whole , have no actual existence; -- they are nevertheless true to the mind, and are made so by the same Power which affirms their possibility. This species of Truth, we shall hereafter have occasion to distinguish as Poetic Truth.note 52
Allston omits any discussion of "fancy." We may speculate that this is because an idea which cannot be communicated has no significance outside oneself and need not be discussed. For the others, the moment form is given to a private idea (no matter how fanciful), such that someone else could understand, the outward manifestation is accomplished: IT BECOMES, as a product of the secondary imagination. Hawthorne wrote the same idea in "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844, the year after Allston died),note 53
Alas that the artist, whether in poetry, or whatever other material, may not content himself with the inward enjoyment of the beautiful, but must chase the flitting mystery beyond the verge of his ethereal domain, and crush its frail being in seizing it with a material grasp. Owen Warland felt the impulse to give external reality to his ideals as irresistibly as any of the poets or painters who have arrayed the world in a dimmer and fainter beauty, imperfectly copied from the richness of their visions.note 54
While secondary ideas are born into the material world with the creation of the art-form (their only material form is the art-form), an artist's representation of a natural object never becomes the object represented. Allston wrote,
But we sometimes hear of "faithful transcripts," nay, of fac-similes. If by these be implied neither more nor less than exists in their originals, they must still, in that case, find their true place in the dead category of Copy. Yet we need not be detained by any inquiry concerning the merits of a fac-simile, since we firmly deny that a fac-simile, in the true sense of the term, is a thing possible.
That an absolute identity between any natural object and its represented image is a thing impossible, will hardly be questioned by any one who thinks, and will give the subject a moment's reflection; and the difficulty lies in the nature of things, the one being the work of the Creator, and the other of the creature. We shall therefore assume as a fact, the eternal and insuperable difference between Art and Nature.note 55
In his Lectures on Art , Allston dealt with manifestations of the imagination in works of art. Because of this, we may note that his lectures were more like the analysis of William Wordsworth than Coleridge, for Coleridge wrote,
...it was Mr. Wordsworth's purpose to consider the influences of fancy and imagination as they are manifested in poetry, and from the different effects to conclude their diversity in kind; while it is my object to investigate the seminal principle, and then from the kind to deduce the degree. My friend had drawn a masterly sketch of the branches, with their poetic fruitage. I wish to add the trunk, and even the roots, as far as they lift themselves above the ground, and are visible to the naked eye of our common consciousness...note 56
Wordsworth wrote about poetry, while Coleridge wrote of all human knowledge. The poetry which Wordsworth created contained ideas which may appear to be fancy, but once those ideas were given form, their existence in the poetry made them real. For Allston too, anything created in the mind and then given a communicating form is real, even though the reality represented is but a "poetic truth."
Society has little use for pure dreamers, but creative artists help all of us to expand our understanding of the potentials which exist in reality, potentials which may be called fancies until given form. Artists, including inventors such as Samuel Morse, explore the realm of the possible, imitating God as Creator, expanding human awareness of the possibilities which "God hath wrought." In the 150 years since Allston, we have additional medias for creation. Through these, fanciful ideas, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have been given form. Their existence, through the medias of film, video, and television cannot be denied. Once given form, they too exist as products of the secondary imagination. Man has always had dreams, but artists are driven to bring their dreams to life. Plays, stories, sculpture, and painting are old forms, but the mediums of Mickey Mouse have further extended the artists capability to create. Computer simulations today provide the newest and most advanced artform through which mankind continues to imitate God's creative activity, but Allston's perspective is no less significant today. Eventually, technology will allow artists to so thoroughly create new realities, that it will become commonly understood that it has always been possible for reality itself to be a creation. Then too, the ideas of Berkeley may become as commonly accepted as those of Galileo and everyone would find it most obvious that the essence of reality is in its perception.
This is the spirit of Allston's perspective: actualizing realities of the creative human mind as a means to enhance comprehension of the Creator's mind. This creative process is alive and well today, although the best of this art is disguised within science and technology. Many of our best artists are not in the mainstream of what is considered art, but they are, perhaps even more than "traditional" artists, in the mainstream of what has been a major objective of artists throughout human history, not to attempt to copy God's Creation, but to imitate the activity of Creation.
This section is especially interesting for Allston discussed the use of what we today would call "subliminal cues" to effect feeling. We are familiar with how films use music to set the viewer's mood, which is effective even though the viewer may not be conscious of the music. Ideas and feelings of danger, suspense, calm, terror, etc. are conveyed through music. For Allston, visual forms were no different from music. He wrote,
They [great colorists] addressed themselves not to the senses merely, as some have supposed, but rather through them to that region (if I may so speak) of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music, and which, by similiar excitement, they caused to teem with visions that 'lap the soul in Elysium.' In other words, they leave the subject to be made by the spectator, provided he posseses the imaginative faculty -- otherwise they will have little more meaning to him than a calico counterpane.note 57
For Allston, the sublime is felt, when looking at Nature, through spiritual objects which somehow cause feelings or ideas of the Infinite. For art, he turns that reality around. It is up to the artist to devise, through his imagination, methods which will lead the viewer of the art to feel the sublime. Allston wrote,
But though according to our theory, there are many things now called sublime that would properly come under a different classification, such as many objects of Art, many sentiments, and many actions, which are strictly human, as well in their end as in their origin; it is not to be inferred that the exclusion of any work of man is because of its apparent origin , but of its end , the end only being the determining point, as referring to its Idea. Now, if the Idea referred to be of the Infinite, which is out of his nature, it cannot strictly be said to originate with man, -- that is, absolutely; but it is rather, as it were, a reflected form of it from the Maker of his mind. If we are led to such an Idea, then, by any work of imagination, a poem, a picture, a statue, or a building, it is as truely sublime as any natural object. This, it appears to us, is the sole mystery, without which neither sound, nor color, nor form, nor magnitude, is a true correlative to the unseen cause. And here, as with Beauty, though the test of that be within us, is the modus operandi equally baffling to the scrutiny of the understanding. We feel ourselves, as it were, lifted from the earth, and look upon the outward objects that have so affected us, yet learn not how; and the mystery deepens as we compare them with other objects from which have followed the same effects, and find no resemblance.note 58
Thus, Allston's position is that if a "reflected" form (work of art) is created, which is successful in leading a reader or viewer to an idea of the Infinite, then the "reflected" form is as "truely sublime as any natural object." He then went on to suggest one method which would associate an image with the Infinite,
On the supernatural it is needless to enlarge; for, in whatever form the beings of the invisible world are supposed to visit us, they are immediately connected in the mind with the unknown Infinite; whether the faith be in the heart or in the imagination; whether they bubble up from the earth, like the Witches in Macbeth, taking shape at will, or self-dissolving into air, and no less marvellous, foreknowing thoughts ere formed in man; or like the Ghost in Hamlet, an unsubstantial shadow, having the functions of life, motion, will, and speech; a fearful mystery invests them with a spell not to be withstood; the bewildered imagination follows like a child, leaving the finite world for one unknown, till it aches in darkness, trackless, endless.note 59
Allston suggests that forms of beings of the invisible world, placed into a work of art, would immediately be connected with the unknown Infinite, and the art form would itself then be sublime. This may sound quite far fetched, but this is, I believe, precisely what Allston suggested. Recall what he wrote about his own childhood, "I seldom step into the ideal world but I find myself going back to the age of first impressions." Also, recall what his nephew wrote in the introduction to Allston's lectures, "Few minds have been more thoroughly imbued with belief in the reality of the unseen world...this was not merely an adopted opinion...it was the essence of his spiritual constitution..."
According to Allston, the best art, sublime art, requires that the viewer be led to associate it with the unknown Infinite. To accomplish this, the artist must place ideas of the infinite into the art. One sure way to this end, he proposed, is through the use of beings of the invisible world, for they always are associated with the infinite. If the artist represents such "beings" in a painting, even though not consciously perceived by the viewer, they will have their effect on the emotions of a sympathetic viewer. He recommended what is effectively the use of subliminal cues: forms, which although present, are not consciously perceived by the viewer.
Our modern world seems to understand this striving, for our times have more "beings of the Invisible world" than ever before. From Mickey Mouse to Darth Vader and beyond, we crave characters "of the unknown infinite," yet at times we snicker at the imaginings of past ages, without stopping to wonder how strange our imaginings will appear in future times. Allston's underlying principle, however, was no different, for mankind always will strive for feelings of the realities beyond. His actual point for artists was a methodology however, through which feelings in viewers can be activated by the use of visual forms acting on the mind, even though not consciously perceived. Today, just the word "Madison" combined with "Avenue" can act to communicate thoughts of such a methodology to some minds, but only to a reader where my meaning is already common to both our minds and where imaginative thinking operates sufficiently.note 60
The use of suggestive forms was not limited to the sublime. Allston suggested that art must provide both a material and spiritual reality of human subjects as well, but again it is up to the imagination of the artist to devise the method. He wrote,
For, among the many impossibilities, it is not the least to look upon a living human form as a thing; in its pictured copies, as already shown in a former discourse, it may be a thing, and a beautiful thing; but the moment we conceive of it as living, if it show not a soul, we give it one by a moral necessity; and according to the outward will be the spirit with which we endow it. No poetic being, supposed of our species, ever lived to the imagination without some indication of the moral; it is the breath of its life; and this is also true in the converse; if there be but a hint of it, it will instantly clothe itself in a human shape; for the mind cannot separate them. In the whole range of the poetic creations of the great master of truth, -- we need hardly say Shakespeare, -- not an instance can be found where this condition of life is ever wanting; his men and women all have souls. So, too, when he peoples the air, though he describe no form, he never leaves these creatures of the brain without a shape, for he will sometimes, by a single touch of the moral, enable us to supply one.note 61
Thus, a work of art showing people, to be complete, must convey the human spirit in addition to the physical human forms. Note that this may also be done to impart spiritual or moral aspects to other non-human objects.
Allston defined perfection in art as the complete union between the outward and inward. At the same time, he was a realist in a sense often not understood. He wrote,
But it must not be inferred that originality consists in any contradiction to Nature; for, were this allowed and carried out, it would bring us to the conclusion, that, the greater the contradiction, the higher the Art. We insist only on the modification of the natural by the personal; for Nature is, and ever must be, at least the sensuous ground of all Art: and where the outward and inward are so united that we cannot separate them, there shall we find the perfection of Art. So complete a union, has, perhaps, never been accomplished, and may be impossible; it is certain, however, that no approach to excellence can ever be made, if the idea of such a union be not constantly looked to by the artist as his ultimate aim.note 62
In spite of emphasis on "the modification of the natural by the personal" Allston demands realism, a correspondence of the reflective with the real. What may at first appear a conflict is not, for the union is accomplished through a special kind of "seeing," common to Allston and his friends. Elizabeth Peabody reported in her article "Last Evening with Allston,"
Allston was charmed with my description, and said he should be glad to see such beings with his own eyes, as well as through my imagination. I said no, I was telling him, not of the creation of my imagination, but of what was visible to the senses.
"In a certain strict sense," said he, "imagination does not create, it only sees the spiritual creations of God. It was not your senses, but your imagination, that saw what you have described to me; but the visual object was unquestionably there. It can be transferred to the canvas, so as to satisfy you, however, only if the painter sees what transcended your senses."
"Then you think you would do it better, perhaps, if you do not see them?"
"That does not follow," he replied; "for I know you have eyes, as well as imagination. A model helps, not hinders, the artist who knows how to use it. But the object of sense must be his servant, not his master. This is the secret of ideal art. He is not the greatest, who, like some of the Germans that I have seen, go out of nature after impossible forms to express their ideas." And here he murmured, in a recitative, which seemed like the breathings of a flute, the lines of his own poem, inscribed to Mrs. Jameson, --
"Who loves thee, Nature, loves thee not apart
From his own kind; for in thy humblest work
There lives an echo to some unborn thought,
Akin to man, his Maker, or his lot.
Nay, who has found not in his bosom lurk
Some stranger feeling, far remote from earth,
That still, through earthly things, awaits a birth?"note 63
At this point it is helpful to refer to the writing of some of Allston's close friends in order to more fully comprehend how such a union could seem even remotely feasible.
Benjamin Welles was a classmate of Allston at Harvard,note 64 a member with him of the Hasty Pudding Club,note 65 accompanied him on parts of his first visit to Europe,note 66 and was noted by Dana Jr. as among those who attended his funeral.note 67 In 1806 in the Monthly Anthology , Welles wrote,
On the contrary, how pleasantly and how naturally flows the life of him, who breathes it in the cool shades of silent retirement, his soul expanding with the pure sentiments, which rural imagery inspires; who loves to stretch himself, at noon day, in the deep shade of the mountain brow, and follow the huge shadow of the dark cloud, as it sails over the plain, deepening the luxuriance of the vallies, and reflecting bright and blaring light on the edges of cliffs and precipices; or in the stillness of a summer's evening, aside the old oak that sighs in the night breeze, to catch the bright forms of departed friends in the white clouds, which wave over the moon.
The constant action of thought in retirement, adds another charm to it. The mind here is not left merely to it own operations, reasoning on subjects of its own suggestion, without the standard of perceptible truth for the conclusions of such abstractions. But it has the constant presentation of the sublime experiment of universal cause and effect, free from the anxieties of chance, and unincumbered with the ponderous mass of human follies, prejudices, and absurdities. Its acquisition is the wisdom of nature, and its truth is that certainty of conclusion, which is deduced from determinate causes, invariably efficient of consequential effects.
There is yet another charm in this retreat from the town, and the throng, which is beyond even the fascination of poetry. We here feel, that description is only imitative of nature, and we turn from the transcription, however charming and exact, to the raptures of the original. We are no longer content with the ideal sympathy of visionary existence, but we extend all the pleasures of fiction into the emotions of sensible truth. In the presence of nature, even the minuteness and exactitude of Cowper is indiscriminate and unsatisfactory; the mellow luxuriance of Thomson barren and wastful. In the bright expanse, which surrounds her, even the sublime and transcendent genius of Milton flutters with dark and heavy wings, near the earth, but faintly tinged with the celestial light, and rests on objects blasted or deformed. Let him then, whose soul is pure and holy with the love of nature, take his position in the midst of creation, and commence the mighty work of this eternal perfection of thought.note 68
The main points of Allston's position about perfection in art were in his friend's writing in 1806:
1. "catch the bright forms of departed friends in the white clouds"
2. "The mind here is not left merely to it own operations, reasoning on subjects of its own suggestion, without the standard of perceptible truth for the conclusions of such abstractions"
3. "We here feel, that description is only imitative of nature, and we turn from the transcription, however charming and exact, to the raptures of the original. We are no longer content with the ideal sympathy of visionary existence, but we extend all the pleasures of fiction into the emotions of sensible truth."
4. Let him then, whose soul is pure and holy with the love of nature, take his position in the midst of creation, and commence the mighty work of this eternal perfection of thought.
(1) If an artist could see as Welles recommended, then (2) the artist could paint what he actually sees and be faithful to reality and also be painting the internal vision. (3) Thus, merged into the imitative representation of the original natural objects are the "raptures" of the original such as the "forms of departed friends in the white clouds." (4) Through this, the artist "takes his position in the midst of creation" and works for perfection (a unity of the outward transcription and the inward creation).
The fact that people could easily be seen in clouds had been acknowledged but discouraged by Jonathan Edwards. He wrote,
Observe the danger of being led by fancy; as he that looks on the fire or on the clouds, giving way to his fancy, easily imagines he sees images of men or beasts in those confused appearances.note 69
Seeing and then painting "forms of departed friends in the white clouds" is one possible method to include "beings of the invisible world" in a painting as Allston prescribed. Images of real objects seen with the primary imagination can be called primary images , while images of the secondary imagination can be called secondary images . Anyone who had cultivated this special kind of "seeing," could look at nature and see both primary images and secondary images. If that person became a painter, the secondary images seen could become real as visual poetry when given form in a painting. Secondary images would connect the viewer of an artwork to the unknown Infinite, even if not, perhaps especially if not, consciously perceived. Secondary images might be difficult to perceive consciously, but hints of their poetic truth would be conveyed to the viewer's mind. The artist would be effective, but only partially understood.
William Ellery Channing, Allston's friend since childhood and brother-in-law, wrote of seeing miracles in a Dudleian Lecture, titled "Evidences of Revealed Religion," which he gave at Harvard in 1821.note 70 Channing wrote,
That attention to the powers of nature, which is implied in scientific research, tends to weaken the practical conviction of a higher power; and the laws of the creation, instead of being regarded as the modes of Divine operation, come insensibly to be considered as fetters on his agency, as too sacred to be suspended even by their Author. This secret feeling, essentially atheistical, and at war with all sound philosophy, is the chief foundation of that skepticism, which prevails in regard to miraculous agency, and deserves our particular consideration.
To a man whose belief in God is strong and practical, a miracle will appear as possible as any other effect, as the most common event in life; and the argument against miracles, drawn from the uniformity of nature, will weigh with him, only as far as this uniformity is a pledge and proof of the Creator's disposition to accomplish his purposes by a fixed order or mode of operation.note 71
Channing wrote that miracles could be a common event, that we should not let the empirical scientific perspective "weaken the practical conviction of a higher power." He went on to encourage us to believe what we see. He wrote,
This argument of Hume proves too much, and therefore proves nothing. It proves too much; for if I am to reject the strongest testimony to miracles, because testimony has often deceived me, whilst nature's order has never been found to fail, then I ought to reject a miracle, even if I should see it with my own eyes, and if all my senses should attest it; for all my senses have sometimes given false reports, whilst nature has never gone astray; and, therefore, be the circumstances ever so decisive or inconsistent with deception, still I must not believe what I see, and hear, and touch, what my senses, exercised according to the most deliberate judgment, declare to be true. All this the argument requires; and it proves too much; for disbelief, in the case supposed, is out of our power, and is instinctively pronounced absurd; and what is more, it would subvert that very order of nature on which the argument rests; for this order of nature is learned only by the exercise of my senses and judgment, and if these fail me, in the most unexceptionable circumstances, then their testimony to nature is of little worth.note 72
When we see "departed friends in the white clouds," we would actually, it would seem according to Channing, be visited by beings of the spirit world, for we should not doubt what we see. In "The True End of Life," Channing wrote (years later) about the spiritual end of life, in which he included ideas quite consistent with the positions of Allston and Welles. He wrote,
I refer to man's power of conceiving of more Perfect Beauty than exists within the limits of actual experience. Philosophers denote this power by the word Imagination. The term to many suggests a faculty, that exaggerates or distorts reality, that feeds on dreams, and wastes itself on impracticable visions. Were these the true workings of the Imagination, instead of its excesses, I should still think them indications of a being who has a sublime destiny to fulfil. The reveries of youth, in which so much energy is wasted, are the yearnings of a Spirit made for what it has not found but must forever seek as an Ideal. It is not the proper use of the Imagination, however, to lose itself in dreams. This power, when acting, as it always should act, in unison with the Moral Principle, is a Divine Witness to the Spiritual End of human nature. Imagination passes beyond the transient and the bounded. It delights to bring together, and to blend in just proportion, whatever is lovely in Nature and the Soul. ... Imagination thus exalts and refines whatever it touches. For ever it sees in the visible the type of the Invisible, and in the outward world an image of the Inward, thus bringing them into harmony, and throwing added brightness over both. All things which it looks upon reveal a Being higher than themselves. Perfection! This is the vital air and element in which the Imagination breathes and lives. What a celestial power! What a testimony to the End of our being! Whence comes this tendency in human thought towards the Perfect, if man be not born for a progress which can never end?
...I am aware that some persons, when they hear Poetry thus spoken of by a religious teacher, as one of the signs of man's being created to look above outward things, are tempted to think that he is throwing an air of fiction over reality. They want facts, they say, not fancy. I too prize facts, and am adducing nothing else. It is a fact -- who can deny it? -- that Poetry exists, and has existed among all people, savage and civilised. Its seeds are sown so plentifully in all human souls, that to overlook the beauty into which they bloom is to close our eyes upon one of the most ennobling views of human nature. ... And when we consider that the highest office of Poetry is thus to satisfy the aspirations of the Soul for the Perfect, and to create more attractive and commanding forms of heavenly virtue than meet our eyes, how can we fail to see in it the indication that man is made for a Spiritual End?note 73
Especially note, "I refer to man's power of conceiving of more Perfect Beauty than exists within the limits of actual experience." and also, "This power, when acting, as it always should act, in unison with Moral Principle, is a Divine Witness to the Spiritual End of human nature." This too was Allston's definition of perfection, his aesthetic perspective, to actually see with the eye of a poet.
Richard Dana, Sr., another Allston brother-in-law and longtime friend, published an essay titled "Musings" in his magazine, The Idle Man, in 1821, the same year that Channing wrote "Evidences of Revealed Religion." Dana's magazine The Idle Man only lasted about a year and also included works by Washington Allston and his friend William Cullen Bryant. Dana's collected works were published in 1850, the same year as Allston's Lectures on Art , when Homer was 14, in a two volume set titled Poems and Prose Writings. He wrote,
Man has another and higher nature even here; and the spirit within him finds an answering spirit in everything that grows, and affectionate relations, not only with his fellow-man, but with the commonest things that lie scattered about the earth.
To the man of fine feeling, and deep and delicate and creative thought, there is nothing in nature which appears only as so much substance and form, nor any connections in life which do not reach beyond their immediate and obvious purposes. Our attachments to each other are not felt by him merely as habits of the mind given to it by the customs of life; nor does he hold them to be only as the goods of the world, and the loss of them as merely turning him forth an outcast from the social state; but they are a part of his joyous being, and to have them torn from him is taking from his very nature.
Life, indeed, with him, in all its connections and concerns, has an ideal and spiritual character, which, while it loses nothing of the definiteness of reality, is ever suggesting thoughts, taking new relations, and peopling and giving action to the imagination. All that the eye falls upon and all that touches the heart run off into airy distance, and the regions into which the sight stretches are alive and bright and beautiful with countless shapings and fair hues of the gladdened fancy. From kind acts and gentle words and fond looks there spring hosts many and glorious as Milton's angels; and heavenly deeds are done, and unearthly voices heard, and forms and faces, graceful and lovely as Uriel's, are seen in the noonday sun. What would only have given pleasure for the time to another, or, at most, be now and then called up in his memory, in the man of feeling and imagination lays by its particular and short-lived and irregular nature, and puts on the garments of spiritual beings, and takes the everlasting nature of the soul.note 74
He continued further along,
And there are beautiful souls, too, in the world, to hold kindred with a man of a feeling and refined mind; and there are delicate and warm and simple affections, that now and then meet him on his way, and enter silently into his heart, like blessings. Here and there, on the road, go with him for a time some who call to mind the images of his soul, -- a voice, or a look, is a remembrancer of past visions, and breaks out upon him like openings through the clouds; and the distant beings of his imagination seem walking by his side, and the changing and unsubstantial creatures of the brain put on body and life. In such moments his fancies are turned to realities, and over the real the lights of his mind shift and play; his imagination shines out warm upon it, and it changes, and takes the airiness of fairy life.note 75
Allston, Dana Sr., Channing, and Welles were all concerned with the same phenomenal reality, whether we call it a vision, a miracle, an illusion, or poetic truth. What they all referred to was no different than seeing the "Man in the Moon," the "Big Dipper," or the "Old Man of the Mountain." The difference is only one of degree, for they held the seeing of such things to be a desired higher mental activity. Dana Sr. seemed to be the most active in encouraging the development of this capability. He wrote in "The Past and the Present,"
Here, again, we see the soul, as if surcharges with life, giving out life to the commonest material objects around it. A cross-beam in an old ceiling, a decayed post, an old walking-stick, is endowed by us with feeling and sentiment, and power of converse, and everything around us becomes to us life: we move amid nothing but living things. As in Ezekiel's vision, "When the living creatures went, the wheels went by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up: -- for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels."
If it be the nature of this spirit of the past, moving within us, to give out life to material things, we must remember, that the very act whereby the mind imparts life and consciousness is an increase of the intensity of that mind's own life, -- that the emanations from this spiritual sun do but raise in it a light still brighter, and a more cheering warmth, -- and that it is also the blessed constitution of our spiritual natures, that to whatsoever we give, from that same we shall receive seven-fold, and that the poorest thing on earth towards which our hearts go out shall make us rich returns.
That thisspiritualizing power belongs in a peculiar manner to "the retrospective virtues," as Wordsworth calls them, no one doubts who has read his own heart, and, along with it, the hearts of others. And we may, with Godwin, say of the man who is so endowed, "The world is a thousand times more populous, than to the man to whom every thing that is not flesh and blood is nothing."note 76
Welles, Dana, Channing and Allston all encouraged us to "see" objects not physically present (although what is present provides cues to their appearances) and to believe, at the very least, the poetic truth of what we can see. Elsewhere in "The Past and the Present" Dana wrote,
As it is unnatural for the mind to think of what has once lived as now utterly extinct, and as even material shapes, the representatives of the mind's forms, though lost to us in their material, still live to us in their spiritual shapes in the mysterious world of forms, the past comes shadowing over us with the calm awe of eternity in it, and man beholds and reveres. Eternity is present with him, not as an intellectual abstraction, but in the images of whatever has once been; it spreads out visibly before the mind's eye; and as in the clouds of evening twilight with the bodily eye we see figured
"A towered citadel, a pendant rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't, that not unto the world,"
in a higher and truer sense rises upon the mind's eye the vast, the crowded, the eternally living world of the past. The spirit is filled with it. Eternity has now a meaning and feeling in it, and the soul, awakened by its all-surrounding presence, stands awed at its own conscious immortality. With what solemn grandeur comes up before it the spirit of the past!note 77
When Richard Henry Dana, Jr. edited Allston's Lectures on Art , he was certainly in a position to have understood them, for he had known his Uncle Washington Allston well. After the old house of his Aunt Martha and Uncle burned down,note 78 he wrote,
There were held his beautiful & glorious conversations. There he met us with his countenance beaming with love. Who can forget one evening passed with him! How can I forget the scores? During the three years & a half I was a student at Cambridge, after my return from sea, my senior year & my 2 1/2 years in the Law School, it was my habit to spend there one evening every week.note 79
At his graduation from Harvard in 1837, Dana Jr. seemed to reflect the view common to Allston and his friends, for this is found in an 1890 biography of Dana Jr.,
His marks made him first scholar, but as at graduation he had been with his class less than a year no special rank was given him, though at commencement he was assigned the part which usually fell to the fifth scholar. Of his performance Dr. John Pierce of Brookline, then attending his fifty-third commencement, wrote in his journal: -- "A dissertation by Richard H. Dana, son of R. H. Dana and grandson of the former Judge Francis Dana, was on the unique topic. 'Heaven lies about us in our Infancy.' He is a handsome youth, and spoke well. But his composition was of that Swedenborgian, Coleridgian, and dreamy cast which it requires a peculiar structure of mind to understand, much more to relish." The "unique topic" was from Wordsworth, and was suggested to Dana by Professor [Edward Tyrell] Channing,note 80 who, when asked for a subject, read this line from the volume he chanced to have open in his hand.note 81
The multiplicity required by Allston in the union of the outward and inward, of the natural, spiritual, and divine, all expressed through an art-form, has many parallels to Swedenborg's doctrine of correspondence. In fact, Allston's position could be viewed as Coleridge's view, with a twist in Swedenborg's direction. If Dana Jr. reflected Allston's view in speaking about Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," his oration could easily have been described as "Swedenborgian, Coleridgian." Dana Jr. wrote in his journal,
His [Dr. Channing's] suggestion struck me favourably, I took the ode from wh. this is an extract into my chambers, & spent nearly a whole day in reading it over & over, studying it, & committing passages. I became infatuated with its spirit, & under the influence of it, wrote my dissertation. I never wrote anything with greater pleasure to myself; & the ode opened to me the nature of Wordsworth's mind, & set in motion powers & feelings in myself wh. had never been reached before, &, I believe, was of great advantage to my subsequent studies & thoughts.note 82
Throughout Dana, Jr.'s journal are detailed entries about Allston and Allston's friends. In 1852, when Horatio Greenough died, he wrote,
He is the last of that circle of men who gathered about my Uncle Edmund & Mr. Allston at Cambridge. While at College, having developed a taste for fine art, he made their acquaintance. Uncle Edmd. lived, in bachelor's hall, at the Trowbridge House, where Mr. Allston had a spare room wh. he occupied when he came out to spend, as he always did, his Saturday & Sunday, & where he sometimes drew & painted. Their rooms opened upon a pretty shaded green, where now stands Mr. Albro's Meeting House [Shepard Congregational Society], at the corner of Mt. Auburn & Holyoke sts. It was an attractive spot, being a quaint, dark old house, with its well shaded green yard, independently of the attraction of the minds within. As a particular favor, Mr. Greenough was assigned a third room, which he occupied while in college, & thus a strong attachment grew up between them. They always encouraged him in his art, predicted his success & defended his reputation. While in Italy, he corresponded with them, & when in America, Mr. Allston & my Uncle Edmund [were] his "friends in council."note 83
Edmund Dana (1779-1859), oldest brother of his father, had been very close to Allston. Dana Jr. wrote this after his Uncle Edmund died in 1859,
All my childish notions of Europe were derived fr. him [Uncle Edmund] & Mr. Allston & my Uncle Francis [Dana]. From them I heard of Pitt & Fox, of Nelson, of Mrs. Siddons, John Philip Kemble, Coleridge & Wordsworth & the painters. At his room, on the green, in the Old Trowbridge House, Ned & I used to spend evenings listening to him & Allston, & such chance visitors as gathered there -- among whom, the most favored of the young was Horatio Greenough.
One by one, his companions fell off -- Allston, [Loammi] Baldwin, [Joseph] Willard, Greenough, & now no one who knew him in College seems to be left, except Mr. Welles of Boston, who seldom sees him.note 84
While Dana Jr. was well versed in the views of these men, he was more pragmatic. He fully understood Allston's views, but he also understood the pressures against such romanticism. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana quoted Dana Jr. in this regard,
For her [Miss Sarah Watson, his future wife], his two years' voyage had been purely one of romance. For him, too, the sea had at first been full of nothing but romance; but in his letter of January 18, 1839, he had tried to explain to her how his voyage had brought him in touch with reality and altered his feelings towards the sea:
"The enthusiasm you express for the sea. I can understand it all & felt it all, before I made a sailor of myself, & sometimes think that I can now; yet I assure you that habit & familiarity wear away all the romance. Such was my feeling, & such associations had I with it, that it became almost sacred, & I thought that being out of the sight of land -- blue above & blue below -- sun rising & setting in the water -- the solitude, grandeur, & change, must impress themselves upon the whole character; yet I do not know that I was ever in a more completely matter-of-fact, mumdrum, state of mind than when on a long voyage. I have been months without seeing land or sail, nothing but sea & sky, & yet not realized in the least that I was in a peculiar or romantic situation; & I assure you that in a storm I thought more of a wet jacket, & losing a nice sleep, than I did of the sublimity of the scene. Perhaps it may be different with passengers, & those who have nothing to do but to be romantic."
Again, on August 20, 1840, he contrasted romantic outbursts by Byron and Wordsworth about the ocean with the realism of his own experience:
"Shall we never be together on the sea shore, & alone? How could I sit with you there for hours & days & give ourselves up to all those thoughts & feelings which it would excite in both of us, & listen to its music, & feel its breath, & `lay our hand upon its mane,' & `hear its mighty waters rolling evermore.' This is the romance of the sea, my dear child, & all you will ever have to know of it. Its reality, with the exception of a few moments -- few & far between -- of high excitement & new, strange feelings, -- is privation, hardship, tyranny, & irksome & disgusting details."note 85
Dana Jr. knew both hard realities and the romantic views of Allston.
Louis Agassiz, the great naturalist teacher, came to Cambridge in 1847 to present a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston and then became the first Professor of Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School where he remained the rest of his life. Agassiz's views are significant because of his contribution to 19th Century natural science, yet his views were also consistent with the poets around him. His position is relevant to this discussion because in one sense he is much like William Ellery Channing, always encouraging us to believe what we see, rather than restricting our sight to what our rational theories tell us to expect.
While Agassiz emphasized the "facts" of personal observation, rather than theory, the facts he emphasized were not just material physical facts, but also included those things which are known through what we have previously discussed as "intellectual light." He was not merely interested in observations of classification and categorization dependent on some theoretical structure, but knowledge known and understood by imaginative observation. Consider what William James, once his student, wrote of Agassiz,
...I doubt that he ever answered one of these questions of mine outright. He always said; "There, you see you have a definite problem; go and look and find the answer for yourself." His severity in this line was a living rebuke to all abstractionists and would-be biological philosophers. More than once have I heard him quote with deep feeling the lines of Faust:
"Grau, theurer [sic] Freund, ist all Theorie.
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum."
[Gray, dear friend, is all theory.
And green is life's golden tree.]
The only man he really loved and had use for was the man who could bring him facts. To see facts, not to argue or raisonniren [reason], was what life meant for him; and I think he often positively loathed the ratiocinating type of mind. "Mr. Blank, you are totally uneducated!" I heard him once say to a student who propounded to him some glittering theoretic generality. And on a similiar occasion he gave an admonition that must have sunk deep into the heart of him to whom it was addressed. "Mr. X, some people perhaps now consider you a bright young man; but when you are fifty years old, if they ever speak of you then, what they will say will be this: `That X,--oh, yes, I know him; he used to be a very bright young man.' "note 86
As Agassiz said at the Lowell Institute in 1847,
So it is with the study of Nature. We may know by their name a great many animals. We may be able to indicate with accuracy the characteristic differences between the various tribes of animals. We may be able to distinguish the trees in our forests and the plants cultivated in our gardens; nay, we may know any isolated plant that flourishes upon the surface of the globe, and yet we may after all know nothing of the plan of creation. There is a higher point of view from which we attain a deeper insight into that plan. -- We must understand the connection between the various parts of Creation, and, rising higher still, direct our contemplations to the Author of all, who has formed the whole and subjected it to all those modifications extending through long ages which Geology has revealed, from the remotest epoch up to the period when Man was created and introduced upon the surface of the globe with the animals and plants which we now behold.
Understand, then, that the study and knowledge of Nature consist in something more than acquaintance with the isolated beings which exist upon the surface of our globe. We must understand the connections existing between these beings, and the relations which they sustain to the Creator of them all.note 87
Lowell wrote these lines in his poem "Agassiz,"
And yet he had the poet's open eye
That takes a frank delight in all it sees...note 88
Although Agassiz came to Cambridge five years after Channing had died, and a quarter century after Channing had written "Evidences of Revealed Religion," Channing's prescription for self-reliant perceptions was in fashion. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement owed a debt to Channing's plea for reliance on the individual's inner vision. Agassiz valued direct personal observation, rejecting limits placed by the expectations of any theoretical system of analysis. As Channing had written: with an "open eye," "an open sense," I should "believe what I see, and hear, and touch, what my senses, exercised according to the most deliberate judgment, declare to be true." When reality speaks to our subconscious and ideas present themselves in our mind, we need to remain open to these new ideas, even when we at first do not understand how they may be possible. True ideas will at times be rejected, while some false ideas will at times seem true. This is an unavoidable part of the process of discovery, for we must be willing to accept some false positives, some illusions, if we are to be open to grasping ideas new to our mind. We should learn to enjoy the illusions, which we see from time to time, as an indication that the critical regions of our mind are reasonably balanced, open to new discoveries. Agassiz helps us to remember that it is a scientist's imagination, grounded in personal observations, which creates every new hypothesis.
Views with similiarities to Allston's are in the writing of his brother-in-law William Ellery Channing, brother-in-law Richard Henry Dana Sr., his friend and classmate Benjamin Welles, and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Historically, Allston's perspective may be described as a derivative and synthesis of Plato, Plotinus, the New Testament, Henry More, John Norris, George Berkeley, the American Samuel Johnson, the Archbishop of Cambray (Fenelon) and William Cowper. Wordsworth needs to be mentioned, but as he and Allston were contemporaries and saw each other's work, the influence could be viewed as interactive rather than derivative.
Truth in observation was especially important to Allston. He expected the artist to see what existed both in material and spiritual objective realities through the use of the primary imagination, as well as to "see" into the world of possibilities through the use of the secondary imagination. For Allston, forms seen through the secondary imagination are
"made visible by the distant gleams from these angelic Forms, that, like the Three which stood before the tent of Abraham..."note 89
Edward H. Clarke, M.D. reflected the same perspective in the beginning of his book Visions: A Study of False Sight (Pseudopia) , which interestingly was posthumously prepared for publication by Clarke's friend, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.note 90
Visions have always held, and still hold, a place among the experiences of mankind. From the time that Abraham had a vision of angels in his tent, to the latest manifestation of modern spiritualism and spirit seeing; among all nations, savage, civilized, and enlightened; in all classes, whether cultivated, and enlightened; in every phase of human development, oriental and occidental, Pagan, Christian, and Mohammedan, there have been those who saw, or who pretended to see, visions. Visions have not only been recognized as part of the mysterious phenomena of disease, but of the equally mysterious phenomena of health. The hearty and strong, as well as the morbid and ill, have been visited by them. Neoromancers and charlatans, seers and prophets, enthusiasts and sober minded people, those who have deluded, and those who have inspired, the race, have, with varying degree of earnestness and success, supported their claims to reverence or obedience, by the assertion that they could see what was hidden from the eyes of others.note 91
The secondary images of Welles, Dana Sr., Channing, and Allston are part of the "mysterious phenomena of health." They are simply images whose visual forms sufficiently exist within the forms of Nature, such that the mind is able to see them, or be reminded sufficiently of a suggested object, like "the Man in the Moon." In a practical way, Allston saw such illusionsnote 92 as providing a material method for the artist to communicate ideas which transcend the physical objects represented. The simultaneous representation of these multiple levels was the ideal of "perfection" which Allston set as the artist's goal. When he suggested that characters of the spirit world could be used to create feelings of the sublime, we can understand that he literally meant to seek to see such images and paint them. When he wrote that the soul should be represented, he literally meant that the artist should seek to see illusions of things representative of the soul and paint them. Those forms, capable of illusion, might then act upon a sensitive viewer's mind to suggest the moral and spiritual character of the person represented. In perhaps more contemporary terms, we might say, the artist literally is to project images into the forms of the material objects represented. For the viewer, these images projected and painted by the artist become subliminal cues in the art-form, read into the viewer's subconscious, which act upon the subconscious to create sublime feelings or spiritual and moral thoughts. It is in this aspiring way, that the ideal and the real may possibly be combined by the artist to create "perfection."
Winslow Homer was, by the circumstances of his surroundings, positioned to become Allston's ideal artist. Consider Allston's description from his novel Monaldi ,
He regarded nothing in the moral or physical world as tiresome or insignificant; every object had a charm, and its harmony and beauty, its expression and character, all passed into his soul in all their varieties, while his quickening spirit brooded over them as over the elementary forms of a creation of his own. Thus living in the life he gave, his existence was too intense and extended to be conceived by the common mind: hence the neglect and obscurity in which he passed his youth.
...The profession which Monaldi had chosen for the future occupation of his life was that of a painter; to which, however, he could not be said to have come wholly unprepared. The slight sketch of him will show that the most important part, the mind of a painter, he already posessed; the nature of his amusements (in which, some one has well observed, men are generally most in earnest,) having unconsciously disciplined his mind for this pursuit. He had looked at Nature with the eye of a lover; none of her minutest beauties had escaped him, and all that were stiring to a sensitive heart and a romantic imagination were treasured up in his memory, as themes of delightful musing in her absence: and they came to him in those moments with that neverfailing freshness and life which love can best give to the absent. But the skill and the hand of an artist were still to be acquired.note 93
It is not neccessary that there actually be specific written evidence connecting Homer to Allston's views, for it would not have been possible for Winslow Homer to have avoided being influenced by Allston. There are nonetheless a couple of notable items of corroborating evidence in the little that remains of what Homer himself wrote and said.
FIRST: In 1868, Homer sent a letter to his mother when he lived in New York. A page of the letter is preserved because Homer sketched a boy holding up a book, captioned "Winslow Homer, age of 12, This little book I'd rather own/Than all the gold [and?] gems'/etc; Win got my book/Chas/Dea Wally"note 94 In what remains of the letter, Winslow wrote,
December 27/1868/Dear Mother/I have made still another discovery since I wrote you-in-Our-Times"
On the reverse he wrote,
The sketch is come safely
Winslow's "discovery" in "Our Times" referred to, I believe, the articles about Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in the New York Times on Dec. 25, Oct. 31, and Oct. 9 of 1868. The book referred to would have been Dana Jr.'s Two Years before the Mast , which at that time was one of the few sources of information about California, which had become American territory when Homer was age 12 and where gold was discovered that year. Homer's father and uncle went to California in 1849. Most significant however is Homer's comment "the sketch is come safely," which Gordon Hendricks' suggested implied "through all these years." In 1848, Richard Henry Dana Jr. was living with his wife and Aunt Martha (Allston's widow) in Allston's house, by Allston's studio, which still housed many works of Allston. It was Dana Jr. who edited Allston's Lectures on Art and published them in 1850. It would seem that there was a sketch of young Homer's which in some way was connected with Dana Jr. and that he quite possibly assisted young Winslow Homer with it. At the very least however, the letter presents tangible evidence that Dana Jr. was of significance to Winslow Homer and his mother.
SECOND: Homer Martin, known for his landscape paintings, was a good friend of Winslow Homer. This story, from the History of the National Academy of Design 1825-1953 , establishes at least one statement from Homer concerning his intention to impart the soul of one person represented in his art:
It is amusing to note in passing that when a portrait of Homer Martin was presented to the council (to qualify him for Associate membership), "The Secretary was instructed to return it to Mr. Martin with the request that it be finished." Not being able to identify the artist, one of the members asked Winslow Homer if he knew who painted it, whereupon Homer responded: "Why I painted it. I tried to make it look as much like a landscape as possible." The portrait is now in the permanent collection of the Academy.note 95
Having grown up surrounded by the influence of Allston's views, views not unlike those of his friend John LaFarge discussed in the previous paper, Winslow Homer quite early acquired the mind of a painter, sensitive always to expression and character, whether it be a high hat or an old pair of boots, intensely observant of the external primary images and internal secondary images, and always painting exactly what he saw. While George Peck was right in predicting that the "metaphysical air" of Allston's lectures would, even from the time they were first published, keep them from "those who might profit most by them," I believe that Winslow Homer fully understood and used Allston's methods effectively. They are, I believe, what might be called a "secret" to some of the effectiveness of Homer's greatest works.
The real evidence is in Winslow Homer's works however, for I have been guided in this research by the secondary images I see. In 1988, surprised to discover that people who spent their lives "booming" Homer's pictures had not written about the secondary images in his works, I wrote a paper in which I described what I saw. People who responded to that paper were for the most part unwilling to let Homer's works speak for themselves. Some suggested that I must explain "why" Homer would have gone to the trouble to place such secondary images in his works, if what I wrote was ever to be accepted. I understand now why the explanation was so necessary, for unless what we see, either in the works of God or man, can be communicated to others, it remains to the world, but our private fantasy. I also better understand that while theory should be led by observation, many are blinded by theoretical expectations. Within these two additional papers, "Fully understood?" and "Childhood" is plenty of "why," theoretical reasons which may counterbalance the expectations which have kept people from seeing, reasons which may help others to begin to see the incredible depth of the poetic realites which "The Obtuse Bard" saw and created in his works.note 96
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