The Life and Genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne, by Frank Stearns

Chapter 15

Hawthorne as Art Critic: 1858

Nearly one-third of the Italian Note-book is devoted to the criticisms or descriptions of paintings, statues, and architecture, for which we can be only too thankful as coming from such a bright, penetrating, and ingenious intelligence. It is much in their favor that Hawthorne had not previously undertaken a course of instruction in art; that he wrote for his own benefit, and not for publication; and that he was not biased by preconceived opinions. It cannot be doubted that he was sometimes influenced by the opinions of Story, Powers, and other artists with whom he came in contact; but this could have happened only in particular cases, and more especially in respect to modern works of art. When Hawthorne visited the galleries he usually went alone, or only accompanied by his wife.

The only opportunities for the study of aesthetics or art criticism, fifty years ago, were to be found in German universities. Kugler’s handbook of painting was the chief authority in use, rather academic, but correct enough in a general way. Ruskin, a more eloquent and discriminating writer, had devoted himself chiefly to celebrating the merits of Turner and Tintoretto, but was never quite just to Florentine art. Mrs. Jameson followed closely after Kugler, and was the only one of these that Hawthorne appears to have consulted. Winckelmann’s history of Greek sculpture, which was not a history in the proper sense of the word, had been translated by Lodge, but Hawthorne does not mention it, and it would not have been much assistance to him if he had read it. Like Winckelmann and Lessing, however, he admired the “Laocoön,”— an admiration now somewhat out of fashion.

There can be no final authority in art, for the most experienced critics still continue to differ in their estimates of the same painting or statue. More than this, it is safe to affirm that any one writer who makes a statement concerning a certain work of art at a given time, would have made a somewhat different statement at another time. In fact, this not unfrequently happens in actual practice; for all that any of us can do is, to reproduce the impression made on us at the moment, and this depends as much on our own state of mind, and on our peculiarities, as on the peculiarities of the picture or statue that we criticise. It is the same in art itself. If Raphael had not painted the “Sistine Madonna” at the time he did, he would have produced a different work. It was the concentration of that particular occasion, and if any accident had happened to prevent it, that pious and beautiful vision would have been lost to the world.

It requires years of study and observation of the best masters to become a trustworthy art critic, and then everything depends of course upon the genius of the individual. It has happened more than once that a wealthy American, with a certain kind of enthusiasm for art, has prepared himself at a German university, has studied the science of connoisseurship, and has become associate member of a number of foreign societies, only to discover at length that he had no talent for the profession. Hawthorne enjoyed no such advantages, nor did he even think of becoming a connoisseur. His whole experience in the art of design might be included within twelve months, and his original basis was nothing better than his wife’s water-color painting and the mediocre pictures in the Boston Athenaeum; but he brought to his subject an eye that was trained to the closest observation of Nature and a mind experienced beyond all others 109 in the mysteries of human life. He begins tentatively, and as might be expected makes a number of errors, but quite as often he hits the nail, where others have missed it. He learns by his mistakes, and steadily improves in critical faculty. Hawthorne’s Italian Note-book is a unique record, in which the development of a highly organized mind has advanced from small beginnings to exceptional skill in a fresh department of activity.

Hawthorne brought with him to Italy the Yankee preference for newness and nicety, which our forefathers themselves derived from their residence in Holland, and there is no city in Europe where this sentiment could have troubled him so much as in Rome. He disliked the dingy picture-frames, the uncleanly canvases, the earth-stains and broken noses of the antique statues, the smoked-up walls of the Sistine Chapel, and the cracks in Raphael’s frescos. He condemns everything as rubbish which has not an external perfection; forgetting that, as in human nature, the most precious treasures are sometimes allied with an ungainly exterior. Yet in this he only echoes the impressions of thousands of others who have gone to the Vatican and returned disconsolate, because amid a perplexing multitude of objects they knew not where to look for consummate art. One can imagine if an experienced friend had accompanied Hawthorne to the Raphael stanza, and had pointed out the figures of the Pope, the cardinal, and the angelic boys in the “Mass at Bolsena,” he would have admired them without limitation. He quickly discovered Raphael’s “Transfiguration,” and considered it the greatest painting that the world contains.

The paintings in the princely collections in Rome are, with the exception of those in the Borghese gallery, far removed from princely. A large proportion of their best paintings had long since been sold to the royal collections of northern Europe, and had been replaced either by copies or by works of inferior masters. In the Barberini palace there are not more than three or four paintings such as might reasonably detain a traveller, and it is about the same in the Ludovisi gallery. There was not a grain of affectation in Hawthorne; he never pretended to admire what he did not like, nor did he strain himself into liking anything that his inner nature rebelled against.

Hawthorne’s taste in art was much in advance of his time. His quick appreciation of the colossal statues of Castor and Pollux on the Quirinal is the best proof of this. Ten years later it was the fashion in Rome to deride those statues, as a late work of the empire and greatly lacking in artistic style. Brunn, in his history of ancient sculpture, attributes them to the school of Lysippus, a contemporary of Alexander, which Brunn certainly would not have done if he had possessed a good eye for form. Vasari, on the contrary, a surer critic, considered them worthy to be placed beside Michel Angelo’s “David”; but it remained for Furtwängler to restore them to their true position as a work of the Periclean age, although copied by Italian sculptors. They must have been the product of a single mind, 110 either Phidias, Alcameres, or the elder Praxiteles — if there ever was such a person; and they have the finest figures of any statues in Rome (much finer than the dandified “Apollo Belvedere”) and also the most spirited action.

Hawthorne went to the Villa Ludovisi to see the much-vaunted bas-relief of Antinous, which fifty years ago was considered one of the art treasures of the city; but a more refined taste has since discovered that in spite of the rare technical skill, its hard glassy finish gives it a cold and conventional effect. Hawthorne returned from it disappointed, and wrote in his diary:

“This Antinous is said to be the finest relic of antiquity next to the Apollo and the Laocoön; but I could not feel it to be so, partly, I suppose, because the features of Antinous do not seem to me beautiful in themselves; and that heavy, downward look is repeated till I am more weary of it than of anything else in sculpture.”

The Greek artist of Adrian’s time attempted to give the face a pensive expression, but only succeeded in this heavy downward look.

Hawthorne felt the same disappointment after his first visit to the sculpture-gallery of the Vatican. “I must confess,” he wrote, “taking such transient glimpses as I did, I was more impressed with the extent of the Vatican, and the beautiful order in which it is kept and its great sunny, open courts, with fountains, grass, and shrubs . . . than with the statuary.” The Vatican collection has great archaeological value, but, with the exception of the “Laocoön,” the “Meleager,” the “Apollo,” and a few others, little or no artistic value. The vast majority of the statues there are either late Roman works or cheap Roman copies of second-rate Hellenic statues. Some of them are positively bad and others are archaic, and Hawthorne was fully justified in his disatisfaction with them. He noticed, however, a decided difference between the original “Apollo” and the casts of it with which he was familiar. On a subsequent visit he fails to observe the numerous faults in Canova’s “Perseus,” and afterwards writes this original statement concerning the “Laocoön”:

“I felt the Laocoön very powerfully, though very quietly; an immortal agony with a strange calmness diffused through it, so that it resembles the vast age of the sea, calm on account of its immensity; as the tumult of Niagara, which does not seem to be tumult, because it keeps pouring on forever and ever.”

Professor E. A. Gardner and the more fastidious school of critics have recently decided that the action of the “Laocoön” is too violent to be contained within the proper boundaries of sculpture; but Hawthorne controverts this view in a single sentence. The action is violent, it is true, but the impression which the statue makes on him is not a violent one; for the greatness of the art sublimates the motive. It is a tragedy in marble, and Pliny, who had seen the works of Phidias and Praxiteles, placed Agesander’s “Laocoön” above them all. This, however, is a Roman view. What Hawthorne wrote in his diary should not always be taken literally. When he declares that he would like to have every artist that perpetrates an allegory put to death, he merely expresses the puzzling effects which such compositions frequently exercise on the weary-minded traveller; and when he wishes that all the frescos on Italian walls could be obliterated, he only repeats a sentiment of similar strain. Perhaps we should class in the same category Hawthorne’s remark concerning the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, that “it would be well if they were converted into paving-stones.” There are no grander monuments of ancient art than those battered and headless statues from the pediment of the Parthenon (the figures of the so-called “Three Fates” surpass the “Venus of Melos”), and archaeologists are still in dispute as to what they may have represented; but the significance of the subject before him was always the point in which Hawthorne was interested. Julian Hawthorne says of his father, in regard to a similar instance:

“Of technicalities — difficulties overcome, harmony of lines, and so forth — he had no explicit knowledge; they produced their effect upon him of course, but without his recognizing the manner of it. All that concerned him was the sentiment which the artist had meant to express; the means and method were comparatively unimportant.” 111

The technicalities of art differ with every clime and every generation. They belong chiefly to the connoisseur, and have their value, but the less a critic thinks of them in making a general estimate of a painting or statue, the more likely he is to render an impartial judgment. Hawthorne’s analysis of Praxiteles’s “Faun,” in his “Romance of Monte Beni,” being a subject in which he was particularly interested, is almost without a rival in the literature of its kind; and this is the more remarkable since the copy of the “Faun” in the museum of the Capitol is not one of the best, at least it is inferior to the one in the Glyptothek at Munich. It seems as if Hawthorne had penetrated to the first conception of it in the mind of Praxiteles.

The Sistine Chapel, like the Italian scenery, only unfolds its beauties on a bright day, and Hawthorne happened to go there when the sky was full of drifting clouds, a time when it is difficult to see any object as it really is. It may have been on this account that he entirely mistook the action of the Saviour in Michel Angelo’s “Last Judgment.” Christ has raised his arm above his head in order to display the mark where he was nailed to the cross, and Hawthorne presumed this, as many others have done, to be an angry threatening gesture of condemnation, which would not accord with his merciful spirit. He appreciated the symmetrical figure of Adam, and the majestic forms of the prophets and sibyls encircling the ceiling, and if he had seen the face of the Saviour in a fair light, he might have recognized that such divine calmness of expression could not coexist with a vindictive motive. This, however, can be seen to better advantage in a Braun photograph than in the painting itself.

Hawthorne goes to the Church of San Pietro in Vincolo to see Michel Angelo’s “Moses,” but he does not moralize before it, like a certain Concord artist, on “the weakness of exaggeration;” nor does he consider, like Ruskin, that its conventional horns are a serious detriment. On the contrary he finds it “grand and sublime, with a beard flowing down like a cataract; a truly majestic figure, but not so benign as it were desirable that such strength should hold.” An Englishman present remarked that the “Moses” had very fine features — “a compliment,” says Hawthorne, “for which the colossal Hebrew ought to have made the Englishman a bow.”


Perhaps the Englishman really meant that the face had a noble expression. The somewhat satyr-like features of the “Moses” would seem to have been unconsciously adopted, together with the horns, from a statue of the god Pan, which thus serves as an intermediate link between the “Moses” and the “Faun” of Praxiteles; but he who cannot appreciate Michel Angelo’s “Moses” in spite of this, knows nothing of the Alpine heights of human nature.

Of all the paintings that Hawthorne saw in Rome none impressed him so deeply as Guido’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci, and none more justly. If the “Laocoön” is the type of an old Greek tragedy, a strong man strangled in the coils of Fate, the portrait of Beatrice represents the tragedy of mediaeval Italy, a beautiful woman crushed by the downfall of a splendid civilization. The fate of Joan of Arc or of Madame Roland was merciful compared to that of poor Beatrice. Religion is no consolation to her, for it is the Pope himself who signs her death-warrant. She is massacred to gratify the avarice of the Holy See. Yet in this last evening of her tragical life, she does find strength and consolation in her dignity as a woman. Never was art consecrated to a higher purpose; Guido rose above himself; and, as Hawthorne says, it seems as if mortal man could not have wrought such an effect. It has always been the most popular painting in Rome, but Hawthorne was the first to celebrate its unique superiority in writing, and his discourse upon it in various places leaves little for those that follow.

It may have been long since discovered that Hawthorne’s single weakness was a weakness for his friends; certainly an amiable weakness, but nevertheless that is the proper name for it. When Phocion was Archon of Athens, he said that a chief magistrate should know no friends; and the same should be true of an authoritative writer. Hawthorne has not gone so far in this direction as many others have who had less reason to speak with authority than he; but he has indicated his partiality for Franklin Pierce plainly enough, and his over-praise of Hiram Powers and William Story, as well as his under-praise of Crawford, will go down to future generations as something of an injustice to those three artists.


It is not necessary to repeat here what Hawthorne wrote concerning Powers’ Webster. The statue stands in front of the State House at Boston, and serves as a good likeness of the famous orator, but more than that one cannot say for it. The face has no definable expression, and those who have looked for a central motive in the figure will be pleased to learn what it is by reading Hawthorne’s description of it, as he saw it in Powers’ studio at Florence. A sculptor of the present day can find no better study for his art than the attitudes and changes of countenance in an eloquent speaker; but which of them can be said to have taken advantage of this? Story made an attempt in his statue of Everett, but even his most indulgent friends did not consider it a success. His “George Peabody,” opposite the Bank of England, could not perhaps have been altogether different from what it is.

What chiefly interested Story in his profession seems to have been the modelling of unhappy women in various attitudes of reflection. He made a number of these, of which his “Cleopatra” is the only one known to fame, and in the expression of her face he has certainly achieved a high degree of excellence. Neither has Hawthorne valued it too highly, — the expression of worldly splendor incarnated in a beautiful woman on the tragical verge of an abyss. If she only were beautiful! Here the limitations of the statue commence. Hawthorne says, “The sculptor had not shunned to give the full, Nubian lips and other characteristics of the Egyptian physiognomy.”

Here he follows the sculptor himself, and it is remarkable that a college graduate like William Story should have made so transparent a mistake. Cleopatra was not an Egyptian at all. The Ptolemies were Greeks, and it is simply impossible to believe that they would have allied themselves with a subject and alien race. This kind of small pedantry has often led artists astray, and was peculiarly virulent during the middle of the past century. The whole figure of Story’s “Cleopatra” suffers from it. Hawthorne says again, “She was draped from head to foot in a costume minutely and scrupulously studied from that of ancient Egypt.” In fact, the body and limbs of the statue are so closely shrouded as to deprive the work of that sense of freedom of action and royal abandon which greets us in Shakespeare’s and Plutarch’s “Cleopatra.” Story might have taken a lesson from Titian’s matchless “Cleopatra” in the Cassel gallery, or from Marc Antonio’s small woodcut of Raphael’s “Cleopatra.”

Perhaps it is not too much to say of Crawford that he was the finest plastic genius of the Anglo–Saxon race. His technique may not have been equal to Flaxman’s or St. Gaudens’, but his designs have more of grandeur than the former, and he is more original than the latter. There are faults of modelling in his “Orpheus,” and its attitude resembles that of the eldest son of Niobe in the Florentine gallery — although the Niobe youth looks upward and Orpheus is peering into darkness — its features are rather too pretty; but the statue has exactly what Powers’ “Greek Slave” lacks, a definite motive — that of an earnest seeker — which pervades it from head to foot; and it is no imaginary pathos that we feel in its presence. There is, at least, no imitation of the antique in Crawford’s “Beethoven,” for its conception, the listening to internal harmonies, would never have occurred to a Greek or a Roman. Even Hawthorne admits Crawford’s skill in the treatment of drapery; and this is very important, for it is in his drapery quite as much as in the nude that we recognize the superiority of Michel Angelo to Raphael; and the folds of Beethoven’s mantle are as rhythmical as his own harmonies. The features lack something of firmness, but it is altogether a statue in the grand manner.

Hawthorne is rather too exacting in his requirements of modern sculptors. Warrington Wood, who commenced life as a marble-worker, always employed Italian workmen to carve his statues, although he was perfectly able to do it himself, and always put on the finishing touches — as I presume they all do. Bronze statues are finished with a file, and of course do not require any knowledge of the chisel.

In regard to the imitation of antique attitudes, there has certainly been too much of it, as Hawthorne supposes; but the Greeks themselves were given to this form of plagiarism, and even Praxiteles sometimes adopted the motives of his predecessors; but Hawthorne praises Powers, Story, and Harriet Hosmer above their merits.

The whole brotherhood of artists and their critical friends might rise up against me, if I were to support Hawthorne’s condemnation of modern Venuses, and “the guilty glimpses stolen at hired models.” They are not necessarily guilty glimpses. To an experienced artist the customary study from a naked figure, male or female, is little more than what a low-necked dress at a party would be to many others. Yet the instinct of the age shrinks from this exposure. We can make pretty good Venuses, but we cannot look at them through the same mental and moral atmosphere as the contemporaries of Scopas, or even with the same eyes that Michel Angelo saw them. We feel the difference between a modern Venus and an ancient one. There is a statue in the Vatican of a Roman emperor, of which every one says that it ought to wear clothes; and the reason is because the face has such a modern look. A raving Bacchante may be a good acquisition to an art museum, but it is out of place in a public library. A female statue requires more or less drapery to set off the outlines of the figure and to give it dignity. We feel this even in the finest Greek work — like the “Venus of Cnidos.”

In this matter Hawthorne certainly exposes his Puritanic education, and he also places too high a value on the carving of button-holes and shoestrings by Italian workmen. Such things are the fag-ends of statuary.

His judgment, however, is clear and convincing in regard to the tinted Eves and Venuses of Gibson. Whatever may have been the ancient practice in this respect, Gibson’s experiment proved a failure. Nobody likes those statues; and no other sculptor has since followed Gibson’s example. The tinting of statues by the Greeks did not commence until the time of Aristotle, and does not seem to have been very general. Their object evidently was, not so much to imitate flesh as to tone down the crystalline glare of the new marble. Pausanias speaks of a statue in Arcadia, the drapery of which was painted with vermilion, “so as to look very gay.” This was of course the consequence of a late and degraded taste. That traces of paint should have been discovered on Greek temples is no evidence that the marble was painted when they were first built.

It may be suspected that Hawthorne was one of the very few who have seen the “Venus dé Medici” and recognized the true significance of the statue. The vast majority of visitors to the Uffizi only see in it the type of a perfectly symmetrical woman bashfully posing for her likeness in marble, but Hawthorne’s perception in it went much beyond that, and the fact that he attempts no explanation of its motive is in accordance with the present theory. He also noticed that statues had sometimes exercised a potent spell over him, and at others a very slight influence.

Froude says that a man’s modesty is the best part of him. Notice that, ye strugglers for preferment, and how beautifully modest Hawthorne is, when he writes in his Florentine diary:

“In a year’s time, with the advantage of access to this magnificent gallery, I think I might come to have some little knowledge of pictures. At present I still know nothing; but am glad to find myself capable, at least, of loving one picture better than another. I am sensible, however, that a process is going on, and has been ever since I came to Italy, that puts me in a state to see pictures with less toil, and more pleasure, and makes me more fastidious, yet more sensible of beauty where I saw none before.”

Hawthorne belongs to the same class of amateur critics as Shelley and Goethe, who, even if their opinions cannot always be accepted as final, illuminate the subject with the radiance of genius and have an equal value with the most experienced connoisseurs.

109 At least at that time.

110 On the base of one is Opus Phidiae, and on that of the other, Opus Praxitelis.

111 J. Hawthorne, ii. 193.

112 Italian Note-book, p. 164.

The return of the Hawthornes to Rome through Tuscany was even more interesting than their journey to Florence in the spring, and they enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a vetturino who would seem to have been the Sir Philip Sidney of his profession, a compendium of human excellences. There are such men, though rarely met with, and we may trust Hawthorne’s word that Constantino Bacci was one of them; not only a skilful driver, but a generous provider, honest, courteous, kindly, and agreeable. They went first to Siena, where they were entertained for a week or more by the versatile Mr. Story, and where Hawthorne wrote an eloquent description of the cathedral; then over the mountain pass where Radicofani nestles among the iron-browed crags above the clouds; past the malarious Lake of Bolsena, scene of the miracle which Raphael has commemorated in the Vatican; through Viterbo and Sette Vene; and finally, on October 16, into Rome, through the Porta’ del Popolo, designed by Michel Angelo in his massive style, — Donati’s comet flaming before them every night. Thompson, the portrait painter, had already secured a furnished house, No. 68 Piazza Poli, for the Hawthornes, to which they went immediately.

Since the death of Julius Cæsar, comets have always been looked upon as the forerunners of pestilence and war, but wars are sometimes blessings, and Donati’s discovery proved a harbinger of good to Italy, — but to the Hawthornes, a prediction of evil. Continually in Hawthorne’s Italian journal we meet with references to the Roman malaria, as if it were a subject that occupied his thoughts, and nowhere is this more common than during the return-journey from Florence. Did it occur to him that the lightning might strike in his own house? No sensible American now would take his children to Rome unless for a very brief visit; and yet William Story brought up his family there with excellent success, so far as health was concerned.

We can believe that Hawthorne took every possible precaution, so far as he knew, but in spite of that on November 1 his eldest daughter was seized with Roman fever, and for six weeks thereafter lay trembling between life and death, so that it seemed as if a feather might turn the balance.

She does not appear to have been imprudent. Her father believed that the “old hag” breathed upon her while she was with her mother, who was sketching in the Palace of the Cæsars; but the Palatine Hill is on high ground, with a foundation of solid masonry, and was guarded by French soldiers, and it would have been difficult to find a more cleanly spot in the city. A German count, who lived in a villa on the Cælian Hill, close by, considered his residence one of the most healthful in Rome. Miss Una had a passionate attachment for the capital of the ancient world; and it seems as if the evil spirit of the place had seized upon her, as the Ice Maiden is supposed to entrap chamois hunters in the Alps.

One of the evils attendant on sickness in a foreign country is, the uncertainty in regard to a doctor, and this naturally leads to a distrust and suspicion of the one that is employed. Even so shrewd a man as Bismarck fell into the hands of a charlatan at St. Petersburg and suffered severely in consequence. Hawthorne either had a similar experience, or, what came to the same thing, believed that he did. He considered himself obliged to change doctors for his daughter, and this added to his care and anxiety. During the next four months he wrote not a word in his journal (or elsewhere, so far as we know), and he visibly aged before his wife’s eyes. He went to walk on occasion with Story or Thompson, but it was merely for the preservation of his own health. His thoughts were always in his daughter’s chamber, and this was so strongly marked upon his face that any one could read it. Toward the Ides of March, Miss Una was sufficiently improved to take a short look at the carnival, but it was two months later before she was in a condition to travel, and neither she nor her father ever wholly recovered from the effects of this sad experience.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38