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American Sculptors in Florence 13/03/2011

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c. 1850

Having introduced the name of Mr. Powers here, I will close with a notice of one of his works – his Greek Slave. In his studio I saw that most lovely conception, the Proserpine, with which you are all acquainted; the Fisher Boy, pretty, but hardly more; the lion head of old Jackson, true as truth; the demoniac head of Calhoun, equally true, I believe; the clay model of Eve, which many prefer to the Slave, and a marble copy of the Greek Slave, nearly finished, and which has since been exhibited throughout the country. On seeing this last work, I was in no way disappointed. I had then seen the Venus, and all the Greek sculpture in the Imperial Gallery, and the Venus of Canova – still I was satisfied. I even searched for defects, failures, but could find none – for obvious beauties, they were there without the searching. In contour, proportion, exquisite symmetry and grace, nothing of modern workmanship can be more admirable. It must demand the eye of a most exact anatomist, and of a most skilful mechanic, to see where the form fails of its just shape in muscle or limb, or where the chisel fails in any point of the most careful workmanship. I have seen the female form of a more noble and majestic bearing, of a more queenly elegance, of a more goddess-like dignity; but for moving beauty, the sort of beauty that makes a Venus, one must doubt whether in modern statuary it has been surpassed. The head, as in the Venus, bends toward the left, as if, we may suppose in the present case, turning away from the common gaze. And the only change it has ever occurred to me to wish for, has been, that at the same time the head turned aside, it should, for the same reason that it turned aside, have been slightly bent downwards, with the eyes a little more depressed. That, I believe, would have added, at least, to an expression which it is very commonly accused of wanting. For myself, it strikes me, as it is, to be full of expression – of sensibility to all the painfnlness of her position and destiny – still, as it should be, a restrained sensibility. Who has not seen, at least wlio cannot imagine, a countenance, ready to burst forth with suppressed tears and sighs, yet which do not burst forth, and there is hardly an outward sign, save to a very sympathizing heart, of the tumult and agony within. There is but slight visible sign of pain on the Slavic’s placid face, but it always seems as if tears would flow if marble could. It appears to me there is perhaps as much manifestation of expression on the countenance as could be put into marble, without doing more damage to the beauty of the creature than it could add of interest or force to its expressiveness. I think we are here to remember the difference between painting and sculpture. Those delicate, refined shades of meaning which you find in such heads as those of Guercino or Rallaelle, are not possible, I imagine, in marble. It is most essential that emotions of grief and pain should not be stamped too strongly upon the unchangeable stone. It could only serve more to repel than attract. Niobe and her children suffer and weep, but they express too much; all is too visible; they suffer with too much exhibition of what is suffered. With more repression, there would have been a more true and moving expression – more, not less, sympathy, would be excited in others.

I saw in Florence the group of a mother and child. The child had been just rescued from the water, and lay dead on the mother’s lap. But the language of the countenance of the mother, true as it was to the minutest line, was all too true to be witnessed without too much pain. Just as it is in real life. Grief in excess should not be seen; and if seen, never moves, like the deep, settled sadness, which has left its lines not in any change or distortion of feature, but in those ineffaceable, deep-sunk footsteps of pain, which show that the soul – not so much the body – is convulsed with agony to its centre. The most refined and delicate invention is displayed in the falling of the left hand with the double chain. The hair, after the Greek manner, divides over the forehead, and gathers into a tuft or club behind, which seems too large for beauty. The limbs, the hands and feet, seem to be without fault. The genius of Powers, it is said, and his peculiar eminence, are shown in the extreme delicacy and fineness of his finish. They are shown there, certainly, but elsewhere as well. Whether he will continue to advance in his art –whether he will go on to manifest fertility, rapidity, variety in his invention, and execution, it must remain for time to determine. At present, all that can be said is, there is the promise of it.

Our distinguished countryman, Greenough, I found engaged on a colossal work for the Capitol at Washington. It was to consist of a group of figures, four in number, to correspond in size and position with one by Persico, already in place. Only two of the four statues were as yet commenced in the marble; those, as I should judge, nearly completed. As far as the work had proceeded, it promised all that his friends or the country could desire. Its design, truly national, seemed to express allegorically the triumph of American civilization, in the forms of an American Anglo-Saxon subduing an Indian; and the forms, nearly finished, of the savage and the backwoodsman, the white man violently restraining the Indian, appeared to be done with the greatest truth of conception, and the finest dramatic effect.

Another of our artists I found at Florence, Mr. Ives, who was engaged both upon statues and busts. He was just finishing a Cupid of great beauty and variety in the accessories, and must, when completed, make him most favorably known to the country.

I cannot leave this subject without expressing a regret that so many of our artists, painters and sculptors, but particularly our sculptors, separate themselves as they do from their own country, and in fact become foreigners by long residence abroad. There seems to be no sufficient reason – at least, so far as their art is concerned – for this entire expatriation. It may be a pleasure and a luxury to reside in such cities as Rome and Florence; but it can scarce be otherwise than injurious to the interests of art at home. In some respects, and for a brief period, a residence abroad may be useful; nay, essential to the artist himself. He needs education and a teacher; and models in marble can be had only in the capitals of Europe; in the living man, however, it should be remembered – the true model – everywhere. Five years may be needed for such objects. But let the residence of the young artist be prolonged much beyond that period, and though it may be true that the taste, and power of critical discrimination, might be improved by longer absence, it must be more than doubtful whether more would not be lost than gained on the score of original conception, and execution. It cannot be wholesome to the mind to be forever in the presence of artificial models of perfection. Such a one will become a slavish copyist; that will be the reasonable apprehension. At least his subjects will be exclusively selected from the class of objects always before him.

A visit to the modern studios of Rome and Florence will convince any one of this. They are crowded with copies of Greek and Roman works. The American student, though he arrives there from a fresh, new country, will not be able to withstand the tendency of all about him; he will do as the rest do; and devote his time and genius to Apollos, Dianas, Venuses, to the exclusion of those living themes from actual life, and incidents of our own history, which might kindle a new enthusiasm and inspire to more original works. Not by any means that the beautiful fables of the Greek and Roman mythology should be utterly forborne; not that Orpheus, even at this late day, should not again descend in search of the long-lost Eurydice – for even the oldest theme may become new in the treatment of a man of genius – but that the constant presence of the Antique, and daily worship at her shrine, must, as the rule, tend to generate a dull and slavish turn of mind – all within the limits of the most refined taste, but emasculated by the absence of every thing like a vigorous originality.

It is pleaded that marble cannot be found in America. But it is imported at no ruinous enhancement of the original cost; and in no long time, when it is known that a purer article is wanted, it will be found. The fine grain of the Carrara marble is by no means the most desirable, especially for some works. The coarser grain of the Parian is preferable; and its delicate, creamy tint, more agreeable than the chalk white of the Italian. There is quite a wide range of qualities, both in color and grain, suited to the sculptor, and it would be wonderful indeed, if, throughout our vast interior, a native stone were not soon discovered, that would prove perfectly adapted to any kind of work required. Workmen competent to complete a statue at present, there are not: but were our sculptors here on the spot to create the demand, enough would be found, with the briefest instruction, equal to all the detail of the most delicate finish. There are hundreds of mechanics in marble work in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, familiar already with the use of the most delicate chisel in executing, if not often the human form, yet flowers, fruits, arabesques, architectural devices, capitals and mouldings, with a skill that at once, under the instruction of an accomplished statuary, could be transferred to statues, groups, heads, drapery, and every other more difficult part of the art. An American stone-cutter to-day may rise up a statuary to-morrow. A power of rapid adaptation is a national trait. But if I should be wrong here, and native workmen could not be procured, the low prices of labor in Rome and Florence would enable them to be imported in any number, and of any character desired, to whom American wages would prove wealth. The American sculptor, resolving to return to his country and plant himself on her soil, and entrust his fortunes to her, might make some immediate sacrifice in the loss of the society of those of his own profession in the great European capitals. He might feel here out of the atmosphere of art, and as if he could not breathe. But my belief is, that as far as that should not prove to be an imaginary loss, an art atmosphere would soon be created at home, by the removal, and residence in America, of all our artists, in which as vigorous an existence might be passed as in Italy. Let these gentlemen establish themselves in some one of our cities, not driven asunder by trivial and ignoble jealousies, but united by one spirit of devotion to the great interests of high art, and contending with each other only in the race of a perfectly honorable competition for the noble prizes of his profession, let them mingle freely, as they would, with the best literary and general society of our capitals, becoming known personally as well as through their works – and an interest would be awakened, I am sure, in the whole subject of art, but particularly in sculpture, that would lead to the happiest results; an enthusiasm would arise that would crowd conversation with a wholly new set of topics, and give a new and higher direction to that passion for elegant indulgence and costly expenditure, which will find its gratification somewhere, if not in art or literature, then in dinners, suppers, upholstery, dress, equipage.

As long as these gentlemen are hidden from the country by the thick veil which hides all from Europe, and not a sculptor is to be met in society, nor a studio to be visited, where thoughts and feelings can be exchanged on the subject of his art, there can be neither knowledge nor enthusiasm on the subject. This foreign absenteeism kills knowledge and enthusiasm. He who really has at heart the progress of a particular branch of science or art in a certain country or district, goes there, and advocates the cause by his presence, his speech, and his works. Not only would their mere presence and conversation, in the case of artists of cultivated minds, and the frequent resort to their studios, tend rapidly to generate a taste for this particular art, but a desire to possess what began to be so much honored and prized, would advance with equal pace, and, before the workmen could be procured, a demand for finished works would arise, more than could be answered. Remaining buried in Europe, nothing of the kind could take place. Only let it be understood that such men as I refer to had returned to their country, ready and desirous to execute the orders that might be entrusted to them, and not only private individuals of wealth and taste would contend for the privilege of precedency in obtaining works from their hand, but sovereign states, as in the best days of the Greek Republics would appear by their ambassadors, or, in humbler phrase, business agents, as solicitors for their talent. It needs nothing but their personal presence to give an impulse to our legislatures throughout the Union to decorate our thirty halls of Govenmient with specimens of American sculpture. Every commonwealth would soon demand its great historical men in marble. A rivalry throughout the country would spring np, that would contend for the best artist and work of the highest mark. Sculpture should help to dignify, and soon it will do so, all our public buildings. As once in Athens and throughout Greece, it will not be private wealth so much as that of the State that will honor itself by leaving everywhere proofs of an exalted and elegant taste, as well as of intelligence in the administration of public affairs. No piece of architecture is complete, and so it will be thought, without its sculpture in statue, and bust, or relief in marble, or brass. The pillar requires its capital of acanthus leaves; the building, its ornamental frieze, its statues and reliefs without, its histories and allegories within. The nation has lately here, in our capital of Massachusetts, erected a Custom House of more than Egyptian solidity, and of almost classic beauty; at any rate, of perfect and permanent material and workmanship; but it is still unfinished; naked and bare – and will remain so till adorned with its significant illustrations in marble or bronze. Massachusetts and Virginia have, each, her Washington, but both by the hands of foreign artists. Louisiana has just called for her Washington from the chisel of Powers. Virginia is about to erect a sepulchral monument to the same great name at Richmond, and in Crawford has found a design and an artist. South Carolina has jnst obtained a statue of Calhoun from the hand of Powers. These are hut the beginnings of an interest in an art ^hich is destined to extend, and that not slowly, over the whole country. But whether this shall take place earlier or later, or almost at all will depend upon the presence or the absence of our native artists. In England, I believe, there would be sculpture as well as painting, had her sculptors resided there. Let ours reside and work in Europe, and they will be Europeans – nor can a school of American art arise.