Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

Presented by

Public Domain Books

The Hawthorne Centennial

Hawthorne as Art Critic

When the “Marble Faun” was first published the art criticism in it, especially of sculptors and painters who were then living, created a deal of discussion, which has been revived again by the recent centennial celebration. Hawthorne himself was the most perfect artist of his time as a man of letters, and the judgment of such a person ought to have its value, even when it relates to subjects which are beyond the customary sphere of his investigations, and for which he has not made a serious preparation. In spite of the adage, “every man to his own trade,” it may be fairly asserted that much of Hawthorne’s art criticism takes rank among the finest that has been written in any language. On the other hand, there are instances, as might be expected, in which he has failed to hit the mark.

These latter may be placed in two classes: Firstly, those in which he indicates a partiality for personal acquaintances; and secondly, those in which he has followed popular opinion at the time, or the opinion of others, without sufficient consideration.

American society in Rome is always split up into various cliques,—which is not surprising in view of the adventitious manner in which it comes together there,—and in Hawthorne’s time the two leading parties were the Story and the Crawford factions. The latter was a man of true genius, and not only the best of American sculptors, but perhaps the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century. His statue of Beethoven is in the grand manner, and instinct with harmony, not only in attitude and expression, but even to the arrangement of the drapery. Crawford’s genius was only too well appreciated, and he was constantly carrying off the prizes of his art from all competitors. Consequently it was inevitable that other sculptors should be jealous of him, and should unite together for mutual protection. Story was a man of talent, and not a little of an amateur, but he was the gentlemanly entertainer of those Americans who came to the city with good letters of introduction. Hawthorne evidently fell into Story’s hands. He speaks slightingly of Crawford, and praises Story’s statue of Cleopatra in unqualified terms; and yet there seems to have been an undercurrent of suspicion in his mind, for he says more than once in the “Marble Faun” that it would appear to be a failing with sculptors to speak unfavorably of the work of other sculptors, and this, of course, refers to those with whom he was acquainted, and whom he sometimes rated above their value.

Warrington Wood, the best English sculptor of thirty years ago, praised Story’s “Cleopatra” to me, and I believe that Crawford also would have praised it. Neither has Hawthorne valued its expression 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 last century. The whole figure of Story’s “Cleopatra” suffers from it. He 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.”

Hawthorne was an idealist, and he idealized the materials in Story’s studio, for literary purposes, just as Shakespeare idealized Henry V., who was not a magnanimous monarch at all, but a brutal, narrow-minded fighter. The discourse on art, which he develops in this manner, forms one of the most valuable chapters in the “Marble Faun.” It assists us in reading it to remember that Story was not the model for Hawthorne’s “Kenyon,” but a very different character. The passage in which he criticises the methods of modern sculptors has often been quoted in later writings on that subject; and I suppose the whole brotherhood of artists would rise up against me if I were to support Hawthorne’s condemnation of nude 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 would be to 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 cotemporaries of Scopas, or even with the same eyes that Michael Angelo did. 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 buttonholes 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.

Hawthorne overestimates the Apollo Belvidere, as all the world did at that time; but his single remark concerning Canova is full of significance: “In these precincts which Canova’s genius was not quite of a character to render sacred, though it certainly made them interesting," etc.

He goes to the statue gallery in the Vatican and returns with a feeling of dissatisfaction, and justly so, for the vast majority of statues there are merely copies, and many of them very bad copies. He recognizes the Laocoon for what it really is, the abstract type of a Greek tragedy. He notices what has since been proved by severe archaeological study, that most of the possible types and attitudes of marble statues had been exhausted by the Greeks long before the Christian era. Miss Hosmer’s Zenobia was originally a Ceres, and even Crawford’s Orpheus strongly resembles a figure in the Niobe group at Florence.

But Hawthorne’s description of the Faun of Praxiteles stands by itself. As a penetrative analysis of a great sculptor’s motive it is unequalled by any modern writer on art, and this is set forth with a grace and delicacy worthy of Praxiteles himself. The only criticism which one feels inclined to make of it is that it too Hawthornish, too modern and elaborate; but is not this equally true of all modern criticism? We cannot return to the simplicity of the Greeks any more than we can to their customs. If Hawthorne would seem to discover too much in this statue, which is really a poor Roman copy, he has himself given us an answer to this objection. In Volume II., Chapter XII., he says: “Let the canvas glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out the painter’s art with your own resources of sensibility and imagination.” His cursory remarks on Raphael are not less pertinent and penetrating. Of technicalities he knew little, but no one, perhaps, has sounded such depths of that clairvoyant master’s nature, and so brought to light the very soul of him.

The “Marble Faun” may not be the most perfect of Hawthorne’s works, but it is much the greatest,—an epic romance, which can only be compared with Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister.”


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet

[Buy at Amazon]
Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
At Amazon