Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

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Public Domain Books

T. G. Appleton

Thomas G. Appleton, universally known as “Tom” Appleton, was a notable figure during the middle of the last century not only in Boston and Cambridge, but in Paris, Rome, Florence, and other European cities. He was descended from one of the oldest and wealthiest families of Boston, and graduated from Harvard in 1831, together with Wendell Phillips and George Lothrop Motley. He was not distinguished in college for his scholarship, but rather as a wit, a bon vivant, and a good fellow. Yet his companions looked upon him as a strong character and much above the average in intellect. After taking his degree of Bachelor of Arts he went through the Law School, and attempted to practise that profession in Boston. At the end of the first year, happening to meet Wendell Phillips on the sidewalk, the latter inquired if he had any clients. He had not; neither had Phillips, and they both agreed that waiting for fortune in the legal profession was wearisome business. They were both well adapted to it, and the only reason for their ill success would seem to have been that they belonged to wealthy and rather aristocratic families, amongst whom there is little litigation.

At the same time Sumner was laying the foundation by hard study for his future distinction as a legal authority, and Motley was discussing Goethe and Kant with the youthful Bismarck in Berlin. Wendell Phillips soon gave up his profession to become an orator in the anti-slavery cause; and Tom Appleton went to Rome and took lessons in oil painting.

Nothing can be more superficial than to presume that young men who write verses or study painting think themselves geniuses. A man may have a genius for mechanics; and in most instances men and women are attracted to the arts from the elevating character of the occupation. It is not likely that Tom Appleton considered himself a genius, for although he had plenty of self-confidence, his opinion of himself was always a modest one. He painted the portraits of some of his friends, but he never fairly made a profession of it. However, he learned the mechanism of pictorial art in this way, and soon became one of the best connoisseurs of his time.

His finest enjoyment was to meet with some person, especially a stranger, with whom he could discuss the celebrated works in the galleries of Europe. He soon became known as a man who had something to say, and who knew how to say it. He told the Italian picture-dealers to cheat him as much as they could, and he gave amusing accounts of their various attempts to do this. He knew more than they did.

After this time he lived as much in Europe as he did in America. Before 1860 he had crossed the Atlantic nearly forty times. The marriage of his sister to Henry W. Longfellow was of great advantage to him, for through Longfellow he made the acquaintance of many celebrated persons whom he would not otherwise have known, and being always equal to such occasions he retained their respect and good will. One might also say, “What could Longfellow have done without him?” His conversation was never forced, and the wit, for which he became as much distinguished in social life as Lowell or Holmes, was never premeditated, often making its appearance on unexpected occasions to refresh his hearers with its sparkle and originality.

In the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” Doctor Holmes quotes this saying by the “wittiest of men,” that “good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” Now this wittiest of men was Tom Appleton, as many of us knew at that time. He said of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” that it probably had faded out from being stared at by sightseers, and that the same thing might have happened to the Sistine Madonna if it had not been put under glass,—these being the two most popular paintings in Europe. His fund of anecdotes was inexhaustible.

Earlier in life he was occasionally given to practical jokes. A woman who kept a thread and needle store in Boston was supposed to have committed murder, and was tried for it but acquitted. One day, as Appleton was going by her place of business with a friend he said: “Come in here with me; I want to see how that woman looks.” Then surveying the premises, as if he wished to find something to purchase, he asked her if she had any “galluses” for sale,—gallus being a shop-boy’s term at the time for suspenders.

When the Art Museum in Boston was first built its odd appearance attracted very general attention, and some one asked Tom Appleton what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, “I have heard that architecture is a kind of frozen music, and if so I should call the Art Museum frozen ’Yankee Doodle.’”

Thomas G. Appleton was no dilettante; his interest in the subject was serious and abiding. He did not wear his art as he did his gloves, nor did he turn it into an intellectual abstraction. There was nothing he disliked more than the kind of pretension which tries to make a knowledge of art a vehicle for self-importance. “Who,” he said, “ought not to feel humble before a painting of Titian’s or Correggio’s? It is only when we feel so that we can appreciate a great work of art.” He believed that an important moral lesson could be inculcated by a picture as well as by a poem,—even by a realistic Dutch painting. “Women worship the Venus of Milo now,” he said, “just as they did in ancient Greece, and it is good for them, too.” He respected William Morris Hunt as the best American painter of his time, but thought he would be a better painter if he were not so proud. Pride leads to arrogance, and arrogance is blinding.

After he came into possession of his inheritance he showed that he could make a good use of money. One of his first acts was to purchase a set of engravings in the Vatican, valued at ten thousand dollars, for the Boston Public Library. “I was not such a fool as to pay that sum for it, though,” he remarked to Rev. Samuel Longfellow. He visited the studios of struggling artists in Rome and Boston, gave them advice and encouragement,—made purchases himself, sometimes, and advised his friends to purchase when he found a painting that was really excellent. He also purchased some valuable old paintings to adorn his house on Commonwealth Avenue.

He placed two of these at one time on free exhibition at Doll’s picture- store, and going into the rooms where they hung, I found Tom Appleton explaining their merits to a group of remarkably pretty school-girls.

At the same moment, another gentleman who knew Mr. Appleton entered, and said, “Ah! a Palma Vecio, Mr. Appleton; how delightful! It is a Palma, is it not?”

“That,” replied Mr. Appleton, “is probably a Palma; but what do you say to this, which I consider a much better picture?” The gentleman did not know; but it looked like Venetian coloring.

“Quite right,” said Mr. Appleton; “I bought it at the sale of a private collection in Rome, and it was catalogued as a Tintoretto, but I said, ’No, Bassano;’ and it is the best Bassano I ever saw. The Italians call it ’Il Coconotte.’”

Mr. Appleton had no intention of palming off doubtful paintings on his friends or the public; but in regard to “Il Coconotte” he was confident of its true value, and rightly so. The painting, so called from a head in the group covered very thinly with hair, was the pride of his collection and one of the best of Bassano’s works. The other painting looked to me like a Palma, and I have always supposed that it was one.

After this Mr. Appleton branched off on to an interesting anecdote concerning an Italian cicerone, and finally left his audience as well entertained as if they had been to the theatre.

In 1871 he published a volume of poems for private circulation, in which there were a number of excellent pieces, and especially two which deserve a place in any choice collection of American poetry. One is called the “Whip of the Sky” and relates to a subject which Mr. Appleton often dwelt upon,—the unnecessary haste and restlessness of American life, and is given here for the wider circulation which it amply deserves:


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

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By Frank Preston Stearns
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