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Chapter 37

AMERICAN ART IN FLORENCE.


I have seen Ibrahim Pacha, the son of old Mehemet Ali, driving in his carriage through the streets. He is hero on a visit from Lucca, where he has been spending some time on account of his health. He is a man of apparently fifty years of age; his countenance wears a stern and almost savage look, very consistent with the character he bears and the political part he has played. He is rather portly in person, the pale olive of his complexion contrasting strongly with a beard perfectly white. In common with all his attendants, he wears the high red cap, picturesque blue tunic and narrow trowsers of the Egyptians. There is scarcely a man of them whose face with its wild, oriental beauty, does not show to advantage among us civilized and prosaic Christians.

In Florence, and indeed through all Italy, there is much reason for our country to be proud of the high stand her artists are taking. The sons of our rude western clime, brought up without other resources than their own genius and energy, now fairly rival those, who from their cradle upwards have drawn inspiration and ambition from the glorious masterpieces of the old painters and sculptors. Wherever our artists are known, they never fail to create a respect for American talent, and to dissipate the false notions respecting our cultivation and refinement, which prevail in Europe. There are now eight or ten of our painters and sculptors in Florence, some of whom, I do not hesitate to say, take the very first rank among living artists.

I have been highly gratified in visiting the studio of Mr. G.L. Brown, who, as a landscape painter, is destined to take a stand second to few, since the days of Claude Lorraine. He is now without a rival in Florence, or perhaps in Italy, and has youth, genius and a plentiful stock of the true poetic enthusiasm for his art, to work for him far greater triumphs. His Italian landscapes have that golden mellowness and transparency of atmosphere which give such a charm to the real scenes, and one would think he used on his pallette, in addition to the more substantial colors, condensed air and sunlight and the liquid crystal of streams. He has wooed Nature like a lover, and she has not withheld her sympathy. She has taught him how to raise and curve her trees, load their boughs with foliage, and spread underneath them the broad, cool shadows--to pile up the shattered crag, and steep the long mountain range in the haze of alluring distance.

He has now nearly finished, a large painting of "Christ Preaching in the Wilderness," which is of surprising beauty. You look upon one of the fairest scenes of Judea. In front, the rude multitude are grouped on one side, in the edge of a magnificent forest; on the other side, towers up a rough wall of rock and foliage that stretches back into the distance, where some grand blue mountains are piled against the sky, and a beautiful stream, winding through the middle of the picture, slides away out of the foreground. Just emerging from the shade of one of the cliffs, is the benign figure of the Saviour, with the warm light which breaks from behind the trees, falling around him as he advances. There is a smaller picture of the "Shipwreck of St. Paul," in which he shows equal skill in painting a troubled sea and breaking storm. He is one of the young artists from whom we have most to hope.

I have been extremely interested in looking over a great number of sketches made by Mr. Kellogg, of Cincinnati, during a tour through Egypt, Arabia Petrĉa and Palestine. He visited many places out of the general route of travelers, and beside the great number of landscape views, brought away many sketches of the characters and costumes of the Orient. From some of these he has commenced paintings, which, as his genius is equal to his practice, will be of no ordinary value. Indeed, some of these must give him at once an established reputation in America. In Constantinople, where he resided several months, he enjoyed peculiar advantges for the exercise of his art, through the favor and influence of Mr. Carr, the American, and Sir Stratford Canning, the British Minister. I saw a splendid diamond cup, presented to him by Riza Pacha, the late Grand Vizier. The sketches he brought from thence and from the valleys of Phrygia and the mountain solitudes of old Olympus, are of great interest and value. Among his later paintings, I might mention an angel, whose countenance beams with a rapt and glorious beauty. A divine light shines through all the features and heightens the glow of adoration to an expression all spiritual and immortal. If Mr. Kellogg will give us a few more of these heavenly conceptions, we will place him on a pedestal, little lower than that of Guido.

Greenough, who has been sometime in Germany, returned lately to Florence, where he has a colossal group in progress for the portico of the Capitol. I have seen part of it, which is nearly finished in the marble. It shows a backwoodsman just triumphing in the struggle with an Indian; another group to be added, will represent the wife and child of the former. The colossal size of the statues gives a grandeur to the action, as if it were a combat of Titans; there is a consciousness of power, an expression of lofty disdain in the expansion of the hunter's nostril and the proud curve of his lip, that might become a god. The spirit of action, of breathing, life-like exertion, so much more difficult to infuse into the marble than that of repose, is perfectly attained. I will not enter into a more particular description, as it will probably be sent to the United States in a year or two. It is a magnificent work; the best, unquestionably, that Greenough has yet made. The subject, and the grandeur he has given it in the execution, will ensure it a much more favorable reception than a false taste gave to his Washington.

Mr. C.B. Ives, a young sculptor from Connecticut, has not disappointed the high promise he gave before leaving home. I was struck with some of his busts in Philadelphia, particularly those of Mrs. Sigourney and Joseph R. Chandler, and it has been no common pleasure to visit his studio here in Florence, and look on some of his ideal works. He has lately made two models, which, when finished in marble, will be works of great beauty. They will contribute greatly to his reputation here and in America. One of these represents a child of four or five years of age, holding in his hand a dead bird, on which he is gazing, with childish grief and wonder, that it is so still and drooping. It is a beautiful thought; the boy is leaning forward as he sits, holding the lifeless playmate close in his hands, his sadness touched with a vague expression, as if he could not yet comprehend the idea of death.

The other is of equal excellence, in a different style; it is a bust of "Jephthah's daughter," when the consciousness of her doom first flashes upon her. The face and bust are beautiful with the bloom of perfect girlhood. A simple robe covers her breast, and her rich hair is gathered up behind, and bound with a slender fillet. Her head, of the pure classical mould, is bent forward, as if weighed down by the shock, and there is a heavy drooping in the mouth and eyelids, that denotes a sudden and sickening agony. It is not a violent, passionate grief, but a deep and almost paralyzing emotion--a shock from which the soul will finally rebound, strengthened to make the sacrifice.

Would it not be better for some scores of our rich merchants to lay out their money on statues and pictures, instead of balls and spendthrift sons? A few such expenditures, properly directed, would do much for the advancement of the fine arts. An occasional golden blessing, bestowed on genius, might be returned on the giver, in the fame he had assisted in creating. There seems, however, to be at present a rapid increase in refined taste, and a better appreciation of artistic talent, in our country. And as an American, nothing has made me feel prouder than this, and the steadily increasing reputation of our artists.

Of these, no one has done more within the last few years, than Powers. With a tireless and persevering energy, such as could have belonged to few but Americans, he has already gained a name in his art, that posterity will pronounce in the same breath with Phidias, Michael Angelo and Thorwaldsen. I cannot describe the enjoyment I have derived from looking at his matchless works. I should hesitate in giving my own imperfect judgment of their excellence, if I had not found it to coincide with that of many others who are better versed in the rules of art. The sensation which his "Greek Slave" produced in England, has doubtless ere this been breezed across the Atlantic, and I see by the late American papers that they are growing familiar with his fame. When I read a notice seven or eight years ago, of the young sculptor of Cincinnati, whose busts exhibited so much evidence of genius, I little dreamed I should meet him in Florence, with the experience of years of toil added to his early enthusiasm, and every day increasing his renown.

You would like to hear of his statue of Eve, which men of taste pronounce one of the finest works of modern times. A more perfect figure never filled my eye. I have seen the masterpieces of Thorwaldsen, Dannecker and Canova, and the Venus de Medici, but I have seen nothing yet that can exceed the beauty of this glorious statue. So completely did the first view excite my surprise and delight, and thrill every feeling that awakes at the sight of the Beautiful, that my mind dwelt intensely on it for days afterwards. This is the Eve of Scripture--the Eve of Milton--mother of mankind and fairest of all her race. With the full and majestic beauty of ripened womanhood, she wears the purity of a world as yet unknown to sin. With the hearing of a queen, there is in her countenance the softness and grace of a tender, loving woman;


"God-like erect, with native honor clad
In naked majesty."


She holds the fatal fruit extended in her hand, and her face expresses the struggle between conscience, dread and desire. The serpent, whose coiled length under the leaves and flowers entirely surrounds her, thus forming a beautiful allegorical symbol, is watching her decision from an ivied trunk at her side. Her form is said to be fully as perfect as the Venus de Medici, and from its greater size, has an air of conscious and ennobling dignity. The head is far superior in beauty, and soul speaks from every feature of the countenance. I add a few stanzas which the contemplation of this statue called forth. Though unworthy the subject, they may perhaps faintly shadow the sentiment which Powers has so eloquently embodied in marble:


THE "EVE" OF POWERS.

    A faultless being from the marble sprung,
         She stands in beauty there!
    As when the grace of Eden 'round her clung--
         Fairest, where all was fair!

Pure, as when first from God's creating hand She came, on man to shine; So seems she now, in living stone to stand-- A mortal, yet divine!

The spark the Grecian from Olympus caught, Left not a loftier trace; The daring of the sculptor's hand has wrought A soul in that sweet face! He won as well the sacred fire from heaven. God-sent, not stolen down, And no Promethean doom for him is given, But ages of renown!

The soul of beauty breathes around that form A more enchanting spell; There blooms each virgin grace, ere yet the storm On blighted Eden fell! The first desire upon her lovely brow, Raised by an evil power; Doubt, longing, dread, are in her features now-- It is the trial-hour!

How every thought that strives within her breast, In that one glance is shown! Say, can that heart of marble be at rest, Since spirit warms the stone? Will not those limbs, of so divine a mould, Move, when her thought is o'er-- When she has yielded to the tempter's hold And Eden blooms no more?

Art, like a Phoenix, springs from dust again-- She cannot pass away! Bound down in gloom, she breaks apart the chain And struggles up today! The flame, first kindled in the ages gone, Has never ceased to burn, And westward now, appears the kindling dawn, Which marks the day's return!


       *      *      *      *      *      *      *


The "Greek Slave" is now in the possession of Mr. Grant, of London, and I only saw the clay model. Like the Eve, it is a form that one's eye tells him is perfect, unsurpassed; but it is the budding loveliness of a girl, instead of the perfected beauty of a woman. In England it has been pronounced superior to Canova's works, and indeed I have seen nothing of his, that could be placed beside it.

Powers has now nearly finished a most exquisite figure of a fisher-boy, standing on the shore, with his net and rudder in one hand, while with the other he holds a shell to his ear and listens if it murmur to him of a gathering storm. His slight, boyish limbs are full of grace and delicacy--you feel that the youthful frame could grow up into nothing less than an Apollo. Then the head--how beautiful! Slightly bent on one side, with the rim of the shell thrust under his locks, lips gently parted, and the face wrought up to the most hushed and breathless expression, he listens whether the sound be deeper than its wont. It makes you hold your breath and listen, to look at it. Mrs. Jameson somewhere remarks that repose or suspended motion, should be always chosen for a statue that shall present a perfect, unbroken impression to the mind. If this be true, the enjoyment must be much more complete where not only the motion, but almost breath and thought are suspended, and all the faculties wrought into one hushed and intense sensation. In gazing on this exquisite conception, I feel my admiration filled to the utmost, without that painful, aching impression, so often left by beautiful works. It glides into my vision like a form long missed from the gallery of beauty I am forming in my mind, and I gaze on it with an ever new and increasing delight.

Now I come to the last and fairest of all--the divine Proserpine. Not the form, for it is but a bust rising from a capital of acanthus leaves, which curve around the breast and arms and turn gracefully outward, but the face, whose modest maiden beauty can find no peer among goddesses or mortals. So looked she on the field of Ennĉ--that "fairer flower," so soon to be gathered by "gloomy Dis." A slender crown of green wheatblades, showing alike her descent from Ceres and her virgin years, circles her head. Truly, if Pygmalion stole his fire to warm such a form as this, Jove should have pardoned him. Of Powers' busts it is unnecessary for me to speak. He has lately finished a very beautiful one of the Princess Demidoff, daughter of Jerome Bonaparte.

We will soon, I hope, have the "Eve" in America. Powers has generously refused many advantageous offers for it, that he might finally send it home; and his country, therefore, will possess this statue, his first ideal work. She may well be proud of the genius and native energy of her young artist, and she should repay them by a just and liberal encouragement.


Bayard Taylor