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Allston, Washington (1779-1843)

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Washington Allston

Washington Allston

Biographical Introduction

The remains of the Transcendentalist painter and poet who pioneered America’s Romantic movement of landscape painting are buried in Harvard Square, in “the Old Burying Ground” between the First Parish Church and Christ Church. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” said that Washington Allston was surpassed by no contemporary artistic and poetic genius. A large portrait of Coleridge, painted by Allston, is in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Who is this poet who died in Cambridge, U.S.A., where he established a studio in Central Square and painted portraits? He was born on a plantation on the Waccamaw River in South Carolina. He began to draw when he was six. When he was eight, he moved to his uncle’s home in Newport, Rhode Island. After attending a classical school, Newport Academy, he went to Harvard College, where he was called “The Count” due to his fashionable attire. Upon graduating in 1800, he sold his patrimony-his share of family property-in order that he might move to London in 1801 as a student of Benjamin West at the Royal Academy. From 1803 to 1808 he visited the great museums of Paris and then for several years those of Italy, where he met Coleridge, his lifelong friend. His proposal to Ann Channing, the sister of the Boston Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, was accepted in 1809, but their marriage ended when she died in London in 1815. He was accompanied on a trip to Europe in 1811 by one of his pupils, Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of an electric telegraph and developer of the Morse code of dots and dashes.

Washington Allston was sometimes called the “American Titian” since his style resembled the Venetian Renaissance artists in display of dramatic color contrasts. His work shaped the future of U.S. landscape painting. Also, many of his paintings were drawn from literature, especially Biblical stories.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was strongly influenced by his paintings and poems, but so were both Sophia Peabody-who married Nathaniel Hawthorne-and Margaret Fuller, who described his smile of genius. She wrote about him in the first number of The Dial after she and Emerson attended the Allston Exhibition. Emerson, in spite of his reservations, spoke of Allston in relation to Homer and Shakespeare. Oliver Wendell Holmes cited Washington Allston as the brightest and noblest of all American artists.

“Moonlight Landscape” and “Elijah in the Desert” are at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; “Ship in a Squall” is in the Fogg Museum at Harvard; though unfinished after twenty years, the tragic “Belshazzar’s Feast” is in the Boston Athenaeum.

In addition to Allston’s poem, “The Sylphs of the Seasons” (1813), his literary work is in his Lectures on Art and Poems (1850), edited by his brother-in-law, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast.

Just before Allston’s death in Cambridge at age 64, though not well, he attended the Boston banquet in honor of Charles Dickens. Before departing for England, Dickens visited the poet-painter at his “ivy-studded studio in Cambridge” to make a farewell call on a friend he called ” a fine specimen of old genius.”

Today part of Boston is called Allston.

The Poetry of Washington Allston

And thou are gone, most loved, most honoured friend!
No, never more thy gentle voice shall blend
With air of Earth its pure ideal tone,
Binding in one, as with harmonious zones,
The heart and intellect. And I no more
Shall with thee gaze on that unfathomed deep,
The Human Soul,-as when, pushed off the shore,
Thy mystic bark would through the darkness sweep
Itself the while so bright! For oft we seemed
As on some starless sea,-all dark above,
All dark below,-yet, onward as we drove,
To plough up light that ever round us streamed.
But he who mourns is not as one bereft
Of all he loved: thy living Truths are left

A smile!-Alas, how oft the lips that bear
This floweret of the soul but give to air,
Like flowering graves, the growth of buried care!
Then drear indeed that miserable heart
Where this last human boon is aye denied!
If such there be, it claims in man no part,
Whose deepest grief has yet a mirthful bride.
For whose so many as the sad man’s face?
His joy, though brief, is yet reprieve from woe;
The waters of his life in darkness flow;
Yet when the accidents of time displace
The cares that vault their channel, and let in
A gleam of day, with what a joyous din
The stream jets out to catch the sunny grace!