Text: Glen A. Omans, “Poe and Washington Allston: Visionary Kin,” Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990, pp. 1-29 (This material is protected by copyright)


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An evaluation of Poe within the context of his own culture requires a consideration of his work in relation to that of his contemporaries. The most important American visual artist of Poe’s day was the painter-poet Washington Allston (1779-1843). At the time of Allston’s death, “his own generation believed [him to be] the greatest [artist] that had appeared in America.”(1) The retrospective exhibition of his paintings in Boston in 1839 “gave most of the young writers of Boston and Concord their first serious awareness of the art of painting.” Emerson’s essay, “Art,” according to Richardson, was formulated in the discussion of Allston’s paintings in the Transcendentalist Club, and Emerson referred to Allston in his letters and journals between 1837 and 1844.(2) Hawthorne cited Allston as a prominent painter in his short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful.” Margaret Fuller “thought with delight that such a man as this had been able to grow up in our bustling, reasonable community.(3)

Yet in spite of Allston’s artistic prominence, Poe made only one brief and slighting reference to his work. In his “Autography” series in Graham’s Magazine, January 1842, a year before Allston died, Poe acknowledged that “the name of ‘Washington Allston,’ the poet and painter, is one that has been long before the public,” but commented that “the most noted” of Allston’s paintings “are not to our taste.” Poe found Allston’s poems “not all of a high order of merit,” though he did find the “Spanish Maid” and the “Address to Great Britain” productions “of which Mr. Allston may be proud.” And though Poe admired the handwriting of Allston’s signature, he concluded “that no man of original genius ever did or could habitually indite it under any circumstances whatever” (H15: 253-254).

Poe’s offhand and negative response to Allston’s work is probably due to Allston’s friendship with Poe’s enemies, the “Bostonians” — William Ellery Charming, Richard Henry Dana, Bronson Alcott, C. C. Felton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow and Emerson — and professional association with Poe’s bugaboo, the North American Review.(4) Poe’s response must also have been based on a limited knowledge of the variety of Allston’s painting. Writing before the days of color reproduction, Poe would have had to have seen the actual paintings before he could have realized Allston’s artistic intentions. The only painting by Allston that was readily viewable by Poe, living in Philadelphia when his “Autography” series was published, was a large and busy picture on a biblical subject, done in Allston’s earlier [page 2:] style, which Poe would not have found beautiful. Nor could Poe have known Allston’s Lectures on Art, “the first American art treatise,”(5) written in the 1830s but not published until after Poe’s death. Had Poe studied the entire body of Allston’s work, his interest probably would have heightened and his respect increased, since Allston’s work is similar to Poe’s in striking and important ways. Both were “exceptionally gifted American artists who, being forced by the lack of an existing style to think out for themselves the meaning and purpose of their art, . . . arrived at fundamental discoveries in advance of current European practice.”(6) Both produced major aesthetic statements in which the basic principles are often astonishingly close; consequently, the later paintings of Allston and the poems and stories of Poe, in which these principles are put in practice, can often be seen as attempts to achieve the same goal in the same manner.

If it seems a loss that these men had almost no effective contact with each other during the period from 1829 until 1843, when both were alive and professionally active, it is still useful and important to study them in the light of each other. The aesthetic statements of each help to explain those of the other and these statements taken together do much to clarify and define the intentions of their creative work. This clarification is particularly effective in the case of a series of smaller pictures of idealized, beautiful women that Allston painted toward the end of his career. Art historians who have not carefully studied Allston’s Lectures, poems, or his novel, Monaldi, and who are not fully aware of the aesthetic ideas influencing Allston at the time he created these paintings have frequently misunderstood them. The critical statements of Poe and Allston, and Poe’s poetry, especially “To Helen” and “Israfel,” help us to interpret these paintings and place them properly in the cultural milieu in which they were produced.

In their essays, Poe and Allston were the first to introduce the principles of German Idealist philosophy into the mainstream of American art.(7) The common source of this philosophy was the distillation of the ideas of Kant, Schelling, and A. W. Schlegel, provided by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his conversation and writings. Allston and Coleridge became close friends after they met in Rome in December 1805. Allston later noted: “To no other man do I owe so much intellectually as to Mr. Coleridge . . . who has honored me with his friendship for more than five and twenty years.”(8) Poe’s debt to Coleridge is well known.(9) In particular, Poe almost certainly read Coleridge’s essays “On the Principles of Genial Criticism,” published in the Bristol Journal in 1814 to publicize an exhibition of Allston’s paintings and which Allston in turn echoes in his Lectures.(10)

The aesthetic theory of Allston and Poe as presented in their critical writings, is based on a dualistic conception of existence: phenomenal reality, perceived by the five senses, and conceptualized by the human reason or understanding; and transcendent ideas, or noumena, perceived by what Kant called the mental faculty of Vernunft, variously translated in English as “Reason,” “Imagination,” or “Intuition.” Allston and Poe, like other popularizers of German Idealism, Victor Cousin, for example, concentrate on three principal ideas, Beauty, Truth, and Good. Allston, in his Lectures on Art, discusses “the three Ideas of Beauty, Truth, and Holiness, which we assume to represent the perfect in the physical, intellectual, and moral worlds” (p. 16). “These eternal Ideas,” “coeternal forms,” or “inborn Ideas” are “indestructible” and “cannot be forgotten” (pp. 32, 46-47). The “idea of beauty, in its highest form” seems to refer to “something beyond and above itself, as if it were but an approximation to a still higher form” (p. 7). Like others, Allston and Poe mixed concepts of transcendental idealism with traditional Christian imagery, often associating that “higher form” with God or some less clearly defined Oversoul, Maker, or Demi-Urgos. Allston notes that the ideas “are but the forms . . . through or in which a higher Power manifests to the consciousness the supreme truth of all things real,” the “Power that prescribes the form and determines the truth of all Ideas” (pp. 3, 7). Thus, the existence of the ideas is often associated with heaven and a distant, immortal life after death. Allston calls them “angelic Forms,” representatives of a “higher life,” “descended from heaven” in “high, passionless form, in . . . singleness and purity” (pp. 19, 46-47).(11) The ideas are “the shadowing of that which” the human spirit’s “immortal craving will sometimes dream of in the unknown future.” They are the guarantee of “a higher love than that of earth, which the soul shall know, when, in a better world, she shall realize the ultimate reunion of Beauty with the coeternal forms of Truth and Holiness” (pp. 32, 84). Poe speaks of the human “sense of the beautiful” as “an important condition of man’s immortal nature.” It is a sense of “the beauty beyond the grave,” “a consequence and an indication of his perennial life . . . . It is a forethought of the loveliness to come” (H1 l: 71-72; 14: 273-274).(12)

The artist’s imagination was thought to be the most observable form of Vernunft, the faculty by means of which we perceive the ideal. Allston, following Coleridge, considered the imagination to be a much more powerful faculty than reason. Allston speaks of the imagination as “that mysterious tract of the intellect,” composed of “those intuitive Powers, which are above, and beyond, both the senses and the understanding.” The imagination is “the last high gift of the Creator, that imaginative faculty whereby his exalted creature, made in his image, might mould at will, from his most marvellous world, yet [page 4:] unborn forms . . . having all of truth” except for God’s “own divine prerogative, — the mystery of Life.” “It is by the agency of this intuitive and assimilating Power . . . that [the artist] is able to separate the essential form from the accidental . . . thus educing . . . an Ideal nature from the germs of the Actual” (pp. 13, 111, 132, 155).(13) Poe noted that the imagination is the “soul” of poetry, and paralleled Coleridge’s definition of the imagination in calling it “in man, a lesser degree of the creative power in God.” It is the imagination “that spiritualizes the fanciful conception, and lifts it into the ideal” (H8: 283; 10: 65).(14)

In idealist thought, persons gifted with a strong and active Vernunft will be dissatisfied with the limitations and imperfections of phenomena and aspire to the purity and perfection of noumena. By virtue of his special perceptive capacity, the artist yearns upward for a vision of ideal Beauty. Describing the “temperament of the Artist,” Allston noted that it is “not only as being peculiarly alive to all existing affinities, but as never satisfied with those merely which fall within [its] experience; ever striving, on the contrary . . . to supply the deficiency wherever it is felt.” Because of his “fuller conception” and “more extended acquaintance with the higher outward assimilants of Beauty,” the artist is brought “nearer to a perfect realization of the preexisting Idea.” “Whether poet or painter,” the “natural bias” of his mind makes it “more peculiarly capable of its highest development.” He will be particularly aware that “the idea of beauty” refers “to something beyond and above itself . . .” (pp. 7, 127). Poe’s description of artistic drive is similar to Allston’s in tone and imagery. In the act of creation, says Poe, the artist is inspired by no “mere appreciation of the beauty before us,” “by no sublunary sights, or sounds, or sentiments,” but by a “wild effort to reach the beauty above,” by a “burning thirst for supernal BEAUTY — a beauty which is not afforded the soul by any existing collocation of earth’s forms — a beauty which, perhaps, no possible combination of these forms would fully produce.” The artist “struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity” (H11: 72-73; 14: 274).

The key element by means of which the artist achieves a vision of ideal beauty is the symbol, a sense — perceivable, beautiful object that has the power to suggest pure beauty because it partially and imperfectly embodies that idea. To designate the symbol, Allston used the term “objective correlative,” a term that T. S. Eliot made popular 120 years later. Notes Allston: “As the condition of its manifestation,” an idea must have “its objective correlative, . . . the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living [page 5:] power” (p. 16). The idea is called to the artist’s consciousness by its “objective correlative” because the object has a “predetermined correspondence or correlation” with the idea (p. xiii). A perceiver, by contemplating the symbol, may achieve, through the agency of his imagination, a momentary insight into the existence and true nature of the ideal. In his Lectures, Allston describes physical beauty as “the visible sign of that pure idea, in which so many lofty minds have recognized the type of a far higher love than that of earth” (p. 32). The beauty of a human being “is beauty in its mixed mode, — not in its high, passionless form.” Nevertheless, it has the power to “carry back the soul to whence it came” (p. 19).

In Poe’s “Israfel,” the earthly poet is the symbol of and imperfect parallel to the ideal poet and immortal spirit Israfel who dwells in “Heaven.” The beauties of earthly existence are “modell’d” after the perfection of the ideal realm. By contemplating the condition of the earthly poet, we can glimpse the true nature of the heavenly singer, pure harmony, ideal beauty, and the function of art. Since the poem creates the experience in which the reader is made aware of these parallels, “Israfel” itself may be said to be a poem-symbol that makes possible the perceptual leap from real to ideal, from descendent to transcendent.

As Poe’s poem makes clear, the artist’s endeavor is to envision the ideal through its symbols and then re-embody the ideal in a work of art. This task, Allston noted, is “bounded only by the . . . confines of that higher world, where ideal glimpses of angelic forms are sometimes permitted to his sublimated vision” (pp. 109-110).(15) As symbol, the work of art has the capacity to lead other, less perceptive viewers to a vision similar to that originally experienced by the artist. Allston claimed: “Every work of Genius” is “suggestive; and only when it excites to or awakens congenial thoughts and emotions, filling the imagination with corresponding images, does it attain its proper end” (p. 101). “Neither is it the privilege of the exclusive few, the refined and cultivated, to feel them deeply. If we look beyond ourselves, even to the promiscuous multitude, the instance will be rare . . . where some transient touch of these purer feelings has not raised the individual to, at least, a momentary exemption from the common thralldom of self” (pp. 17-18).(16) For the perception of the ideal through the agency of a work of art expands the consciousness of the viewer and elevates and excites him in a vision that moves always outward and upward. “Who has never felt,” asks Allston, “an expansion of the heart, an elevation of mind, nay, a striving of the whole being to pass its limited bounds? . . . . May it not give us, in a faint shadowing at least, some intimation of the many real, though unknown relations, which everywhere surround and bear upon us?” (p. 104). From experiencing a [page 6:] work of art, then, the viewer “doubtless derives a high degree of pleasure, nay, one of the purest of which his nature is capable . . .” (p. 7).

Poe describes the “effect” of poetry on the reader in the same language Allston uses to describe the effect of a painting on a viewer. Praising Tennyson’s “Oenone,” Poe says that it “exalts the soul . . . into a conception of pure beauty, which in its elevation — its calm and intense rapture — has in it a foreshadowing of the future and spiritual life.” In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe noted that a poem produces in the reader a pleasure “at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure,” which is experienced in “the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect — . . . that intense and pure elevation of soul . . . which is experienced in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful’.” In “The Poetic Principle,” he insisted: “That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived . . . from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment” (H11: 255; 14: 197-198, 266, 275).

Allston insisted that the first purpose of any work of art is to elevate and excite the perceiver to an intense and pleasurable vision of the ideal in his “Introductory Discourse” and lecture on “Art” (pp. 20, 81) and in some of his sonnets on the works of art to which he himself responded most enthusiastically. The opening two lines of “Sonnet on the Group of the Three Angels before the Tent of Abraham, by Raffaelle, in the Vatican” are: “O, now I feel as though another sense, / From heaven descending, had informed my soul” (p. 274). In his sonnet, “Art,” Allston praised Michelangelo as one who “brought to view / The invisible Idea” (p. 327). In “On the Statue of an Angel, by Bienaimé, in the Possession of J. S. Copley Greene, Esq.,” Allston exclaimed:

Ah, who can look on that celestial face,

And kindred for it claim with aught on earth?

. . . .

That, by a simple movement, thus imparts

Its own harmonious peace, the while our hearts

Rise, as by instinct, to the world above (p. 345).(17)

In descriptions of his reactions to other works of art in his lectures and letters, Allston records similar transcendent experiences more explicitly. [page 7:] He characterizes his first response to the paintings of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese: “They addressed themselves, not to the senses merely, as some have supposed, but rather through them to that region . . . of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music, and which, by similar excitement, they caused to teem with visions that ‘lap the soul in Elysium’.”(18) Allston’s account of the effect of the Apollo Belvedere assumes that his own reaction was typical of a universal response: “Who that saw it . . . ever thought of it as a man, much less as a statue; but did not feel rather as if the vision before him were of another world, — of one who had just lighted on the earth, and with a step so ethereal, that the next instant he would vault into the air? If I may be permitted to recall the impression which it made on myself, I know not that I could better describe it than as a sudden intellectual flash, filling the whole mind with light, — and light in motion” (p. 100). Allston is thus, indeed, a visionary artist, but not in the sense that Nathalia Wright or Abraham A. Davidson use the term, to indicate the dreamer whose imagination is freed from restrictions of physical reality.(19) Rather, Allston is a visionary in that he believes in the power of art to produce visions of a transcendent ideality beyond phenomena, and himself paints pictures intended to have this effect on the viewer. Certainly this is how his contemporaries interpreted his aims. Reviewing his 1839 exhibition in Boston, Margaret Fuller exclaimed: “The calm and meditative ease of these pictures, the ideal beauty that shone through rather than in them. . . . were . . . unlike anything else I saw. Mr. Allston aims at the Ideal.(20) Horatio Greenough called Allston “the head, and chief, the Adam of American Idealists.”(21) Jared B. Flagg portrays Allston as “a man in whom ideality and intellect pushed imagination into realms of the unseen that he might materialize visions of beauty to entertain, purity, and uplift his fellowmen” (p. 424).

Both Poe and Allston prefer a beautiful woman as the symbol most conducive to elevating the imagination to a perception of ideal beauty. At the end of a long list of “elements which induce in the Poet . . . the true poetical effect,” Poe stresses that he “feels it in the beauty of woman — in the grace of her step — in the lustre of her eye . . . but above all — ah, far above all — he kneels to it — he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty — of her love” (H14: 290-291). Allston observes that when one looks at “a beautiful woman,” there can “be but one feeling: that nothing visible was ever so framed to banish from the soul every ignoble thought, and imbue it . . . with primeval innocence.” Woman’s beauty “is the embodied harmony of the true poet; his visible Muse; the guardian angel of his better nature; the inspiring sibyl of his best affections, [page 8:] drawing him to her with a purifying charm, from the selfishness of the world, from poverty and neglect, from the low and base, nay, from his own frailty or vices: — for he cannot approach her with unhallowed thoughts, whom the unlettered and ignorant look up to with awe, as to one of a race above them . . .” (pp. 19, 28). The woman, however, must be seen as symbol rather than as human being — not as a lover but as a revelation in material form of ideal beauty. Allston emphasizes the difficulty of so seeing: “Could we look, indeed, at the human form in its simple, unallied physical structure,. . . and forget, or rather not feel, that it is other than a form” (p. 19). Only when and if woman is contemplated as symbol will the experience bring with it the dispassionate pleasure and elevation, the “purifying charm,” that Allston and Poe insist upon as characteristic of ideal vision. Poe stresses that the “manifestation” of “the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty” is “always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul — quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the heart — . . . For, in regard to Passion, alas! its tendency is to degrade rather than to elevate the Soul” (H14: 290). That the experience of woman’s beauty when she is seen as form rather than flesh can be genuinely visionary is recorded in an account of a dream vision that Allston confided to Richard H. Dana, Jr.:

While I was in Florence I saw in a dream a female whom I may call perfectly beautiful. In form, feature, expression, and dress she was more perfect than anything that my highest imagination had ever conceived. Nothing in ancient or modem art is an approach to it, and if I could have painted her with half her effect I should have painted the most beautiful object in the art. For several days afterward I was in a state of quiet, ethereal exaltation; I felt in whatever I was about that something peculiar had occurred to me, and could hardly realize that I was to act and be treated like other people. The vision . . . haunted me for months. (Flagg, pp. 364-365)

Poe’s “To Helen” intends to give the reader the experience that Allston had in his dream, a successful vision of ideal beauty. The symbol which is the basis of the entire poem is a beautiful woman: “Helen, thy beauty is to me, / like those Nicdan barks of yore.” Poe’s biographers suggest that Helen may be a composite of three real women whom Poe idealized: his own mother, his foster mother, Frances Allan, and Jane Stith Stanard, whom Poe referred to as “the first purely ideal love of my soul.”(22) Here we see Poe moving from the specific to the level of noumenal abstraction. Meditating on the natural beauty of these women, Poe fuses them into the figure of Helen, symbolic of [page 9:] feminine beauty transcendent of time and space. Helen in turn evokes the beauty of Greek sculpture — of hyacinth hair and classic face — and the “grandeur that was Rome.” Helen is presented in artistic terms. She is an art symbol, rather than a, natural symbol. She is “statuelike,” representing the triumph of beauty through art. Ultimately, she suggests the “Holy-Land,” another symbol that adds the feeling of ultimate peace and reassurance of religious belief to the pleasure of aesthetic contemplation. The “brilliant window-niche” in which she stands suggests the light that Allston experienced in his vision of the Apollo Belvedere, as well as the sense of security and protection that reaching the “Holy-Land” provides. Helen is also associated with Psyche, symbol of the human soul and spiritual immortality. Another major symbol in the poem is that of the voyage. Helen’s beauty transports the poet from the descendent world, the world of “desperate seas” that is chaotic and fatiguing, to “his own native shore,” the calm stasis of the ideal. Space is obliterated, and time is fused into eternity. The eras of Greece, Rome, Poe’s nineteenth century, and the reader’s present coalesce into one transcendent and eternally recreatable experience of beauty. The “Nicéan bark” is the vehicle, a symbol of the imagination which makes possible the poet’s and the reader’s journey to the universal world of pure beauty.

The form of the poem is also symbolic because it reinforces the concept of order and proportion. Each of the three stanzas has five lines, and in each stanza the last line is shortened. Stanzas one and two begin in images of flux and turbulence and end in calm and stasis; the images of the last stanza suggest no movement. The shortened final line brings all to a close. Thus, both the arrangement of ideas in the poem and its physical architecture second the major symbols, to translate the reader from the turbulence of reality to a vision of the noumenal. Yet the voyage was initiated by and could not have occurred without the material existence of feminine beauty.

Allston’s paintings which closely approximate the symbolism of Poe’s “To Helen” are those in the series of solitary human figures in which the subject, usually a woman, is isolated and idealized. The apparent intention of each painting is to stimulate an aesthetic experience, a vision of ideal beauty, rather than portray the likeness of a real person. The series includes five paintings of a woman presented half-length and close to the picture plane — “The Valentine” (1809-1811, no. 22, p. 44), “Beatrice” (ca. 1816-1819, no. 53, p. 117), “A Roman Lady Reading” (ca. 1831, fig. 51, p. 140), “Rosalie” (1835, no. 67, p. 199), and “Amy Robsart” (1840, fig. 55, p. 143).(23) The series also includes seven paintings of a full-length, seated figure, set somewhat back from the picture plane in a landscape background. Five of these paintings are of a woman — “Contemplation” (ca. 1817-1818, no. 38, p. [page 10:] 190), “Una in a Wood” (ca. 1831, fig. 53, p. 141), “A Tuscan Girl” (1831, fig. 52, p. 140), “The Spanish Girl in Reverie” (1831, no. 63, p. 125), and “Evening Hymn” (1835, no. 66, p. 128) — and two are of a beautiful, androgynous youth, both entitled “Italian Shepherd Boy” (1819, no. 50, p. 195) and (ca. 1819, no. 51, p. 195).(24)

“The Valentine” and “Contemplation” were painted in England. All the others were painted after Allston’s return to the United States in 1818 and are characteristic of the change that occurred in the nature of his art once he re-established residence in his native country. He gave up dramatic, large-scale paintings on biblical subjects, a type popular in Europe, and turned instead to painting smaller canvases of tranquil and meditative subjects, a type of painting that included landscapes and pictures on literary subjects, but that is most clearly represented by his paintings of single figures. His intention, to paint “the inner mind rather than outward experience,”(25) fostered by his friendships in England with Coleridge and Wordsworth, was probably reinforced by his renewed association in America with William Ellery Channing, and new acquaintanceships with Emerson and Hawthorne,(26) whose own work was contemplative, idealistic, and symbolic. Six of his single-figure paintings were done after 1830, four of them in 1831-1832, when Allston began to write his Lectures on Art ,(27) so these paintings can be considered directly in the context of the Lectures. The influence of German Idealism was also strongest in the United States at this time because of the popularity of the writings of Coleridge, Carlyle, and Victor Cousin.(28)

All twelve of Allston’s paintings of single figures share several characteristics that indicate his intention to “realize the Idea of a perfect Human Form” in a work of art (pp. 117, 126-127). All the figures are as beautiful as Allston can make them, not only in the rendition of facial features but also in painterly technique. “He is very beautiful, this boy,” Margaret Fuller wrote of the second, larger painting of the “Italian Shepherd Boy.” “The Beautiful is Mr. Allston’s dominion. There he rules as a Genius.”(29) “Rosalie” illustrates Richardson’s observation that in Allston’s later pictures “the glazes grow deeper and more glowing, the lights more luminous, and the shadows more filled with color.”(30) All twelve figures are portrayed in a state of reverie or meditation. The titles of two paintings — “Contemplation” and “The Spanish Girl in Reverie” — insist on this state. It is conveyed most consistently by the lack of eye contact between the subject of the painting and the viewer. In seven paintings the subject’s gaze is averted downward — “The Valentine,” “Beatrice,” “A Roman Lady Reading,” “Contemplation,” “A Tuscan Girl,” and both versions of the “Italian Shepherd Boy.” In “The Valentine,” the woman is reading a letter and [page 11:] in “A Roman Lady Reading” and “Contemplation,” a book. This averted gaze enables viewers to move closer, emotionally, to the figure because apparently unobserved, unchallenged. We are free to contemplate the figure in contemplation. In four paintings — “Rosalie,” “The Spanish Girl in Reverie,” “Una in a Wood,” and “Evening Hymn” — the woman’s eyes are directed away from the viewer but up and out of the painting toward distant space. Allston seems to insist on this mannerism, as if a direct exchange of eye contact between subject and viewer would disturb the mood of reverie. The effect of the distant gaze, though, differs from that of the downward glance. It suggests the experience of visionary transcendence, the moment of otherworldly “expansion of the heart” and “elevation of mind, nay, a striving of the whole being to pass its limited bounds” that Allston found characterized a perception of the ideal (p. 104). This is the “divine afflatus”(31) that Allston sought to suggest by the same elevated gaze in his portrait of “Samuel Taylor Coleridge” (1814, no. 32, p. 70) and his painting “Uriel in the Sun” (1817, no. 41, p. 78).

The meditative or visionary mood of these paintings is further enhanced by the two types of settings Allston has given them. In “The Valentine,” “Beatrice,” “A Roman Lady Reading,” and “Rosalie,” the woman is posed before an “austere and compressed architectural setting” that closes off the background, pushes the figure toward the picture plane so that it literally fills the canvas, and arrests the viewer’s gaze and directs our full attention to the subject’s face.(32) Since the woman’s own glance is averted, and since the bare and shadowy background offers no distraction, our sense of intimacy and concentration is encouraged and we are drawn into her aura of gentle beauty. In the other eight paintings, the subject is set farther back (but never very far) from the picture plane in an outdoor setting, more space surrounds the figure, and there is always an opening, through dark trees or past mountains, to the infinite space of the warmly lighted sky. This opening suggests the possibility of escape from the turbulence of reality to the calm stasis of the ethereal ideal, symbolized by the figure’s beautiful face, a transfer also suggested by the figure’s elevated line of sight. “The Spanish Girl” is surrounded by more space than any of the other outdoor figures. The gesture of her right hand directs our attention to the rock on which she sits, but the background opens up past steep mountains to the sky. The outline of her figure is repeated in the shape of the mountains in the middle ground and in the distance. The movement from her right hand in the foreground to the mountains and beyond to the distant sky suggests the voyage from descendent to transcendent in Poe’s “To Helen.” Like effect is produced by the composition of “Evening Hymn,” which invites our examination of the picture to travel from the earth in the foreground, past the woman’s face [page 12:] to the art symbolism of the temple in the middle ground, to the open sky of the background.

The style of clothing of the figures in these paintings seems consciously generalized, vaguely archaic, yet timeless, suggestive of the images in “To Helen” that attempt to fuse various historical periods into one eternity. Certainly the clothing, and, at times, the title (“A Roman Lady Reading,” “A Tuscan Girl,” “The Spanish Girl in Reverie”) dissociate the figures from contemporary references and from any specifically American milieu. Usually, the woman or young man in the painting is subtly elevated so that the viewer is made to look up at the figure. The composition of all the half-length figures is a monolithic triangle, and the upper torso of most of the full-length figures has the same form. The pose, though, is always graceful, almost languid, and the figure is softly-molded, so the monumental effect is softened. Since Allston remarks in his lecture on “Composition” that lines in a painting “hold the relation to Painting that versification does to Poetry” (p. 151), we are invited to compare the effect of Allston’s composition to that of the architectural form of “To Helen,” both of which reinforce the association between static form and the ideal. By such devices, Allston makes the beauty of these figures seem as otherworldly, elevated, archetypal, and eternal as Poe’s Helen.

In seven paintings — “The Valentine,” “Beatrice,” “A Roman Lady Reading,” “Rosalie,” “The Spanish Girl,” “Evening Hymn,” and “Amy Robsart” — Allston rather showily adorns his women with lace, pearl fillets, and gold — gold neck chains, pendants, earrings, rings, bracelets, brooches, embroidered hems, and hair nets — often strongly reinforced by the gold of the picture frame. This apparently deliberately-repeated motif (one finds it again in the showy stick-pin that attracts the viewer’s attention in Allston’s “Self-Portrait,” 1805, no. 15, p. 40), this emphasis on decorative artifice may be intended to suggest the artist as artificer, as artisan of beautiful, highly crafted, precious objects, as icon-maker, to further accentuate the difference between Allston’s intention to idealize his human subjects and the contrary artistic principle of copying nature as exactly as possible. This typically Symbolist concept was to be emphasized later in the nineteenth century by some of the foremost Symbolist writers — Baudelaire in his essays on “Le Dandy” and “Maquillage,” Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,” and Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Most significantly, perhaps, the face, hands, and often the throat and shoulders, revealed by a gently-scooped neckline, of each figure in all twelve of these paintings are bathed in a soft but strong light that the figure’s translucent skin seems to radiate back again. Because [page 13:] Allston always poses his figures against a shadowy background and often dresses them in a dark costume, this radiance spotlights the facial beauty of the subject in each painting. This golden light, recalling that which Allston experienced in his vision of the Apollo Belvedere, suggests illumination, lucidity, and vision. Barbara Novak points out that nineteenth-century American landscape painters, especially the luminists, associated light with spirit. Light is “the alchemistic medium by which the . . . artist turns matter into spirit.”(33) Since Allston anticipated the luminists in his own landscapes, most notably his “Moonlit Landscape” (1819, no. 54, p. 113), he may have consciously used light in his figure paintings to achieve this spiritualizing effect. This was clearly his intention in two paintings of “angelic” subjects, “Uriel in the Sun” and “Jacob’s Dream” (1817, no. 39, p. 190), both of which he flooded with light; the fact that he emphasized this mysterious radiance in all twelve of his single-figure paintings suggests a consistency in symbolism. In two of these paintings, “The Spanish Girl” and “Evening Hymn,” he also included a pool of still water, another standard symbol of nineteenth-century American landscape paintings. As Novak notes, the “pool of silence” accumulated several associations — contemplation, calm, “a spirit untroubled in its depths,” a refuge which could bathe and restore the spirit — and could be used as a “compositional device marrying sky and ground by bringing the balm of light down to earth on which the traveler stands” (pp. 40-41, 123).

Four of Allston’s idealizations of beautiful women are based on earlier literal representations of his fast wife. “The Valentine” closely resembles in composition, pose, and mood, Allston’s small oil portrait of Ann Channing (no. 21, p. 183), which he painted between 1809 and 1811. The heads of “The Spanish Girl,” “Rosalie,” and the woman in “Evening Hymn” are almost exact reproductions of a lovely “Life Study of Ann Charming” (ca. 1812-1815, no. 87, p. 227); the angle of the neck, pose of the head, line of sight, and hair style are identical in all four paintings. However, Allston has blurred, generalized, idealized the realistic features of his wife’s face to move away from literal portraiture to symbolic painting. “The Valentine” makes no specific reference to Ann. The details of the woman’s hair, face, dress, and hands are blurred to the extent that her left hand seems more like a mitten. Some critics conjecture that “The Valentine” may have been inspired by Ann’s sister, so Gerdts suggests that “Allston may have combined several images” of Ann and her sister in the painting (p. 60), a process that duplicates Poe’s fusion of his memories of his mother, his foster mother, and Jane Stith Stanard into the symbol Helen. In “The Spanish Girl,” “Rosalie,” and “Evening Hymn,” though the face more closely resembles that of the original life study than it does in “The Valentine,” [page 14:] the expression of the eyes and mouth is depersonalized. Also, in these paintings Allston moves the woman’s image, seen very close up in the “Life Study,” farther away from the viewer, to distance her from us. In “Rosalie” the distance is achieved primarily through elevation; in “The Spanish Girl” and “Evening Hymn” the figure is moved back from the picture plane. Novak observes that the effect of the golden light in luminist landscapes is to dissolve form and so to “assist spiritual transmutation” (p. 41), and certainly the light that bathes these four paintings based on Ann Charming, as well as the rest of his single-figure paintings, has much the same effect. Allston complained of paintings of “beautiful faces, without an atom of meaning,” which fail to move the viewer because “they have beauty, and nothing else. But let another artist, some man of genius, copy the same faces, and . . . breathe into them souls: from that moment the passers-by would see as if with other eyes” (p. 25). By removing all accidental features of the natural woman and all evidence of personal relationship with her from the paintings based on figure studies of his first wife, Allston attempts to add “soul” to a beautiful face and so convert that face into pure form, symbolic of ideal beauty. For the human figure in its most perfect guise is the only “safe ground” and “starting point from whence to ascend to a true Ideal” (p. 130).

Still, the subject matter of several of these idealized figure paintings seems to be human love, a definitely non-ethereal emotion. The woman in “The Valentine” is reading a love letter. Allston wrote to his friend William Collins in 1821 that “Beatrice” was a portrayal of “Dante’s Beatrice.”(34) Margaret Fuller observed: “The painter merely having in mind how the great Dante loved a certain lady called Beatrice, embodied here his own ideal of a poet’s love.”(35) The poems Allston wrote to accompany “The Spanish Maid in Reverie” and “Rosalie” indicate that love is at least one of the emotions expressed by the women in these paintings. Thus, Allston’s love of his first wife, and his admiration of her delicate beauty, apparently, are the original impulses behind all the pictures of solitary, beautiful women he would paint, beginning with “The Valentine” done shortly before or after her death.(36) So Allston, like Poe, finds the love of a beautiful woman to be the strongest inspiration for art. Flagg notes, however, that “the effect of [Ann’s] early death was disastrous and irreparable.” Allston was plunged into such grief that he was reported to be insane.(37) Such intense emotion is far from the “elevating excitement of the soul — quite independent of . . . the intoxication of the heart” (H14: 290) that Poe described as the experience of ideal beauty. Some act of distancing must distill the love from the real present, must purge away the sadness and sense of loss, and allow the image of pure beauty to emerge in order [page 15:] to realize the effect Allston described in his lecture on “Form,” that when one looks upon a beautiful face, one “feels himself carried, as it were, out of this present world . . .” (p. 128). To achieve the aesthetic distance needed to convert experience into art, Allston insists on the act of meditation in “Contemplation.”

When Allston painted “Contemplation,” the influence of Wordsworth, to whom Coleridge had introduced him, was strongest. Johns carefully traces the importance of Wordsworth’s poems about isolated women as models for Allston’s figure paintings (pp. 123-124, 126). These poems, particularly “She Was a Phantom of Delight,” “To a Highland Girl,” “The Solitary Reaper,” and the Lucy poems, are based on recollection of emotion in tranquility. The Lucy poems — “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known,” “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” and “Three Years She Grew” — are most relevant to Allston’s “Contemplation,” because when he painted it his wife had been dead for two years. What the painting may be “about,” then, is the process of “Contemplation” or recollection of emotion in moments of tranquility that Allston would have to have experienced in order to convert his memories of Ann into an idealization purged of personal, emotional associations.

Allston’s comments about the process of recollection in his letters, poems, and novel, Monaldi, indicate that he considered memory an important part of the creative process. Memory is associated particularly with love; it is a strong love in the past that memory most often recalls for Allston. An obvious persona for Allston, Monaldi recalls his childhood love for his sister and realizes how important a support that love has been for him in his years as a student.(38) Almost the identical recollection is the basis of Allston’s poem, “To My Sister”:

Yet, haply, not to all

That once have lived doth wayward Memory close

Her book of life, — or rather, book of love;

For there, as quickened by some breath above,

The pure affections must for aye repose.

Such recollections can serve as the original germ of works of art:

And how the rudest toys by childhood wrought —

The symbols of its love, — there live and grow

To classic forms, on which no after thought,

No learned toil, can with its skill bestow

A truer touch of Art . . . . (p. 322) [page 16:]

Monaldi is an artist of inner vision who relies on memory for the matter of his art:

To common observers the external world seemed to lie only “like a load upon his weary eye;” but to them it appeared so because he delighted to shut it out, and to combine and give another life to the images it had left in his memory; as if he would sleep to the real and be awake only to a world of shadows . . . . He had looked at nature with the eye of a lover; none of her minutest beauties had escaped him, and all that were stirring to a sensitive heart and a romantic imagination were treasured up in his memory, as themes of delightful musing in her absence; and they came to him in those moments with that never-failing freshness and life which love can best give to the absent. (pp. 23-25)

Recollection serves as a distillation that eliminates all accidentals of an experience and allows the ideal elements to float free. Allston mused: “I seldom step into the ideal world but I find myself going back to the age of first impressions. The germs of our best thoughts are certainly often to be found there.” He concluded that memory is where “the poetry of life may be said to have its birth; where the real ends and the ideal begins” (Flagg, pp. 35-36).

If, however, the memory of love recollected in a state of mental tranquility may be the source of Allston’s choice of a beautiful woman as symbol of ideal beauty, the poems he wrote to accompany the pictures “A Tuscan Girl,” “The Spanish Girl in Reverie,” and “Rosalie” indicate that his intention was to provoke a much higher “effect” in his viewers than the experience of chaste love. The poems “The Spanish Maid” and “The Tuscan Girl,” both of which clearly refer to the paintings whose titles they approximate, were published in the North American Review, October 1831. The poem “Rosalie” is painted directly on the bottom of the frame of the picture in an interesting anticipation of a technique that was to become stock-in-trade for Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his larger-than-life idealized paintings of women and an early instance of the fusion of art forms that became a favorite device of nineteenth-century Symbolist poets. Allston consciously combines painting and poetry to create a doubly-suggestive art symbol; we are clearly intended to consider poem and picture together. When Anna Jameson asked Allston whether the picture or the poem first took shape in his mind, he answered that he could not say; the poem grew along with the painting (Richardson, p. 157).

The poems in each case give us specific clues as to how we might “read” the emotion portrayed on the face in the painting. Gerdts finds [page 17:] the expression of “The Spanish Girl” “wistful” and Mandeles and Johns find it “melancholy.”(38b) The poem, though, indicates that the mood is, rather, one of hopeful anticipation. For the poem describes a moment in which two long-separated lovers are about to be reunited, but are not yet quite sure that the sight they have of each other is not an illusion. The poem predicts their approaching state as one of “bliss” (1.55, p. 335). Though “The Tuscan Girl” is first described as feeling both “pleasant” and “sad” (1.1, p. 336) as she experiences the transitional state between girlhood and maturity, she is actually much more emotionally buoyant: “She cannot call it gladness or delight; / And yet there seems a richer, lovelier light/ On e’en the humblest thing that lives” (11. 19-21). By the fifth stanza, she is described as capable of transcendent experience, using a bird as symbol and starting point:

She hears the bird without a wish to snare,

But rather on the azure air

To mount, and with it wander there

To some untrodden land. (ll. 29-32)

The concluding lines depict her in a truly visionary state:

Thy heart may still in Earth rejoice

And all its beauty love,

But no, not all this fair, enchanting Earth,

With all its spells, can give the rapture birth

That waits thy conscious soul above.

This mixture of sadness and rapture associated with transcendent vision is the same as that experienced in “Rosalie” — where these emotions are directly associated with aesthetic perception. This poem, and the painting as the poem describes it, parallel closely the ideas and tone of Poe’s “Israfel,” first published in Poems (1831), which Allston could have read. Both “Rosalie” and “Israfel” treat the nature of idealist art in terms of the human experience of music. Rosalie pleads:

O, pour upon my soul again

That sad, unearthly strain,

That seems from other worlds to plain;

Thus falling, falling from afar,

As if some melancholy star

Had mingled with her light her sighs,

And dropped them from the skies! [page 18:]

No, — never came from aught below

This melody of woe.

. . .

For all I see around me wears

The hue of other spheres. (11. 1-9, 15-16)

Many critics regard “Rosalie” as a love poem, but only in the last four lines is there a reference to love and even that is not explicit. For “the strain of him who stole / In music to her soul” refers primarily to the poet-artist-musician who plays the “unearthly strain” that is the subject of the poem and only secondarily suggests Rosalie’s lover. In the poem, the “soul” is the receptive faculty of the aesthetic experience (the word is repeated in the first and last lines), as it is in Poe’s aesthetic theory, and music is the most effective art medium for inducing that experience. As Poe noted: “It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains that end upon which we have commented the creation of supernal beauty. It may be, indeed, that this august aim is here even partially or imperfectly attained, in fact” (H1 1: 74-75; 14: 274-275). Moreover, both “Rosalie” and “Israfel” describe a dualistic concept in which descendent, human art is but an imperfect approximation of the perfect music of a transcendent, heavenly state. In both poems, this dualism is realized by the earthly, imperfect perceiver who is made dissatisfied by his or her inability to match the perfect, heavenly ideal. The poet-narrator in “Israfel” complains admiringly:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

“Whose heart-strings are a lute;”

None sing so wildly well

As the angel Israfel . . . .

Yes, Heaven is thine; but this

Is a world of sweets and sours;

Our flowers are merely-flowers,

And the shadow of thy perfect bliss

Is the sunshine of ours. (ll. 1-4, 40-44)

In realizing their own imperfections and the distance that separates them from the ideal, both Rosalie and the poet-narrator experience a sense of frustration that translates into a melancholy mood:

If I would dwell

Where Israfel

Hath dwelt, and he where I, [page 19:]

He might not sing so wildly well

A mortal melody,

While a bolder note than this might swell

From my lyre within the sky. (ll. 45-51)

The experience of the heavenly strain, however, is so sweet, so enchanting, that the poet-narrator, and Rosalie, experience a “sadness . . . / So like angelic bliss,” a something “blent of smiles and tears” (11. 17, 20-21). Allston signals through the poem that the expression of the woman in the painting may bear something of melancholy, but it is a melancholy equally mixed with joy.

Both Allston and Poe explain the basis of this sad bliss in their prose writings. Poe insists that “the contemplation of the beautiful” brings a “pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure.” But this pleasure is always tinged with sadness because of our realization, simultaneous with and as a result of our vision of ideal beauty, that this ideal can never be fully realized by the human, finite, limited consciousness:

When by Poetry — or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep them . . . through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp, now, wholly, here on earth, at once and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which, through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

Thus, concludes Poe, the “effect” of art is “one of a pleasurable sadness” because “this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty” (H14: 197, 274, 279). Allston agrees that the pure ideal can never be achieved by a human artist:

It may well be doubted whether any Primary Idea can ever be fully realized by a finite mind . . . . And what true artist was ever satisfied with any idea of beauty of which he is conscious? From this approximated form, however, he doubtless derives a high degree of pleasure, nay, one of the purest of which his nature is capable; yet still is the pleasure modified . . . by an undefined yearning for what he feels can never be realized. And wherefore this craving, but for the archetype of that which called it forth? — When we say not satisfied, we do not mean discontented, but simply not in full fruition. And it is better that it should be so, since one of the happiest elements of our nature is that [page 20:] which continually impels it towards the indefinite and unattainable. (p.7)(39)

This “high degree of pleasure. . . . one of the purest of which [our] nature is capable,” modified “by an undefined yearning . . . for what can never be realized” and the resulting “sadness . . . / So like angelic bliss” carefully explained by Poe and Allston seems precisely the experience recorded in “Israfel”and “Rosalie.”

“Rosalie” is, then, both a love poem and a poem about aesthetic experience. Allston’s poem, “Song,” may provide a key link here. “Song” is a love poem, but it describes the experience of ideal love as much the same melancholy bliss of the experience of ideal beauty described in the poem “Rosalie.” The speaker in “Song,” in trying to explain to his bride why he weeps, affirms “it is not grief that brings the tear.” Rather, he says:

When I hear that tone of love, —

Unlike all earthly sound, —

It seems like music from above,

That lifts me from the ground.

And yet I know that I’m of earth,

Where all that live must die:

And these my tears but owe their birth

To bliss for earth too high.

Here is the same transcendent “music from above” as in “Rosalie” and “Israfel” that causes blissful tears in one “of earth,” tears in the realization of the distance between the physical real and the noumenal ideal, but bliss in the elevation and pure excitement of the perception of the ideal(40) In both “Rosalie” and “Song” the music is a love song. Apparently, in Allston’s mind the memory of the love of a beautiful woman causes the emotional response (pure, elevating excitement that is both blissful and melancholy) that most closely approximates the aesthetic experience of ideal beauty. The link between the two is the beautiful woman, the beloved object of the original experience of love and the source of the memory, who becomes, as well, the material symbol that makes possible the imperfect, momentary, but nevertheless genuine intuition of ideal beauty. That Poe’s concept is much like Allston’s is indicated by Poe’s conclusion that “melancholy is . . . the most legitimate of all the poetical tones” because “Beauty . . . in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears . . . . The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (H14: 198, 201). [page 21:]

This link between the love of a beautiful woman and the aesthetic experience of a work of art that in turn may inspire an artist to create his own work of art is the basis of a key scene in Monaldi; Monaldi first sees and falls in love with Rosalia (cf. “Rosalie”) while he is viewing for the first time a madonna by Raphael, an artistic idealization of an adored, elevated, beautiful woman. Looking from the painting through a half-open door at the end of the picture gallery in her home, Monaldi initially sees only the “general loveliness” of Rosalia’s form, “and he gazed on it as on a more beautiful picture.” As described, Rosalia closely resembles most of the women in Allston’s paintings: she is reading, head down, with a “half-averted face,” a “pearly forehead, gleaming through clusters of black” hair, “half-closed eyelids,” “tremulously-parted lips,” and “an almost visible soul that seemed to rush from them upon the page before her.” Monaldi’s first sight of Rosalia is called a “beautiful vision,” and so recalls Allston’s own dream of a beautiful woman that left him “in a state of quiet, ethereal exaltation.” After a long moment of contemplation, Monaldi looks back again at the Raphael madonna. Still thinking of Rosalia’s beauty while studying the painting, he muses: “that ineffable look of love! yet so pure and passionless — so like what we may believe of the love of angels. It seems as if I had never before known the power of . . . art.” The effect of Monaldi’s falling in love with Rosalia is to enrich his own painting: “His art was now as much indebted to the living presence as a little before it had suffered from it.” Monaldi has learned to use the beautiful symbol to stimulate a perception of ideal beauty, whereas before he had had to ignore the symbol as a distracting reality while trying to paint ideal beauty as a total abstraction. He has learned to do what Allston describes Michelangelo as doing in his sonnet “Art.” “Life to life responding,” Monaldi brings “to view / The invisible Idea.” Thus, in spite of his passionate attachment to Rosalia, Monaldi’s paintings continue to unite “innocence with pleasure” (pp. 77-81).

This association in the poems “Rosalie” and “Song” and in Monaldi between the actual love of a particular woman, the translation of that love into a work of art embodying as its main symbol the image of that woman idealized and universalized, and the experience through this work of art of elevating excitement tinged with melancholy strongly suggests that all of Allston’s single-figure paintings, which seem more or less based on his love of his first wife and in which the figure is generalized by a number of techniques, aim finally at such an aesthetic experience. As described by Allston’s and Poe’s essays, the perceiver’s “soul” in this experience transcends physical sensation and moves toward a perception of transcendent beauty. This formulation of Allston’s aims helps us to interpret the expression of his other paintings of beautiful women with greater precision. Art critics tend to [page 22:] see these paintings as only melancholy, a singularity which detracts from their suggestiveness of the bitter-sweet nature of aesthetic experience. For example, both Gerdts (p. 97) and Mandeles (p. 143) find the expression of the woman in “Contemplation” melancholy, but the title insists that the painting portrays the act of contemplation. Any emotion suggested by the work is emotion recollected in Wordsworthian tranquility. “A Roman Lady Reading” would seem to be in a state of concentration. There is no hint of sadness in “The Valentine” or “Beatrice.” Judging from the implied subject matter of each painting, one would assume that the similar expression of both women is a look of love. The figures in both paintings of the “Italian Shepherd Boy” seem intent on the creation of song, given the rather intense stare of their one visible eye. Mandeles convincingly identifies the primary tone of “Evening Hymn” as melancholy and shows how its iconography, particularly the shadows, the evening setting, the woman’s black dress, and the pool in the background in which the ruins are reflected, refers to the long tradition of melancholy in western art and literature (p. 142-145). But certainly the picture evokes more than a sad response; Margaret Fuller and Oliver Wendell Holmes discerned an uplifting spirituality in the painting.(41) The ruins in the middle ground, highlighted by the setting sun, are quite intact, hardly “ruins” at all. They recall the positive imagery of Poe’s “glory that was Greece” and “grandeur that was Rome.” The face and hands of the woman are bathed in golden light, and her gaze is elevated above the horizon. Certainly the melancholy of the picture is tempered, perhaps dominated by a positive calm, if not the bliss which the poem “Rosalie” insists is also part of the experience of the symbolic connection between the real and the ideal.

In “Amy Robsart,” painted three years before Allston died, the symbolism is unequivocally positive. Amy Robsart is the heroine of Walter Scott’s novel, Kenilworth (1821). Allston, however, has made significant changes from the characteristics of his earlier figures of women so that there is no hint of her tragedy. Her direct gaze, for the first time in any of Allston’s twelve paintings of solitary figures, fixes that of the viewer confidently, even aggressively. She is seated in full sunlight; her hair is bright gold and not in shadow. Her jaunty plume gives her a bit of panache, her fur collar a touch of luxe. Behind her, the background opens full into the blue sky of the ideal. This last of Allston’s pictures in which the subject is beauty itself is in no way melancholy. The mood is more calm, reassuring, and confident of the possibilities of ideal vision than ever before.

Unfortunately, Poe probably never saw nor even read about any of these paintings before he published his “Autography” notice of Allston. “The Valentine,” “Beatrice,” the “Italian Shepherd Boy,” “A Roman [page 23:] Lady Reading,” “The Spanish Girl,” “Rosalie,” and “Evening Hymn” were first shown to the public at Allston’s exhibition of forty-seven paintings at Harding’s Gallery, Boston, from 1 April to 10 July 1839. Poe was living in poverty in Philadelphia at the time; it is improbable that he had the money or the time for a trip to Boston. Margaret Fuller selected these pictures for enthusiastic praise in her review of the exhibition published in the first number of the Dial. Though Poe published an article on “Sarah Margaret Fuller” in Godey’s Lady’s Book, August 1846, in which he admired her contributions to the Dial (H15: 73-83), he seems not to have read her “Record of Impressions” of Allston’s exhibition. Since Fuller understood Allston’s aesthetic aims in these idealized paintings well and expressed them accurately in her review, one assumes that if Poe had read that account, he would have expressed a more favorable opinion of Allston’s paintings. Neither does Poe seem to have read Oliver Wendell Holmes’s review of the exhibition. Since Holmes gave two pages to a discussion of “the various representations of tranquil female beauty,” citing “The Valentine,” “Beatrice,” “A Roman Lady,” “The Spanish Girl,” “Rosalie,” and “Evening Hymn” as examples, and discussed Allston’s friendship with Coleridge,(42) the review would likely have attracted Poe’s attention had he seen it.

One of the “most noted” of Allston’s paintings to which Poe is probably referring in his notice is “The Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha.” This huge “work that, more than any other single picture, established Allston’s position of prominence on both sides of the Atlantic” was acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1816 and has hung there ever since.(43) Poe could have seen it at the Academy, then located on Chestnut Street within easy walking distance of his home, during his residence in Philadelphia from 1838 until 1844, during which time he was editing Graham’s Magazine. “The Dead Man Restored” was, in fact, the only painting by Allston exhibited at the Academy between 1838 and January 1842, the date of Poe’s notice of Allston(44) Another of Allston’s “most noted” paintings was “Belshazzar’s Feast,” which, because Allston could not complete it even though a group of subscribers raised $10,000 to enable him to continue working on it, became a cause célèbre. Though Poe could not have seen it (Allston kept it hidden even from visitors to his studio), Poe could have known of it through any of the accounts in the newspapers, for “the American press kept a watchful eye on the progress of Allston’s picture” (Gerdts, pp. 126-130). Neither of these huge, complex, narrative paintings based on biblical texts could have been to Poe’s taste. Yet they may have been the only paintings by Allston that Poe had a strong [page 24:] impression of, let alone had ever seen. This possibility makes Poe’s negative comments on Allston’s art seem glib and hasty.

Since Allston’s poem, “The Spanish Maid,” which Poe admires in his notice, was written after publication of Allston’s first volume of poems, The Sylphs of the Seasons, and Other Poems, in 1813, and not published in an exclusive collection of Allston’s poems until after Poe’s death, Poe probably read this poem in Rufus Griswold’s The Poets and Poetry of America (Philadelphia, 1842). Griswold dedicated his volume to Allston and included in it seven of Allston’s poems, including the two Poe mentions in his notice as well as “The Tuscan Girl” and “Rosalie.” As Poe astutely observed, Allston’s “poems are not all of a high order of merit.” Poe is generous in praising “The Spanish Maid” and the “Address to Great Britain” (Allston’s title was “America to Great Britain”); but one would have expected Poe to take notice of “Rosalie” as well. Poe reviewed Griswold’s 1842 edition of Poets and Poetry of America in Graham’s Magazine, June 1842, as “the best collection of the American poets that has yet been made.” But he complained that Griswold had “unduly favored the writers of New England” (only three of Poe’s poems were included — “The Coliseum,” “The Haunted Palace,” and “The Sleeper”), and he did not refer to Allston at all (H11: 124-125). Monaldi was published in 1841, but there is no indication that Poe read it. As already noted, Poe could not have seen Allston’s Lectures on Art, the work that undoubtedly would have alerted him to the unanimity of aim and technique in Allston’s work and his own. Poe knew only Allston’s poetry, the quality of which was more likely to arouse Poe’s contempt than his recognition.

Allston seems to have remained unaware of Poe’s aesthetic kinship. The volumes of poetry Poe published during Allston’s lifetime — Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems (1829), and Poems (1831) — attracted little critical attention. After his return to the United States, Allston seldom left the Boston area; Poe’s mature poetry and tales appeared in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York periodicals. Richardson, Wright, and Johns all claim that Allston’s Lectures on Art were written in the 1830s,(45) but Wright and Johns seem to merely echo Richardson (pp. 4, 135), whose observation that Allston read his lectures to Longfellow and Felton during the winter of 1842-1843 suggests a later date of composition. One is tempted to claim that Allston wrote his Lectures after reading Poe’s aesthetic essays, since the language in key passages is sometimes close enough to suggest influence. The only statements of Poe’s mature aesthetic position that Allston could have read before his death, however, were Poe’s review of Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems, and his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, both [page 25:] published in April 1842, in Graham’s Magazine. “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” were yet to come.

This ignorance of each other’s work on the part of two of the most seminal aestheticians in America in the nineteenth century seems a waste. Allston’s career was well established before Poe emerged on the American literary scene, but Poe could have used the support of Allston’s influential friends. Or would an awareness of Allston’s aesthetic position have caused Poe to consider him another Frogpondian to be attacked? In any case, the history of western culture indicates that it did not matter in the long run. Allston, the first American Symbolist painter, and Poe, the first American Symbolist poet, together in practice and in theory, began a tradition that is still alive.

[page 25, continued:]


1.  Edgar Preston Richardson, Washington Allston: A Study of the Romantic Artist in America (New York, 1948), p. 154.

2.  Richardson, pp. 155, 180. See letter dated 11 July 1843 in Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk, 6 vols. (New York, 1939), 3: 182. See also journal entries for 6 October 1837, 12 March 1844, and 8 May 1844 in Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 10 vols. (Boston, 1909-14), 4: 311; 6: 501, 512.

3.  Margaret Fuller, “A Record of Impressions, Produced by the Exhibition of Mr. Allston’s Pictures in the Summer of 1839,” Dial, 1(1840), 74.

4.  For examples of Poe’s battles with the “Frogpondians,” see H 11: 67-69; 253-254; 12: 5-6, 41-106; 13: 1-13, 129; 14: 271.. See also Sidney P. Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu (Durham, N.C., 1963), pp. 132-89. Holmes reviewed Allston’s exhibition of 1839 in the North American Review, 50(1840), 358-381.

5.  Washington Allston, Lectures on Art and Poems (1850) and Monaldi (1841), “Introduction” by Nathalia Wright (Gainesville, 1967), p. xiii. All further references to this work appear in parentheses in the text.

6.  Richardson, p. 87.

7.  Wright, “Introduction,” Lectures on Art and Poems, p. xiii, is the only person in addition to myself to claim that Allston’s Lectures are “based on the German Idealist philosophy,” but she does not discuss the point. Elizabeth Johns, “Washington Allston’s Later Career: Art About the Making of Art,” Arts Magazine, 54(1979), 122-129, gives a detailed account of the [page 26:] influence of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s poetry on Allston’s paintings, but does not discuss either Coleridge’s critical writings or Allston’s Lectures. Regina Soria, “Washington Allston’s Lectures on Art: The First American Art Treatise,” JAAC, 18(1960), 329-344, concentrates on Allston’s aesthetic theories but argues that his metaphysics “are not those of the German Idealists” (p. 338). She briefly considers Poe in connection with Allston (pp. 335-336), but does not give a systematic exploration of parallels between either their theories or their works. William H. Gerdts and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., “A Man of Genius: The Art of Washington Allston (1779-1843) (Boston, 1979), discuss Allston’s paintings and drawings in light of his letters and biography but do not consider his Lectures, poems, or Monaldi in any detail. My study is the first, I believe, to consider a group of Allston’s paintings in close connection with his Lectures on Art, his poems, and Monaldi.

8.  Jared B. Flagg, The Life and Letters of Washington Allston (1892; rpt. New York, 1969), p. 64. For further discussion of Coleridge’s impact on Allston’s aesthetic theory and artistic practice, see Flagg, pp. 61, 64, 77, 129; Richardson, pp. 1, 25, 75, 77, 101-103, 111, 159; Johns, pp. 123-125, 129.

9.  I have evaluated the nature and extent of Poe’s debt to Coleridge in “‘Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense’: Poe’s Debt to Immanuel Kant,” SAR (1980), pp. 136-140.

10.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1907), 2: 219-246, 304-306. Allston, for example, in his “Introductory Discourse,” Lectures on Art, p. 64, tells an anecdote similar to one in Coleridge’s “Essay Second” of “On the Principles of Genial Criticism” (Biographia 2: 224225), in which a stranger, in conversation with Allston, confuses the difference between the “beautiful” and the “sublime.” Poe probably read Coleridge’s essays when they were published in Joseph Cottle’s Early Recollections of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1837 (Biographia 2: 305).

11.  pp. 46-47 contain a key passage in Allston’s Lectures in which he defends the validity of the ideas. He proves their “common source” by means of a Wordsworthian recollection of youth and moral innocence.

12.  Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (New York, 1980), pp. 7, 90, discusses the “fusion of esthetic and religious terms” in nineteenth-century aesthetic theory.

13.  Cf. other statements Allston makes about the imagination, pp. 127, 146.

14.  Cf. Coleridge’s definition of the imagination as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (Biographia 1: 202).

15.  Novak considers at length the attempt to portray the ideal in landscape painting (see, especially, pp. 25, 72, 74, 83, 89, 106, 118, 130, 265). She notes that in nineteenth-century American art, “all processes-particularly the engines of poetry — move inexorably from the particular to the eternal . . .” (p. 109). For further discussion of the attempt to refine the particularities of natural scenery into symbols of the ideal, see pp. 68, 123, 185, 187-188, 232, 271, 273, 299.

16.  See Novak, pp. 15, 200, on the attempt by American artists to paint “the face of God in the landscape so that the less gifted might recognize and share in that benevolent spirituality.”

17.  See also stanza four of “On Greenough’s Group of the Angel and Child,” Lectures on Art and Poems, p. 364.

18.  Flagg, p. 56.

19.  Wright, “Introduction,” Lectures on Art and Poems, pp. vvi; Abraham A. Davidson, The Eccentrics and Other American Visionary Painters (New York, 1978), pp. 8-10, 12, 15.

20.  Fuller, pp. 74-75.

21.  Flagg, p. 380, quotes this from a letter written by “an unknown American Artist,” 23 September 1844. Gerdts, “The Paintings of Washington Allston,” “A Man of Genius”: The Art of Washington Allston, p. 174, n116, identifies the writer as Greenough.

22.  Eric W. Carlson, ed., Introduction to Poe: A Thematic Reader (Glenview, Ill., 1967), p. 567.

23.  I refer throughout this discussion to Allston’s paintings as they are reproduced in Gerdts’s and Stebbins’s beautiful catalogue. References to dates of composition of Allston’s paintings, numbers of plates and figures, and pages on which they are located in Gerdts and Stebbins appear in parentheses in the text.

24.  Both androgynous figures closely resemble a chalk drawing, “Young Boy Seated on a Stone Block” (no. 83, p. 220) which Allston did much earlier, between 1804 and 1808.

25.  Gerdts, p. 156. For further discussion of this remarkable shift, see Gerdts, pp. 60, 134, 135, 140-141, 143; Richardson, pp. 125, 137; Johns, pp. 122, 126.

26.  Richardson, pp. 136, 174. [page 28:]

27.  Ibid., p. 157; Johns, p. 129.

28.  Omans, “‘Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense,”’ pp. 143-154; “Victor Cousin: Still Another Source of Poe’s Aesthetic Theory?” SAR (1982), pp. 13-15.

29.  Fuller, pp. 79, 80.

30.  Richardson, p. 149.

31.  Flagg, p. 104.

32.  Gerdts, p. 50.

33.  Novak, pp. 41, 270.

34.  Richardson, p. 139.

35.  Fuller, p. 81.

36.  For a discussion of the possible date of composition of “The Valentine,” see Gerdts, p. 60.

37.  Flagg, pp. 82, 109-110.

38.  Monaldi, pp. 67-68. Monaldi is bound, with separate pagination, with Lectures on Art and Poems.

38b.  Gerdts, p. 140; Chad Mandeles, “Washington Allston’s ‘Evening Hymn’,” Arts Magazine, 54(1980), 145; Johns, p. 129.

39.  Allston insists on human inability to achieve ideal perfection. In his “Introductory Discourse” he says that artists’ “apprehension” of beauty may undergo many changes “as their

more extended acquaintance with the higher outward assimilants of Beauty brings them . . . nearer to a perfect realization of the preexisting Idea. By perfect, here, we mean only the nearest approximation by man” (p. 30). In his lecture on “Art” he observes: “Where the outward and inward are so united that we cannot separate them, there shall we find the perfection of Art. So complete a union has, perhaps, never been accomplished, and may be impossible; it is certain, however, that no approach to excellence can ever be made, if the idea of such a union be not constantly looked to by the artist as his ultimate aim” (p. 83).

40.  This emphasis on music as the most effective medium for conveying transcendent experience in “Rosalie” and “Song,” and in Allston’s description of the effect of the paintings of the Venetian school that “addressed themselves, not to the senses merely. . . . but rather through them to that region . . . of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music” [page 29:] (Flagg, p. 56) is another point of resemblance between Allston and Poe. (“It may be” “in Music” that the experience of “supernal Beauty” is “now and then attained in fact.”) It may account for the fact that three of the figures in Allston’s idealized figure paintings are playing musical instruments. In both versions of the “Italian Shepherd Boy” the youth holds a flute and the woman in “Evening Hymn” strums a lute. The pose of the woman and the position of the forgers of her right hand are exactly that of the young man in “Lover Playing a Lute” (ca. 1830s, no. 70, p. 201). In “Girl in Persian Costume” (ca. 1832, no. 65, p. 198), a single woman in a landscape is again playing a lute. All five paintings, which have several characteristics in common, seem to associate playing or listening to music with artistic inspiration and aesthetic perception.

41.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Exhibition of Pictures Painted by Washington Allston at Harding’s Gallery, School Street,” North American Review, 50(1840), 378; Fuller, p. 79.

42.  Holmes, pp. 368-369, 375, 377-378.

43.  Gerdts, pp. 118-119, 65; Richardson, p. 106.

44.  Anna Wells Rutledge, Cumulative Record of Exhibition Catalogues: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1807-1870 (Philadelphia, 1955), p. 15. My thanks to Kathleen Foster, Curator, Pennsylvania Academy, for her help in using this source.

45.  Richardson, p. 157; Wright, “Introduction,” Lectures on Art and Poems, p. xiii; Johns, p. 129.





[S:0 - PHT, 1990] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and His Times - Poe and Washington Allston: Visionary Kin (Glen A. Omans, 1990)