Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950
by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge
"The narratives of the world are numberless," wrote Roland Barthes, who discovered them in many forms: "myth, comedy, mime, painting. . . , stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation. Moreover," he added, ". . . narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind, and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative." Indeed, folklorist John Burrison believes that "the narrative impulse -- the need to tell of or listen to experience and imagination structured into plot -- is one of the traits that make us human." Given the universality of narrative, an impulse fundamental to human nature, it is no surprise to find it in the most ancient of texts. "Narrate" derives from the Latin narrare, related to gnarus, "to know, to make known." To narrate, to tell a story -- whether of contemporary manners or of Creation itself -- is a way of knowing the world. The tales of how the world originated, the creation accounts of diverse civilizations, including the Old Testament, are among humans' primal narratives.
Henry T. Tuckerman, a prominent art and literary critic of the mid-nineteenth century, recognized the imitative nature of much in American culture. "Scenery, border-life, the vicinity of the aborigines, and a great political experiment were the only novel features in the new world upon which to found anticipation of originality; in academic culture, habitual reading, moral and domestic tastes, and cast of mind, the Americans were identified with the mother country." Prominent among these traits, imported with the earliest colonists, was a "moral taste," a bias toward the good, that infused crucial aspects of the fledgling culture, including its visual arts: "Above all there should be a pleasing or instructive moral presented" in art, advised one southern journalist. "A picture, like a book, loses its mission when this is lacking."
Even for landscape painters, the first significant native school of artists, the subject was motivated by a moralizing impetus and was critiqued in similar terms. "In the early nineteenth century in America," as Barbara Novak aptly observed, "nature couldn't do without God, and God apparently couldn't do without nature." Neither could Americans, or God, do without narratives.
The American woodlands provided a "text" for Ralph Waldo Emerson and like-minded transcendentalist writers and painters, whose works were tinged with a Nature-derived pantheism. For most members of the Christian society that was the young United States, the urtext was not the wilds but the Word, the Bible. Its parables provided guidance for acceptable behavior; homilies inspired the pious, and dramatic passages excited their passions. By the early nineteenth century, scriptural motifs had become a favorite subject for narrative painters and their audiences.
Edward Hicks, whose parallel careers as Quaker minister and coach-and-sign painter flourished in Pennsylvania during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, created numerous compositions on the biblical theme of the Peaceable Kingdom (Isaiah 11:6), of which sixty-two are known today. The scriptural passage presages the day when the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf, young lion, and fatling shall all lie down together, their peaceful flock led by a little child, a prefiguration of Christ. Hicks faithfully illustrated Isaiah's menagerie and Child and then paired them with various subjects drawn from landscape or American history. In Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch (cat. no. 32), he combined animals and Child with a landscape scene and distant historical figures, both relating to the fractious history of the Quakers in the United States. The Quaker separatist movement arose in the 1810s, initially prompted by Americans who opposed union with British members of the faith; the schism, which later broadened to issues of orthodoxy, was aggravated by social or class distinctions between rural and urban Quakers. Among the chief proponents of tradition and of separation from the British church was Edward Hicks's cousin, the Reverend Elias Hicks, a leading Quaker cleric of his day; in his campaign he was joined by cousin Edward. In this divisive climate, which peaked in 1827 with the Hicksites' withdrawal from the Philadelphia yearly meeting, the painter was moved by the passage from Isaiah, discovering in its pacific imagery a balm for the pains of religious controversy and the inspiration for pictorial peacemaking.
Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom paintings were charged with meanings related to the separatist controversy. The animals might represent human traits that could be ascribed equally to Hicksites and their opponents. The landscape is determinedly American, implying distance from those favoring union with the British branch of the faith. Its blasted tree trunks are of the sort that appeared in romantic Hudson River school views of the period; the famous Natural Bridge, which stood on property once owned by Thomas Jefferson and celebrated by him in Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), is equally identified with the New World. The geological oddity not only bespoke America; its origins in a natural event of great force also symbolized the church, once united but now divided. In the distance, beneath the arch, diminutive figures represent William Penn signing the treaty with the Indians, an event that fulfilled Isaiah's prophesy of a peaceful kingdom in this world. Penn also stands for Edward Hicks's world of Pennsylvania, the birthplace, he explained, of "our Quaker revolution. . . which originated in a contest between the republicanism of William Penn, planted in America and watered and cherished by the free institutions of our country, and the aristocracy of the Yearly Meeting of London, under the influence of the British hierarchy." The "branch" of the title, which occurs in three other Peaceable Kingdom paintings of the period, refers to the scriptural passage describing the Messiah's descent as a branch from the royal line of David, son of Jesse and an offshoot of his tree. As Barbara Millhouse has noted, the branch held by the Child is rhymed in the branch that erupts from the blasted stump, "new growth on old wood [ that] represented the prevalence of the Hicksites over the Orthodox Quakers." The rich autumnal foliage on this sturdy oak branch also connotes America, where the seasonal brilliance was notable. In sum, then, Hicks's Peaceable Kingdoms were sermons in paint, pictorial narratives directed to the painter's partisans. "Both in their whole composition and in their individual components," explains Carolyn Weekley, "the Kingdom pictures provide highly symbolic allusions to the artist's position. They can be fully understood only if one knows the history of the period and Edward's sources of inspiration."
Elsewhere, the Bible told of less pacific moments, particularly in the Old Testament, as when a wrathful God pronounces judgment upon Gog (Ezekiel 38-39 ), or when sinful Sodom and Gomorrah are laid waste by heavenly brimstone and fire, leaving "the smoke of the country [going] up as the smoke of a furnace" (Genesis 19:24,28). Scriptural scenes like these captured the imaginations of painters as well as preachers, providing Asher B. Durand with inspiration for God's Judgement upon Gog, 1851-52 (fig. 5). The prophet Ezekiel stands on a promontory, a stony pulpit overlooking a valley where an unseen God orchestrates the destruction of Gog's army, which was arrayed against the chosen people of Israel. Gog's Lilliputian soldiers are dwarfed in the enormous landscape, emblematic of God's enormous powers, and vanquished in fulfillment of divine prophecy: "I will give thee unto the ravenous birds of every sort and to the beasts of the field, to be devoured" (Ezekiel.39:4). The dramatic subject appealed to Durand's audience for, as Tim Barringer has noted, "many Americans of the 1840s and 1850s believed in the providential destiny of their nation, a new chosen people performing God's work," and would therefore have identified with the Israelites. The motif also would have resonated with midcentury viewers, Millerites and others, who were infused with the millennial spirit and anticipated the imminent Second Coming and the end of the world. That romantic spirit was not unique to the 1840s and '50s, however, but has surfaced in various periods through the last two centuries.
In the late 1920s in Paris, the aged expatriate Henry Ossawa Tanner turned to a similarly momentous motif, God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (cat. no. 59). The painting was one of several versions of the biblical tale that he produced, exceptions to his customary reliance on subjects from the Gospels of the New Testament. The specifics of landscape and humans are even less detailed in Tanner's design than in Durand's, as the artist concentrates on the contrast of bluegreen smoke above and the ochres that flow like molten lava across the ground plane. The holocaust is suggested by the sooty sky overhead, dark plumes that led the eminent scholar W. E. B. Du Bois to propose their genesis in recent events: "this seething, convoluted mass of smoke," he wrote, was probably inspired by "the sight of some such terrific scene during the [First World] war. Nothing in natural events, indeed, could be imagined to typify more fittingly the wrath of God in the biblical story than the aspect of the sky after a great explosion."
The New Testament also inspired painters with narratives of Christ's miraculous birth, death, and ascension. Robert Loftin Newman's imaginatively conceived figure subjects were drawn from Scripture and from secular literary and mythological sources, in what Albert Boime called ""a bizarre amalgam of the Old and New Worlds." The painter particularly favored incidents of Christ's life as related in the Gospels, from the Nativity to Jesus' entombment and the Resurrection. Newman's romantic style, rich in shadows and nuance, was derived from his study with Thomas Couture and the Barbizon school and was well suited to evocative moments suffused with mystery. Such was surely the mood in the miraculous appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, a subject depicted in Titian's famous Noli me tangere (National Gallery, London). While that and other Renaissance treatments of the theme were familiar to American artists in Europe, the subject rarely figured in their work; John La Farge was probably the first to paint it, in his mural decorations for New York's St. Thomas Church, in 1878. Within a short span, however, the motif appeared in easel paintings by Newman and his friend Albert Pinkham Ryder (fig. 6), suggesting their mutual attraction to the awesome moment told in the Bible, as well as to La Farge's murals. In Newman's canvas (cat. no. 49), a white-robed figure spectrally emerges from the mysterious darkness, dramatically illuminated from an otherworldly source, while another, reddish figure cowers before it. Newman's subject and his title -- Rabboni -- come from the Gospels, describing the Magdalene's encounter with the unascended Christ, whom she does not recognize until "Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni, which is to say, Master" (John 20:16).
The story of the Ascension provided equally dramatic narrative material for other painters, both in Newman's time and later. The appeal of the biblical subject persisted well into the secular century that followed, when Maltby Sykes painted The Ascension about 1940 (cat. no. 58). During the 1930s, Sykes had been a student and associate of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whose influence is apparent in Sykes's painting. In a sere desertscape like those of Rivera's native land, with Calvary's crosses in the background, the two Marys stop agape at the opened sepulchre. Overhead, against a stormy sky worthy of EI Greco (whom Sykes considered "the superb master," capable of "wizardry"), the dead Christ is borne aloft by two angels, whose "countenance was like lightning" and "raiment white as snow" (Matthew 28:3). On his unfurled linen shroud, he fairly rockets to glory; the miraculous speed of the ascent is suggested by the windswept hair and beard of the angelic bearers -- an Art Deco stylization, like some heavenly hood ornament.
The Bible was scarcely the only text to stir the minds of readers, or the brushes of painters. Emily Dickinson knew that "There is no frigate like a book, / To take us lands away," no finer vehicle for the ramble of imagination. Secular literature also figured as impetus for artists' creations; these sometimes faithfully followed the textual inspiration, sometimes departed imaginatively from it. Sources might range from classical mythology and ancient legends to Shakespeare, from contemporary literature to timeless fairy tales. The last, for one example, inspired Gari Melchers' large portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, 1897 (Maier Museum, Lynchburg, Virginia), which suppressed narrative elements to concentrate on the pretty young model; Robert Newman treated the same subject in multiple canvases whose shadowy mysteries hint at the drama of the tale. By contrast, George de Forest Brush, a contemporary of Newman and Melchers, was inspired by Bret Harte's Gold Rush adventures; his painting of Miggles (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk), for instance, depicts Harte's heroine from the story of the same title.
In the early nineteenth century, well before Harte and Brush,James Fenimore Cooper's novels enjoyed pride of place in the libraries of many educated Americans. The Pioneers (1823), the first of his Leatherstocking series, provided the inspiration for Charles Deas's Turkey Shooting (cat. no. 20), painted in 1836. The painting is based on a passage describing a marksmanship contest run by a free black man in Cooper's native Otsego County, New York, though Deas loosely interprets his literary source. Through gestures and expressions, he provides a study of character centered on Abraham "Brom" Freeborn, manager of the contest, whose profit is threatened by a sharpshooter's keen aim. The agitated Freeborn, restrained by a contestant, "exhibited [wrote Cooper] all that violence of joy that characterizes the mirth of a thoughtless negro" -- a racial caricature, common in Cooper's and Deas's time, that was captured by the painter.
Other secular texts provided motifs more distant in time or place. Elihu Vedder was one of the most imaginative of American artists in the late nineteenth century. Over a long and prolific career, his productions in diverse media were inspired by literary fantasies of various sorts, including his own verse. Most famously, he produced a series of illustrations for Edward Fitzgerald's text of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (published 1884), a number of whose scenes he also treated in oil paintings.
In The Roc's Egg, 1868 (cat. no. 65), Vedder displays a young man's fascination with mystery and marvel, drawing on Sinbad the Sailor's account of the "prodigious height and bigness" of a white egg laid by the Roc, a "bird of monstrous size." Vedder's interest in the Tales of the Arabian Nights (which includes stories of Sinbad) grew out of his delight in the improbabilities they relate, which he depicted with a literalness that belies their fantastic nature. The Roc's Egg and Vedder's Fisherman and the Genie (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), also derived from The Arabian Nights, both "combine the observed with the marvelous without stylistic apology" (in Joshua Taylor's felicitous phrase). In them, "Vedder seemed to delight in pushing possibility to the point at which it devastates reason. . . . Mystery was the complement of a persistent materialism."
Albert Pinkham Ryder shared the romantic temperament that characterized much of Vedder's finest work and that flourished in the late nineteenth century. His reveries in paint were prompted by an eclectic array of sources, many of them literary: ancient mythology, the Bible (including the Noli me tangere subject that his friend Newman and the younger Elliott Daingerfield also tackled), Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, La Fontaine's fables, German legends, the poetry of Heinrich Heine, Longfellow's "Evangeline," Edgar Allen Poe, Wagnerian opera -- and the artist's own verse. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (cat. no. 53), Ryder takes his cue from Lord Byron's enormously popular poem of the same title. The painted image's relation to a specific poetic passage is uncertain; also vague and uncertain is the materiality of Ryder's pilgrim, who in that respect suggests the shadowy, brooding figure who moves through Byron's four cantos. Less an illustration than an evocation, Ryder's image might reflect the artist's temperamental association with the poet and his subject. Elizabeth Broun has speculated that the painter, whose 1882 European tour followed an itinerary similar to that actually and poetically traveled by Byron, ""may have fancied himself, like Childe Harold, on a pilgrimage to the great cities and monuments to seek out the meaning of art and life."
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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:
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