New: Dante vivo || White Silence

Transcribed from The Atlantic Monthly 5:27 (1860), 1-6.



Longworth Powers, Carte de visite of his father, Hiram Powers

Photograph of Hiram Powers, with sculpture, manuscript diary of Susan Horner, British Institute of Florence

Preston Powers: Tomb for Lily Nye; Tomb for Hiram Powers

Antique Art, beside affording a standard by which the modern may be measured, has the remarkable property - giving it a higher value - of testing the genuineness of the Art-impulse.

Even to genius, that is, to the artist, a true Art-life is difficult of attainment. In the midst of illumination, there is the mystery: the subjective mystery, out of which issue the germs - like seeds floated from unknown shores - of his imaginings; the objective mystery, which yields to him, through obvious, yet unexplained harmonies, the means of manifestation.

Behind the consciousness is the power; behind the power, that which gives it worth and occupation.

To the artist definite foresight is denied. His life is full of surprises at new necessities. When the present demand shal have been fulfilled, what shall follow? Shall it be Madonna, or Laocoon? His errand is like that of the commander who bears sealed instructions: and he may drift for years, ere he knows wherefore. Thorwaldsen waited, wandering by the Tiber a thousand days - then in one, uttered his immortal 'Night'.

Not even the severest self-examination will enable one in whom the Art-impulse exists to understand thoroughly its aim and uses; yet to approximate a clear perception of his own nature and that of the art to which he is called is one of his first duties. What he is able to do, required to do, and permitted to do, are questions of vital importance.

Possession of himself, of himself in the highest, will alone enable the student in Art to solve the difficulties of his position. His habitual consciousness must be made up of the noblest of all that has been revealed to it; otherwise those fine intuitions, akin to the ancient inspirations, through whose aid genius is informed of its privileges, are impossible.

Therefore the foremost purpose of an artist should be to claim and take possession of self. Somewhere within is his inheritance, and he must not be hindered of it. Other men have other gifts . gifts bestowed under different conditions, and subject in a great degree to choice. Talent is not fastidious. It is an instrumentality, and its aim is optional with him who possessit. Genius is exquisitely fastidious, and the man whom it possesses must live in life, or no life.

In view of these considerations, the efforts of an artist to assume his true position must be regarded with earnest interest, and importance must be attached to that which aids him in attaining to his true plane.

Such aid may be, and is, derived from the influences of Italy. Of those agencies which have a direct influence upon the action of the artist, which serve to assist him in manifesting his idea and fulfilling his purpose, mention will be made in connection with the works which have been produced in Italian studios. They have less importance than that great element related to the innermost of the artist's life, - to that power of which we have spoken, making Art-action necessary.

It is not, however, exclusively antique Art which exercises this power of elevation. Ancient Art may be a better term; as all great Art bears a like relation to the student. In Florence the medieval influences predominate. Rome exercises its power through the medium of the antique.

There is much Christian Art in Rome. Yet its effect is insignificant, compared with that of the vast collection of Greek sculptures sculptures to be found within its wals. Instinctively, as the vague yearnings and prophecies of youth lift him in whom they quicken away from youth's ordinary purposes and associations, his thought turns to that fair city where are gathered the achievements of those who were indeed the gods of Hellas. To be there, and to demand from those eloquent lips the secret of the golden age, is his dream and aim, and there shall be solved the problems of his life.

But antique Art, waiting so patiently twenty centuries to afford aid to the artist, waits also to sit in judgment upon his worth and acts. Woe to him who cannot pass the ordeal of its power, and explain the enigma of its speech!

Nothing can be more pitiful and sad than the condition of one who, having been subjected to the influence of ancient Art, has not had the ability to recognize or the earnestness of purpose essential to the apprehension of the truths which it has for his soul instead of his hands. But, through truthfulness of aim, and a sense of the divine nature of the erranc to which he seems appointed, he reach the law of Art, then henceforth its pursuit becomes the sign of life; it the impulse bear him no farther than rules, then all he produces goes forth as a procalamation of death. There is no middle path. Art is high or low; high, if it be the profoundest life of an earnest man, uttering itself in the real, even though it be awkwardly, and in violation of all accepted methods of expression; low, if it be not such utterance, even though consummate in obedience to the finest rules of all Art-science. There can be no other way. The life is in the man, and not in the stone; and no affectation f vitality can atone for the absence of that soul which should have been breathed into existence from his own divine life.

As was said, possession of self is the only condition under which the quantity and quality of the Art-impulse may be determined. It is only when a man stands face to face with himself, in the stillness of his own inner world, that his possibilities become apparent; and it is only when conscious of these, and inspired by a just sense of their dignity, that he can achieve that which shall be genuine success. Once he must be lifted away and isolated from worldly surroundings, relieved from all objective influences, from the pressure of all human relations; once the very memory of all these must be blotted out; once he must be alone. This is possible to a Mendelsson in the awful solitude of Beethoven's 'Sonate Pathétique', to a painter in the presence of Leonardo's 'Last Supper', and to a sculptor in the hushed halls of the Vatican.

But that which lifts the true artist above externals, the externals of his own individual being, crushes the false, to whom the marble and the paint are in themselves the ultimate.

This train of thought has been suggested by the fact of the dominion which classic Art has acquired over sculpture, and by the influence of the sixteenth century schools upon painters. It is due, however, to our sculptures in Italy that credit shold be given them for having resisted the influence of forms, of the mere letter of the classic, to a greater extent than the students of any other nation. Whether or not they have been receptive of the spirit of the antique remains to be seen.

American painters have been less fortunate. Too often the lessons of the old masters, and especially those of the earliest, the Puritan Fathers of Art, have been unheeded; or the rules and practices which served them temporarily, subject to the phase of the ideal for the time uppermost, have passed into permanent laws, to be obeyed under all conditions of Art-utterance.

The United States have had within the last twenty years as many as thirty sculptors and painters resident in Italy. At the beginning of the present year ten sculpture studios in Rome and Florence were occupied by Americans. We will speak of these artists in the order in which have served to develop in this first period of its history in America. The eldest bears the honored name of HIRAM POWERS.

Three parties have been remarkably unjust to this man, - namely, his friends, his enemies, and himself.

Neither the artist nor his friends need feel solicitude for his fame. The exact value of his excellence shall be estimated, and the height of his genius fully recognized, when the right man comes. Other award than that from an age on a level with his own life can be of small worth to one who has attained to the true level of Art. Fame must come to him of that vision which can pierce the external of his work and penetrate to the presence of his very soul. His action must be traced to its finest ideal motive, - as chemist-philosophers pursue the steps of analysis until opaque matter is resolved to pure, ethereal elements. His fame must be from such vision, and it will approach the universal just in proportion as his pulse beats in unison with the heart of mankind. Whatever may be an artist's plans, or those of his friends, in regard to his valuation by the world, while he is living, ultimately he himself, divested of all save his own individuality, must stand revealed.

Those who in other departments of action are necessarily governed somewhat, or it may be entirely, by rules of conduct general in nature and universal in application, may fail to receive or may escape justice. They are to a great degree involuntary agents, and subject to the laws of science, to the operations of which they are obliged to conform. The private fact of the man is hidden by the public general truth. If, however, the energies of the individual overtop the science, enabling him to assert himself above the summit of history, then is he accessible to all generations, and can in no wise avoid or forfeit his just fame.

In Art, this intimate relation of the result of action to the actor is complete, - inasmuch as, to be Art, to rise above being something else, the shadow and mockery of Art, it must be of and from the man, a spontaneity, a reflection, light for light, shade for shade, color for color, of his entire being; and with this effect his will has little to do. Therefore, unless he be an imposter, he need give himself  no trouble regarding his future. His works shall serve as a clue, produced century after century, along which posterity shall feel its way back to his studio and eart. No need of thought for his morrow.

But for his to-day he may well be solicitous. If fame be his reflection, he has also the shadow of himself, his reputation.

It is a great error to assume that these two effects are so related that the augmnetation of the one must increase the other, and as great a mistake to confound the two. The truth is, that reputation and fame are rarely coincident. They are not unfrequently in direct opposition, - so much so, that some names, which the world cannot give up, have to be filtered through a thick mass of years, to purify them of their reputations, and leave them simply famous.

No name has suffered more than that of Powers. His friends, blind to the laws which govern these matters, have wrought bravely to construct for him a reputation commensurate with his vaguely imagined worth; but upon his real worth they have evinced no desire to lay their foundation. No accurate survey has been made of his abilities, no definite plan of his artist-nature. Often a place has been demaned for his name in the history of Art, and the first place too, because of his fine frank eye, or the simplicity of his manners,- because his workmen cut the chain of the Greek slave out of one piece of stone, or the marble of the statue itself had no spot as big as a pin-head,- because he himself chooses to rasp and scrape plaster, rather than model in plastic clay,- because he tinkered up the 'infernal regions' of the Cincinnati Museum years ago, or spends his time now in making perforating machines and perforated files; in fine, for any reason rather than for the right legitimate one of artistic merit, they have demanded room for their favorite.

Even those who look deeper than this, appreciating Mr. Powers as a gentleman, an ingenious mechanic, and a skilful manipulator in sculpture, have been content or constrained to urge his claims to attention upon false considerations. We have heard it gravely remarked, as a matter of astonishment, that there were individuals - refined  men, apparently -  who looked upon the Venus de' Medici as a finer work than the Greek Slave.

In the files of a New York paper may be found an article, written by a highly cultivated man, in which Powers' busts are asserted to be rather the effect of miracles than the results of
human effort. The spirit which has prompted these and many kindred expressions cannot be too much deplored by those who love Art and know the artist. It has succeeded in creating for him a reputation broad and remarkable, but most unfortunate, because not his own, because not the representation which should have formed about his name here, as fame will yonder; unfortunate, because, though broad, it is the bredth of an inverted pyramid, which must naturally topple over of itself, and incumber his path with ruins.

The false position in which Mr. Powers has been placed by his friends has of course won him many enemies.

Bold, sincere, working enemies are highly useful in developing an artist's character, especially if he be a law-abiding follower of the art. But enemies must be dealers of fair blows, wagers of honorable warfare; no assassin is worthy of the name of enemy. Sometimes, however, those who are worthy of the name, and entitled to respect, may make injudicious and unfair use of censure and invective. It is unwise, when the necessity arises to set aside a worthless or an imperfect image, to turn Iconoclast and demolish those surrounding it which are worthy of a place in the temple. True criticism, for its own sake, if prompted by not higher motive, deals justly.

The friends of Mr. Powers have, in their estimate of his ability, given him credit for that which he does not possess, and claimed recognition for merit unsupported by the value of his works. His enemies have labored assiduously, not only to deprive the estimate of its unwarranted quantity, but to overthrow the whole, and leave him merely a mechanic, a dexterous mechanic, with small views, but large ambition, trying to pass himself off as an artist. His busts are asserted to be but more elaborate examples of his skill in the 'perforated-file-and-patent-punch' line.

But as the struggles to elevate this artist's reputation above its proper level have proved signal failures, so the effort to depreciate it must ultimately be defeated. Only one kind of injustice ever proves irreperably wrong: that which a man exercises towards himself. Mr. Powers had a specialty.

So constituted that the most difficult executive operations are to him but play and pleasure, he has also, to govern and inform this rare organization, a broad, manly, and most genial human nature. This combination decided the question of his proper mission, and in virtue of it he has been enabled to model a series of most remarkable busts, the true excellence of which must be recognized in spite of friends and foes, and the epithets 'miraculou' and 'mechanical'.

It is possible that the highest type of portrait-sculpture is beyond the limit of this specialty; indeed, it is almost impossible that with the elements constituting it there should be associated the still rarer power to achieve the most exalted ideal Art; and such Art we believe the highest portraiture to be.

A consummate representation of a man in his divinest development, the last refined ideal of him then, would be indeed omsewhat miraculous!

Plaster Cast of Calhoun, Smithsonian Museum

The world asks less. It claims to know of a man what the face of him became under the influences of human, temporal relations. It wants preserved of the statesman the statesman's face, of the merchant the merchant's face; and this demand, when governed by a cultivated taste, is a legitimate one, - as legitimate as is the demand for any history. The public requires the image of the man whom the public knew, and they regard as valuable that which can be received as a definite and trustworthy statement of a great man, or of one whom it esteemed great. It requires this, has a right to such information; and the generation which failes to demand of its artists a true record of its prominent men fails utterly in its duty. the bust of a man goes down to posterity, not only this history which it is in itself, but as an interpreter of the history of its age. Were it not for Art, an age would recede into the unknown, to be recorded as dark, or into the shadowy world of myth. Portraiture, more than aught else, serves to elucidate the tradition or story of a people. How impossible to explain to the twentieth century the bad mystery of our present, without the aid of Powers' head of Calhoun, the less adequate bust of Stephen A. Douglas, and the one which should be modelled of Mr Buchanan! A faithful delineation of the features of some men is needful. We should be thankful for that black frown of Nero, for the bald pate of Scipio, for those queer eyes of Marius, and for the long neck of Cicero, as seen in the newly discovered bust. These are the signs of men, and explain them.
Mr. Powers has succeeded in reporting more accurately than any other recent artist the physical facts of the individual face. From one of his marbles we derive definite ideas of the human character of his subject, what its ambition is, and what its weakness; what have been its loves and its antipathies, its struggles and its victories, its joys and its sorrows, may be revealed to him who has learned what the human face becomes under the influence of these incessant forces. No mere talent can accomplic such results. Behind all that kind of strength lies the fact of peculiar sympathies, relating the artist to this phase of Art-representation; and within certain limites, which should have been undebatable, his rule was absolute.

The great mistake with Mr Powers has been his oversight regarding these limits. There has been debate, hesitation, and a continual wandering away from the duties of his errance. Years have been devoted to those ghosts of sculpture, allegorical figures; other years wasted in the elaboration of machinery. Not that his ideal statues are worthless, or fall short of great beauty and exquisite delicacy; not that his skill as a mechanician is other than great. But the age cannot afford these things, nor can the sculptor afford them. A year is too great a sum to give for a statue of California. Better than that, the several portraits of valued men which might have been acquired,--one bust, even, like those which surprised and compelled the reverence of Thorwaldsen. Better the perfected ability which would have given his country the Webster he should and might have made than a hundred "Americas."

There are two considerations which may have misled Mr. Powers. One, a pecuniary one, which he should have disposed of as did Agassiz, when such was advanced to induce him to give lyceum lectures:--"Sir, I cannot afford to make money!" The other may have been the weight of the prevailing error that portrait-sculpture is a less honorable branch of art.

Less than what? The historical? What finer history than Titian's Paul III, Raphael's Leo X, Albert Dürer's head of himself? What finer than the Pericles, the Marcus Aurelius of the Capitol, the Demosthenes of the Vatican, Chantrey's Scott, Houdon's Voltaire, Powers's Jackson? - Heroic? what more heroic than the Lateran Sophocles, the Venetian Colleoni or Rauch's statue of Frederick the Great? - Poetical? What picture more sweetly poetical than Raphael's head of himself in the Uffizj, or Giotto's Dante in the Bargello?

What ideal statue surpasses in poetical power Michel Angelo's De' Medici in San Lorenzo Chapel? What ideal head is more beautiful than the Townley Clytie of the British Museum, or the young Augustus of the Vatican what grander? What grander than Da Vinci's portrait of himself?

No, - when the sculptor has wrought the adequate representation of the individual in its best estate, he may rest assured that he has achieved 'high Art'.

Let us not be unjust to Mr. Powers's ideal works. In the qualities of chasteness of conception, delicacy of treatment, temperate grace, and that rarer finer quality of dignified repose they have surpassed since the time of Greek Art. When the subject chosen has not been foreign to the artist's nature, as in the 'Eve', nor foreign to Art's province, as in the 'California', his success has been very like a triumph.
But the success has not been that which he was entitled to grasp; the seeming triumph has precluded a real victory. We must believe that the highest lessons of ancient Art have in a great measure been unrecognized by Mr. Powers. The external has been studied. No man can talk more justly of that exquisite line of the Venus de Medici's temple and cheek, or point out more discriminatingly the beauties of the Milo statue or detect more quickly truths antique busts. He has discovered, also, somewhat of the great secret of repose, - has perceived that it is essential in some wise, to all greatness in Art, more particularly in his own department of sculpture. But beyond that simple recognition the fact, what? That repose is dependent on act, and must be great in proportion to mightiness of power? No, he could not have seen this; else had his Webster come to us less questionable in intent, less remote in its merits from the massive self-possession of the man.
For what Mr. Powers became before he left America he cannot be praised too greatly. He carried with him to Europe just that knowledge of Nature and that executive power which prepared him to take advantage of the aid that all great Art was waiting to afford. Had he won 'the large truth', the scope and purpose of his genius, as in America he had found that of his talent. He would have seen his specialty to be worthy all reverence, for he would have attained to an appreciation of the high possibilities of portrait-Art. There would have been developed under the influence principles the power to make statues of great men, - colossal, instead of big, - reposeful, instead of paralyzed, - grand, instead of arrogant, - statues worthy of the hand that wrought the busts of Calhoun, Jackson, and Webster, worthy to rank with few mighty embodiments of power, the Sophocles,  the Aristides, and the Demosthenes. This he might have done; and this he may yet accomplish.

New: Dante vivo || White Silence

Transcribed from The Atlantic Monthly 5:27 (1860), 1-6.

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