America's first important painter of the romantic movement, Washington Allston (1779-1843) created landscapes, historical scenes, and literary pieces that exude dramatic terror as well as quiet mystery.
Washington Allston was born in South Carolina in 1779. After graduating from Harvard College in 1800, he returned to Charleston and sold his share of the family property to finance his career as an artist. In May 1801 Allston and the miniaturist painter Edward G. Malbone left for England.
Years in Europe
Allston studied at the School of the Royal Academy in London. He learned the use of under painting and glazes to produce the rich atmospheric effect necessary to the realization of his later romantic paintings. Allston was in Paris in 1803-1804 and in Rome from 1804 to 1808, where he knew the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the American author Washington Irving. In Italy he especially admired the work of the great Venetian painters Titian, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese. He appreciated the bravura of their technique and the resonance of their tone (which, he later wrote, moved not only his senses but his imagination). He tried to emulate these qualities in his own grandiose historical and literary paintings and his landscapes and seascapes, such as the Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea (1804).
Allston returned to America in 1808 and stayed in Boston, occupying the very room that the painters John Copley and John Trumbull had used. During this period he married and did many portraits of his family and friends, such as the soft, languorous portrait of William Ellery Channing (1809-1811), as well as humorous genre scenes. In 1811 he sailed with his wife and Samuel F. B. Morse for England, where his wife died in 1815. Among the paintings of this second English period were the Angel Releasing St. Peter from Prison (1812) and the Dead Man Revived by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha (1811-1813), both developed into scenes of Gothic suspense.
Allston returned to America in 1818 (where he would remain for the rest of his life), residing in Boston but spending much time in Cambridge. His friends at this time included the portrait painter Thomas Sully and the sculptor Horatio Greenough. In 1830 Allston married Martha R. Dana, the sister of the novelist Richard H. Dana; Dana was a cousin of Allston's first wife. The couple settled in Cambridgeport, Mass. Allston continued to lead a rather rarefied existence: his friends were exclusively artists and writers. Allston's lack of sympathy for the widely popular president Andrew Jackson and all that he represented in terms of mass culture was behind his refusal of a commission to decorate the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington.
Times had changed in the United States, and Allston felt out of place. His old confidence was gone. The literati— people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dana—admired his work, but to the public he meant nothing. In America, portraiture and, to some extent, landscape were all that most people cared for. In Europe, Allston had painted scenes of either a dramatically bizarre or a sweetly joyous nature. In Europe he had pandered more openly to the emotions, liking especially themes of supernatural salvation; his American paintings are usually more intimate and smaller in scale than those done in Europe.
Allston painted from memory several Italian landscapes, the most memorable being Moonlight Landscape (1819); with four mysterious figures in the foreground, it casts a quietly eerie spell. The heroic Belshazzar's Feast (1817-1843) was out of keeping with the more subdued mood of the American period. This huge canvas, begun in Europe, was taken up, put down, and taken up again at the end of Allston's life but never finished. Allston was preparing to work on the figure of the King on the day of his death. The painting was commissioned by 10 friends for $10,000; the image of the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall haunted Allston to the point that he found himself unable to undertake other commissions. Dana spoke of it as "that terrible vision … the tormentor of his life… " In a sense, Allston's failure to complete this work demonstrates the isolation and frustration of the American artist who wished to do something more than portraiture and landscape in the first half of the 19th century.
Few American painters of Allston's time drew from literature, and certainly none as deeply and broadly as he. He made frequent use of his literary background and interests in his painting: Uriel in the Sun (1817) was drawn from Book III of Milton's Paradise Lost, and Flight of Florimell (1819) from Spenser's Faerie Queen. Allston knew the Old and New Testaments well and sometimes chose to depict obscure passages, such as the Dead Man Revived from the account of 2 Kings, chapter 13. He produced a volume of poems in 1810 called The Sylphs of the Seasons, with Other Poems. "The Sylphs of the Seasons" dealt with the influence of each of the seasons upon the creative imagination. The most important of his writings, Lectures on Art, published posthumously in 1850 but neglected until the early 20th century, set forth a theory of art as creation and imagination and dealt systematically with such abstruse topics as invention and originality.
Allston probably influenced the course of 19th-century American painting more profoundly than any other artist. He did this not only in a general way by extending the scope of painting beyond the bounds of portraiture but also by originating certain fashions and propounding ideas that were continued. For example, the scene of the tiny figure dwarfed pictorially by the grandeur and vastness of nature (Elijah Being Fed by the Ravens, 1818) was taken up by many painters of the later Hudson River school. His tendency to think cyclically in terms of the beginnings and endings of periods of nature and empires (Belshazzar's Feast) led to the "catastrophic" paintings of Thomas Cole's "Course of Empire" series and others. Allston's insistence that colors and forms could produce psychological reactions in the spectator, regardless of the subject of the painting, anticipated the work of James McNeill Whistler and the thinking of early-20th-century theoreticians of nonobjective painting. Most specifically, Allston was the first American painter to draw more from the workings of his personal inner vision than from external reality. In the 19th century alone, he was the forebear of such painters as John Quidor and Albert P. Ryder.
Edgar P. Richardson and Henry W. L. Dana, Washington Allston: A Study of the Romantic Artist in America (1948), is a catalogue of the existing and recorded paintings by Allston. See also Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; rev. ed. 1960). Virgil Barker, American Painting: History and Interpretation (1950), and James T. Flexner, The Light of Distant Skies, 1760-1835 (1954; new ed. 1969), offer contrasting interpretations of Allston's work. □