In point of composition, Mr. West is of opinion that the Trial of Susannah was superior to the Death of Socrates. In this he is probably correct; for during the interval between the execution of the one and the other, his mind had been enlarged in knowledge by reading, his eye improved by the study of pictorial outline and perspective in the Camera, and his touch softened by the portraits which he painted, and particularly by his careful copy of the St. Ignatius. In point of drawing, both pictures were no doubt greatly inferior to many of his subsequent works; but his son, long after he had acquired much celebrity, saw the picture of the Death of Socrates; and was of opinion that it was not surpassed by any of them in variety of composition, and in that perspicuity of narrative which is the grand characteristic of the Artist's genius.
Motives which induced him to visit New York.—State of Society in New York.—Reflections on the sterility of American talent.—Considerations on the circumstances which tend to produce Poetical feelings.—The causes which produced the peculiarities in the state of Society in New York.—The Accident which led the Artist to discover the method of colouring Candle-light and Fire effects after Nature.—He copies Strange's engraving of Belisarius, by Salvador Rosa.—The occurrence which hastened his Voyage to Italy, with the Anecdote of his obligations to Mr. Kelly.—Reflections on Plutarch, occasioned by reference to the effect which his works had on the mind of West.—The Artist embarks; occurrence at Gibraltar.—He arrives at Leghorn.—Journey to Rome.
But although West found himself in possession of abundant employment in Philadelphia, he was sensible that he could not expect to increase his prices with effect, if he continued constantly in the same place. He also became sensible that to view life in various lights was as necessary to his improvement as to exercise his pencil on different subjects. And, beyond all, he was profoundly sensible, by this time, that he could not hope to attain eminence in his profession, without inspecting the great master-pieces of art in Europe, and comparing them with his own works in order to ascertain the extent of his powers. This philosophical view of his situation was doubtless partly owing to the excellent precepts of Provost Smith, but mainly to his own just perception of what was necessary to the successful career of an Artist: indeed the principle upon which the notion was formed is universal, and applies to all intellectual pursuits. Accordingly, impressed with these considerations, he frugally treasured the earnings of his pencil, that he might undertake, in the first place, a professional journey from Philadelphia, as preparatory to acquiring the means of afterwards visiting Europe, and particularly Rome. When he found that the state of his funds enabled him to undertake the journey, he went to New York.
The Society of New York was much less intelligent in matters of taste and knowledge than that of Philadelphia. In the latter city the institutions of the college and library, and the strict moral and political respectability of the first settlers, had contributed to form a community, which, though inferior in the elegancies of living, and the etiquettes of intercourse, to what is commonly found in the European capitals, was little behind them in point of practical and historical information. Dr. Smith, the Provost of the college, had largely contributed to elevate the taste, the sentiment and the topics of conversation in Philadelphia. He was full of the best spirit of antiquity, and there was a classical purity of mind and splendour of imagination sometimes met with in the families which he frequented, that would have done honour to the best periods of polished society.
It would be difficult to assign any reason why it has so happened that no literary author of any general celebrity, with the exception of Franklin, has yet arisen in America. That men of learning and extensive reading, capable of vying with the same description of persons in Europe, are to be found in the United States, particularly in Philadelphia, is not to be denied; but of that class, whose talents tend to augment the stock of intellectual enjoyment in the world, no one, with the single exception already alluded to, has yet appeared.
Poetry is the art of connecting ideas of sensible objects with moral sentiments; and without the previous existence of local feelings, there can be no poetry. America to the first European settlers had no objects interesting to the imagination, at least of the description thus strictly considered as poetical; for although the vigour and stupendous appearances of Nature were calculated to fill the mind with awe, and to exalt the contemplations of enthusiasm, there was nothing connected with the circumstances of the scene susceptible of that colouring from the memory, which gives to the ideas of local resemblance the peculiar qualities of poetry. The forests, though interminable, were but composed of trees; the mountains and rivers, though on a larger scale, were not associated in the mind with the exertions of patriotic valour, and the achievements of individual enterprize, like the Alps or the Danube, the Grampians or the Tweed. It is impossible to tread the depopulated and exhausted soil of Greece without meeting with innumerable relics and objects, which, like magical talismans, call up the genius of departed ages with the long-enriched roll of those great transactions, that, in their moral effect, have raised the nature of man, occasioning trains of reflection which want only the rythm of language to be poetry. But in the unstoried solitudes of America, the traveller meets with nothing to awaken the sympathy of his recollective feelings. Even the very character of the trees, though interesting to scientific research, chills, beneath the spaciousness of their shade, every poetical disposition. They bear little resemblance to those which the stranger has left behind in his native country. To the descendants of the first settlers, they wanted even the charm of those accidental associations which their appearance might have recalled to the minds of their fathers. Poetry is, doubtless, the first of the intellectual arts which mankind cultivate. In its earliest form it is the mode of expressing affection and admiration; but, before it can be invented, there must be objects beloved and admired, associated with things in nature endowed with a local habitation and a name. In America, therefore, although there has been no lack of clever versifiers, nor of men who have respectably echoed the ideas current in the old world, the country has produced nothing of any value descriptive of the peculiar associations connected with its scenery. Among some of the Indian tribes a vein of original poetry has, indeed, been discovered; but the riches of the mine are unexplored, and the charge of sterility of fancy, which is made by the Europeans against the citizens of the United States, still remains unrefuted. Since the period, however, to which these memoirs chiefly refer, events of great importance have occurred, and the recollections connected with them, no doubt, tend to imbue the American climate with the elements of poetical thought; but they are of too recent occurrence for the purposes either of the epic or the tragic muse. The facts of history in America are still seen too much in detail for the imagination to combine them with her own creation. The fields of battle are almost too fresh for the farmer to break the surface; and years must elapse before the ploughshare shall turn up those eroded arms of which the sight will call into poetical existence the sad and dreadful incidents of the civil war.
In New York Mr. West found the society wholly devoted to mercantile pursuits. A disposition to estimate the value of things, not by their utility, or by their beauty, but by the price which they would bring in the market, almost universally prevailed. Mercantile men are habituated by the nature of their transactions to overlook the intrinsic qualities of the very commodities in which they deal; and though of all the community they are the most liberal and the most munificent, they set the least value on intellectual productions. The population of New York was formed of adventurers from all parts of Europe, who had come thither for the express purpose of making money, in order, afterwards, to appear with distinction at home. Although West, therefore, found in that city much employment in taking likenesses destined to be transmitted to relations and friends, he met with but few in whom he found any disposition congenial to his own; and the eleven months which he passed there, in consequence, contributed less to the improvement of his mind than might have been expected from a city so flourishing. Still, the time was not altogether barren of occurrences which tended to advance his progress in his art, independent of the advantage arising from constant practice.
He happened, during his residence there, to see a beautiful Flemish picture of a hermit praying before a lamp, and he was resolved to paint a companion to it, of a man reading by candle-light. But before he discovered a method of producing, in day-light, an effect on his model similar to what he wished to imitate, he was frequently baffled in his attempts. At length, he hit on the expedient of persuading his landlord to sit with an open book before a candle in a dark closet; and he found that, by looking in upon him from his study, the appearance was exactly what he wished for. In the schools and academies of Europe, tradition has preserved the methods by which all the magical effects of light and shadow have been produced, with the exception, however, of Rembrandt's method, and which the author of these sketches ventures to suggest was attained, in general, by observing the effect of sunshine passing through chinks into a dark room. But the American Artist was as yet unacquainted with any of them, and had no other guides to the essential principles of his art but the delicacy of his sight, and that ingenious observation of Nature to which allusion has been already so often made.
The picture of the Student, or man reading by candle-light, was bought by a Mr. Myers, who, in the revolution, continued to adhere to the English cause. The same gentleman also bought a copy which West made about the same time of Belisarius, from the engraving by Strange, of Salvator Rosa's painting. It is not known what has now become of these pictures; but when the Artist long afterwards saw the original of Salvator Rosa, he was gratified to observe that he had instinctively coloured his copy almost as faithfully as if it had been painted from the picture instead of the engraving.
In the year 1759 the harvest in Italy fell far short of what was requisite for the ordinary consumption of the population, and a great dearth being foreseen, Messrs. Rutherford and Jackson, of Leghorn, a house of the first consequence then in the Mediterranean trade, and well known to all travellers for the hospitality of the partners, wrote to their correspondent Mr. Allen, at Philadelphia, to send them a cargo of wheat and flour. Mr. Allen was anxious that his son, before finally embarking in business, should see something of the world; and Provost Smith, hearing his intention of sending him to Leghorn with the vessel, immediately waited on the old gentleman, and begged him to allow West to accompany him, which was cheerfully acceded to, and the Provost immediately wrote to his pupil at New York on the subject. In the mean time, West had heard that there was a vessel at Philadelphia loading for Italy, and had expressed to Mr. William Kelly, a merchant, who was then sitting to him for his portrait, a strong desire to avail himself of this opportunity to visit the fountain-head of the arts. Before this period, he had raised his terms for a half-length to ten guineas, by which he acquired a sum of money adequate to the expenses of a short excursion to Italy. When he had finished Mr. Kelly's portrait, that gentleman, in paying him, requested that he would take charge of a letter to his agents in Philadelphia, and deliver it to them himself on his return to that city, which he was induced to do immediately, on receiving Dr. Smith's letter, informing him of the arrangement made with Mr. Allen. When this letter was opened, an instance of delicate munificence appeared on the part of Mr. Kelly, which cannot be too highly applauded. It stated to the concern to which it was addressed, that it would be delivered by an ingenious young gentleman, who, he understood, intended to visit Rome for the purpose of studying the fine arts, and ordered them to pay him fifty guineas as a present from him towards furnishing his stores for the voyage.
While waiting till the vessel was clear to sail, West had the gratification to see, in Philadelphia, his old friend Mr. Henry, for whom he had painted the Death of Socrates. Towards him he always cherished the most grateful affection. He was the first who urged him to attempt historical composition; and, above all, he was the first who had made him acquainted with the magnanimous tales of Plutarch; perhaps, the greatest favour which could be conferred on a youthful mind, susceptible of impressions from the sublime and beautiful of human actions, which no author has better illustrated than that celebrated Biographer, who may indeed be regarded, almost without hyperbole, as the recorder of antient worth, and the tutor of modern genius. In his peculiar class, Plutarch still stands alone, at least no author in any of the living languages appears to be yet truly sensible of the secret cause by which his sketches give that direct impulse to the elements of genius, by which the vague and wandering feelings of unappropriated strength are converted into an uniform energy, endowed with productive action. Plutarch, like the sculptors of antiquity, has selected only the great and elegant traits of character; and hence his lives, like those statues which are the models of art, possess, with all that is graceful and noble in human nature, the particular features of individuals. He had no taste for the blemishes of mankind. His mind delighted in the contemplation of moral vigour; and he seems justly to have thought that it was nearly allied to virtue: hence many of those characters whose portraitures in his works furnish the youthful mind with inspiring examples of true greatness, more authentic historians represent in a light far different. It is the aim of all dignified art to exalt the mind by exciting the feelings as well as the judgment; and the immortal lessons of Plutarch would never have awakened the first stirrings of ambition in the innumerable great men who date their career from reading his pages, had he been actuated by the minute and invidious spirit of modern biography. These reflections have occurred the more forcibly at this juncture, as the subject of this narrative was on the point of leaving a country in which were men destined to acquire glory in such achievements as Plutarch would have delighted to record; and of parting from early associates who afterwards attained a degree of eminence in the public service that places them high in the roll of those who have emulated the exploits and virtues of the Heroes of that great Biographer.
The Artist having embarked with young Allen had a speedy and pleasant passage to Gibraltar; where, in consequence of the war then raging, the ship stopped for convoy. As soon as they came to anchor, Commodore Carney and another officer came on board to examine the vessel's papers. It happened that some time before, the British Government had, on account of political circumstances, prohibited the carrying of provisions into Italy, by which prohibition the ship and cargo would have been forfeited had she been arrested in attempting to enter an Italian port, or, indeed, in proceeding with such an intention. But Captain Carney had scarcely taken his pen to write the replies to the questions which he put to the Master, as to the owners of the vessel and her destination, when he again threw it down, and, looking the other officer full in the face, said, "I am much affected by the situation in which I am now placed. This valuable ship is the property of some of my nearest relations, and the best friends that I have ever had in the world!" and he refrained from asking any more questions. There was, undoubtedly, much generosity in this conduct, for by the indulgence of the crown, all prizes taken in war become the property of the captors; and Captain Carney, rather than enrich himself at the expence of his friends, chose to run the hazard of having his own conduct called in question for the non-performance of his official duty. It perhaps deserves also to be considered as affording a favourable example of that manly confidence in the gentlemanly honour of each other which has so long distinguished the British officers. On the mind of West it tended to confirm that agreeable impression by which so many previous incidents had made him cherish a liberal opinion of mankind. In other respects, Captain Carney happening to be the officer who came on board, was a fortunate circumstance; for on learning that young Allen was in the ship, he invited the passengers to dine on board his frigate; and the company, consisting of the Governor, his staff, and principal officers in the garrison, tended to raise the consideration of the Artist, and his companion in the estimation of the fleet with which their vessel was to proceed to Leghorn. Indeed, throughout his whole life, Mr. West was, in this respect, singularly fortunate; for although the condescensions of rank do not in themselves confer any power on talent, they have the effect of producing that complacency of mind in those who are the objects of them, which is at once the reward and the solace of intellectual exertion, at the same time that they tend to mollify the spirit of contemporary invidiousness. The day after, the fleet sailed; and when they had passed the rock, the captains of the two men of war [Footnote: The two frigates, the Shannon, Captain Meadow, since Lord Manvers, whose intimacy still continues with Mr. West, and the Favourite sloop of war, Captain Pownell.] who had charge of the convoy, came on board the American, and invited Mr. Allen and Mr. West to take their passage in one of the frigates; this, however, they declined, but every day, when the weather was favourable, they were taken on board the one ship or the other, to dine; and when the weather did not permit this to be done with pleasure to the strangers, the officers sent them presents from their stock.
After touching at several parts of the coast of Spain, the ship arrived safely at Leghorn, where mercantile enquiries detained Mr. Allen some time, and West being impatient to proceed to Rome, bade him adieu. Prior to his departure from Philadelphia, he had paid into the hands of old Mr. Allen the money which he thought would be requisite for his expenses in Italy, and had received from him a letter of credit on Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford. When they were made acquainted with the object of his voyage, and heard his history, they showed him a degree of attention beyond even their general great hospitality, and presented him with letters to Cardinal Albani, and several of the most distinguished characters for erudition and taste in Rome; and as he was unacquainted with French or Italian, they recommended him to the care of a French Courier, who had occasion to pass that way.
When the travellers had reached the last stage of their journey, while their horses were baiting, West walked on alone. It was a beautiful morning; the air was perfectly placid, not a speck of vapour in the sky, and a profound tranquillity seemed almost sensibly diffused over the landscape. The appearance of Nature was calculated to lighten and elevate the spirits; but the general silence and nakedness of the scene touched the feelings with solemnity approaching to awe. Filled with the idea of the metropolitan city, the Artist hastened forward till he reached an elevated part of the high road, which afforded him a view of a spacious champaign country, bounded by hills, and in the midst of it the sublime dome of St. Peter's. The magnificence of this view of the Campagna excited, in his imagination, an agitated train of reflections that partook more of the nature of feeling than of thought. He looked for a spot to rest on, that he might contemplate at leisure a scene at once so noble and so interesting; and, near a pile of ruins fringed and trellissed with ivy, he saw a stone that appeared to be part of a column. On going towards it, he perceived that it was a mile-stone, and that he was then only eight miles from the Capitol. In looking before him, where every object seemed by the transparency of the Italian atmosphere to be brought nearer than it was in reality, he could not but reflect on the contrast between the circumstances of that view and the scenery of America; and his thoughts naturally adverted to the progress of civilization. The sun seemed, to his fancy, the image of truth and knowledge, arising in the East, continuing to illuminate and adorn the whole earth, and withdrawing from the eyes of the old world to enlighten the uncultivated regions of the new. He thought of that remote antiquity when the site of Rome itself was covered with unexplored forests; and passing with a rapid reminiscence over her eventful story, he was touched with sorrow at the solitude of decay with which she appeared to be environed, till he adverted to the condition of his native country, and was cheered by the thought of the greatness which even the fate of Rome seemed to assure to America. For he reflected that, although the progress of knowledge appeared to intimate that there was some great cycle in human affairs, and that the procession of the arts and sciences from the East to the West demonstrated their course to be neither stationary nor retrograde; he could not but rejoice, in contemplating the skeleton of the mighty capital before him, that they had improved as they advanced, and that the splendour which would precede their setting on the shores of Europe, would be the gorgeous omen of the glory which they would attain in their passage over America.
While he was rapt in these reflections, he heard the drowsy tinkle of a pastoral bell behind him, and on turning round, he saw a peasant dressed in shaggy skins, driving a few goats from the ruins. The appearance and physiognomy of this peasant struck him as something more wild and ferocious than any thing about the Indians; and, perhaps, the observation was correctly philosophical. In the Indian, Nature is seen in that primitive vigour and simplicity, in which the actions are regulated by those feelings that are the elements of the virtues; but in the Italian bandit, for such he had reason afterwards to think was the real character of the goat-herd, he saw man in that second state of barbarity, in which his actions are instigated by wants that have often a vicious origin.
State of the stationary Society of Rome.—Causes which rendered the City a delightful temporary residence.—Defects of the Academical methods of study.—His introduction to Mr. Robinson.—Anecdote of Cardinal Albani.—The Cardinal's method of finding Resemblances, and curious mistake of the Italians.—The Artist's first visit to the Works of Art.
During the pontificate of Pope Rezzonico, the society of Rome had attained a pitch of elegance and a liberality of sentiment superior to that of any other city of Christendom. The theocratic nature of the government induced an exterior decorum in the public form of politeness, which, to strangers who took no interest in the abuses of the state, was so highly agreeable, that it tended even to appease their indignation against the laxity of private morals. If the traveller would forget that the name of Christianity was employed in supporting a baneful administration to the vices, or could withdraw his thoughts from the penury and suffering which such an administration necessarily entailed on the people, he had opportunities of access at Rome to the most various and delightful exercises of the faculties of memory, taste, and judgment, in the company of persons distinguished for their knowledge and genius. For, with all the social intercourse for which Paris was celebrated in the reign of Louis XV. the local objects at Rome gave a higher and richer tone to conversation there; even the living vices were there less offensive than at Paris, the rumours of them being almost lost in the remembrance of departed virtue, constantly kept awake by the sight of its monuments and vouchers. Tyranny in Rome was exercised more intellectually than in the French Capital. Injustice and oppression were used more in the form of persuasion; and though the crosier was not less pernicious than the bayonet, it inflicted a less irritating injury. The virtuous endured with patience the wrongs that their misguided judgment led them to believe were salutary to their eternal welfare. But it ought to be observed, that the immorality of the Romans was greatly exaggerated. Individuals redeemed by their merits the reproach of universal profligacy; and strangers, by being on their guard against the moral contagion, suffered a less dangerous taint than in the Atheistical coteries of Paris. Many, in consequence, who came prepared to be disgusted with the degenerated Romans, often bade them adieu with sentiments of respect, and remembered their urbanity and accomplishments with delightful satisfaction.
It was not, however, the native inhabitants of Rome who constituted the chief attractions of society there, but the number of accomplished strangers of all countries and religions, who, in constant succession, came in pilgrimage to the shrine of antiquity; and who, by the contemplation of the merits and glories of departed worth, often felt themselves, as it were, miraculously endowed with new qualities. The collision of minds fraught with learning, in that high state of excitement which the genius of the place produced on the coldest imaginations, together with those innumerable brilliant and transitory topics which were never elicited in any other city, made the Roman conversations a continual exercise of the understanding. The details of political intrigue, and the follies of individuals, excited but little interest among the strangers in Rome. It seemed as if by an universal tacit resolution, national and personal peculiarities and prejudices were forgotten, and that all strangers simultaneously turned their attention to the transactions and affairs of former ages, and of statesmen and authors now no more. Their mornings were spent in surveying the monuments raised to public virtue, and in giving local features in their minds to the knowledge which they had acquired by the perusal of those works that have perpetuated the dignity of the Roman character. Their evenings were often allotted to the comparison of their respective conjectures, and to ascertain the authenticity and history of the relics which they had collected of ancient art. Sometimes the day was consumed in the study of those inestimable ornaments of religion, by which the fraudulent disposition of the priesthood had, in the decay of its power, rendered itself venerable to the most enlightened minds; and the night was devoted to the consideration of the causes which contribute to the developement of genius, or of the events which tend to stifle and overwhelm its powers. Every recreation of the stranger in Rome was an effort of the memory, of abstraction, and of fancy.—Society, in this elevated state of enjoyment, surrounded by the greatest works of human creation, and placed amidst the monuments of the most illustrious of mankind,—and that of the Quakers of Pennsylvania, employed in the mechanical industry of felling timber, and amid the sobriety of rural and commercial oeconomy, were like the extremes of a long series of events, in which, though the former is the necessary consequence of the latter, no resemblance can be traced in their respective characteristics. In America all was young, vigorous, and growing,—the spring of a nation, frugal, active, and simple. In Rome all was old, infirm, and decaying,—the autumn of a people who had gathered their glory, and were sinking into sleep under the disgraceful excesses of the vintage. On the most inert mind, passing from the one continent to the other, the contrast was sufficient to excite great emotion; on such a character as that of Mr. West, who was naturally disposed to the contemplation of the sublime and beautiful, both as to their moral and visible effect, it made a deep and indelible impression. It confirmed him in the wisdom of those strict religious principles which denied the utility of art when solely employed as the medium of amusement; and impelled him to attempt what could be done to approximate the uses of the pencil to those of the pen, in order to render Painting, indeed, the sister of Eloquence and Poetry.
But the course of study in the Roman schools was not calculated to enable him to carry this grand purpose into effect; for the principles by which Michael Angelo and Raphael had attained their excellence, were no longer regarded. The study of Nature was deserted for that of the antique; and pictures were composed according to rules derived from other paintings, without respect to what the subject required, or what the circumstances of the scene probably appeared to be. It was, therefore, not one of the least happy occurrences in his life that he went to Rome when society was not only in the most favourable state for the improvement of his mind, and for convincing him of the deleterious influence of the arts when employed as the embellishments of voluptuousness and luxury; but also when the state of the arts was so mean, that the full effect of studying the antique only, and of grouping characters by academical rules, should appear so striking as to satisfy him that he could never hope for any eminence, if he did not attend more to the phenomena of Nature, than to the productions of the greatest genius. The perusal of the works of other painters, he was sensible, would improve his taste; but he was convinced, that the design which he had formed for establishing his own fame, could not be realised, if, for a single moment, he forgot that their works, however exquisite, were but the imitations and forms of those eternal models to which he had been instinctively directed.
It was on the 10th of July, 1760, that he arrived at Rome. The French Courier conducted him to a hotel, and, having mentioned in the house that he was an American, and a Quaker, come to study the fine arts, the circumstance seemed so extraordinary, that it reached the ears of Mr. Robinson, afterwards Lord Grantham, who immediately found himself possessed by an irresistible desire to see him; and who, before he had time to dress or refresh himself, paid him a visit, and insisted that he should dine with him. In the course of dinner, that gentleman inquired what letters of introduction the Artist had brought with him; and West having informed him, he observed it was somewhat remarkable that the whole of them should be addressed to his most particular friends, adding, that as he was engaged to meet them at a party in the evening, he expected West would accompany him. This attention and frankness was acknowledged as it deserved to be, and is remembered by the Artist among those fortunate incidents which have rendered the recollection of his past life so pleasant, as scarcely to leave a wish for any part of it to have been spent otherwise than it was. At the hour appointed, Mr. Robinson conducted him to the house of Mr. Crispigne, an English gentleman who had long resided at Rome, where the evening party was held.
Among the distinguished persons whom Mr. West found in the company, was the celebrated Cardinal Albani. His eminence, although quite blind, had acquired, by the exquisite delicacy of his touch, and the combining powers of his mind, such a sense of antient beauty, that he excelled all the virtuosi then in Rome, in the correctness of his knowledge of the verity and peculiarities of the smallest medals and intaglios. Mr. Robinson conducted the Artist to the inner apartment, where the Cardinal was sitting, and said, "I have the honour to present a young American, who has a letter of introduction to your eminence, and who has come to Italy for the purpose of studying the fine arts." The Cardinal fancying that the American must be an Indian, exclaimed, "Is he black or white?" and on being told that he was very fair, "What as fair as I am?" cried the Cardinal still more surprised. This latter expression excited a good deal of mirth at the Cardinal's expence, for his complexion was of the darkest Italian olive, and West's was even of more than the usual degree of English fairness. For some time after, if it be not still in use, the expression of "as fair as the Cardinal" acquired proverbial currency in the Roman conversations, applied to persons who had any inordinate conceit of their own beauty.
The Cardinal, after some other short questions, invited West to come near him, and running his hands over his features, still more attracted the attention of the company to the stranger, by the admiration which he expressed at the form of his head. This occasioned inquiries respecting the youth; and the Italians concluding that, as he was an American, he must, of course, have received the education of a savage, became curious to witness the effect which the works of Art in the Belvidere and Vatican would produce on him. The whole company, which consisted of the principal Roman nobility, and strangers of distinction then in Rome, were interested in the event; and it was arranged in the course of the evening that on the following morning they should accompany Mr. Robinson and his protege to the palaces.
At the hour appointed, the company assembled; and a procession, consisting of upwards of thirty of the most magnificent equipages in the capital of Christendom, and filled with some of the most erudite characters in Europe, conducted the young Quaker to view the master-pieces of art. It was agreed that the Apollo should be first submitted to his view, because it was the most perfect work among all the ornaments of Rome, and, consequently, the best calculated to produce that effect which the company were anxious to witness. The statue then stood in a case, enclosed with doors, which could be so opened as to disclose it at once to full view. West was placed in the situation where it was seen to the most advantage, and the spectators arranged themselves on each side. When the keeper threw open the doors, the Artist felt himself surprised with a sudden recollection altogether different from the gratification which he had expected; and without being aware of the force of what he said, exclaimed, "My God, how like it is to a young Mohawk warrior." The Italians, observing his surprise, and hearing the exclamation, requested Mr. Robinson to translate to them what he said; and they were excessively mortified to find that the god of their idolatry was compared to a savage. Mr. Robinson mentioned to West their chagrin, and asked him to give some more distinct explanation, by informing him what sort of people the Mohawk Indians were. He described to him their education; their dexterity with the bow and arrow; the admirable elasticity of their limbs; and how much their active life expands the chest, while the quick breathing of their speed in the chace, dilates the nostrils with that apparent consciousness of vigour which is so nobly depicted in the Apollo. "I have seen them often," added he, "standing in that very attitude, and pursuing, with an intense eye, the arrow which they had just discharged from the bow." This descriptive explanation did not lose by Mr. Robinson's translation. The Italians were delighted, and allowed that a better criticism had rarely been pronounced on the merits of the statue. The view of the other great works did not awaken the same vivid feelings. Those of Raphael, in the Vatican, did not at first particularly interest him; nor was it until he had often visited them alone, and studied them by himself, that he could appreciate the fulness of their excellence. His first view of the works of Michael Angelo, was still less satisfactory: indeed, he continued always to think, that, with the single exception of the Moses, that Artist had not succeeded in giving a probable character to any of his subjects, notwithstanding the masterly hand and mind which pervade the weakest of his productions.
Among the first objects which particularly interested Mr. West, and which he never ceased to re-visit day after day with increasing pleasure, were the celebrated statues ascribed to Phidias, on the Monte Cavallo. The action of the human figure appeared to him so majestic, that it seemed to throw, as it were, a visible kind of awe into the very atmosphere, and over all the surrounding buildings. But the smallness of the horse struck him as exceedingly preposterous. He had often examined it before the idea occurred to him that it was probably reduced according to some unknown principle of antient art; and in this notion he was confirmed, by observing something of the same kind in the relative proportion of human figures and animals, on the different gems and bas-reliefs to which his attention was subsequently directed. The antient sculptors uniformly seemed to consider the human figure as the chief object, and sacrificed, to give it effect, the proportions of inferior parts. The author of the group on the Monte Cavallo, in the opinion of Mr. West, represented the horse smaller than the natural size, in order to augment the grandeur of the man. How far this notion, as the principle of a rule, may be sound, it would be unnecessary, perhaps impertinent, to inquire here; but its justness as applicable to the sculptures of antiquity, is abundantly verified by the bas-reliefs brought from the Parthenon of Athens. It is, indeed, so admitted a feature of antient art, as to be regarded by some critics as having for its object the same effect in sculpture, which is attained by light and shadow in painting.—In a picture, the Artist, by a judicious obscurity, so veils the magnitude of the car in which he places a victor, that notwithstanding its size, it may not appear the principal object; but this artifice is denied to the sculptor, who is necessitated to diminish the size of those things which are of least importance, in order to give dignity to the predominant figures. Raphael, in making the boat so small in the miraculous draught of fishes, is thought to have injudiciously applied this rule of antient sculpture; for he ought to have accomplished, by foreshortening, the same effect which he meant to produce by diminishing the size. It should, however, be observed, that great doubts are entertained if the statues on the Monte Cavallo were originally integral parts of the same group; but although this doubt may be well founded, it will not invalidate the supposed general principle of the antient sculptors, corroborated, as it is, by innumerable examples.
In the evening, after visiting the palaces, Mr. Robinson carried Mr. West to see a grand religious ceremony in one of the churches. Hitherto he was acquainted only with the simple worship of the Quakers. The pomp of the papal ceremonies was as much beyond his comprehension, as the overpowering excellence of the music surpassed his utmost expectations. Undoubtedly, in all the spectacles and amusements of Rome, he possessed a keener sense of enjoyment, arising from the simplicity of his education, than most other travellers. That same sensibility to the beauty of forms and colours which had awakened his genius for painting, was, probably, accompanied with a general superior susceptibility of the other organs as well as the sight; for it is observed that a taste for any one of the fine arts is connected with a general predilection for them all. But neither the Apollo, the Vatican, nor the pomp of the Catholic ritual, excited his feelings to so great a degree as the spectacle which presented itself to his view around the portico of the church. Bred in the universal prosperity of Pennsylvania, where the benevolence of the human bosom was only employed in acts of hospitality and mutual kindness, he had never witnessed any spectacle of beggary, nor had he ever heard the name of God uttered to second an entreaty for alms. Here, however, all the lazars and the wretched in Rome were collected together; hundreds of young and old in that extreme of squalor, nakedness, and disease which affrights the English traveller in Italy, were seen on all sides; and their importunities and cries, for the love of God, and the mercy of Christ, to relieve them, thrilled in his ears, and smote upon his heart to such a degree, that his joints became as it were loosened, and his legs scarcely able to support him. Many of the beggars knew Mr. Robinson, and seeing him accompanied by a stranger, an Englishman, as they concluded the Artist to be from his appearance, surrounded them with confidence and clamours.
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As they returned from the church, a woman somewhat advanced in life, and of a better appearance than the generality of the beggars, followed them, and Mr. West gave her a small piece of copper money, the first Roman coin which he had received in change, the relative value of which to the other coins of the country was unknown to him. Shortly afterwards they were joined by some of the Italians, whom they had seen in the morning, and while they were conversing together, he felt some one pull his coat, and turned round. It was the poor woman to whom he had given the piece of copper money. She held out in her hand several smaller pieces, and as he did not understand her language, he concluded that she was chiding him for having given her such a trifle, and coloured deeply with the idea. His English friend, observing his confusion, inquired what he had given her, and he answered that he did not know, but it was a piece of money which he had received in change. Robinson, after a short conversation with the beggar, told Mr. West that she had asked him to give her a farthing. "But as you gave her a two-penny piece," said he, "she has brought you the change." This instance of humble honesty, contrasted with the awful mass of misery with which it was united, gave him a favourable idea of the latent sentiments of the Italians. How much, indeed, is the character of that people traduced by the rest of Europe! How often is the traveller in Italy, when he dreads the approach of robbers, and prepares against murder, surprised at the bountiful disposition of the common Italians, and made to blush at having applied the charges against a few criminals to the character of a whole people—without reflecting that the nation is only weak because it is subdivided.
Anecdote of a famous Impoverisatore.—West the subject of one of his finest effusions.—Anecdote of Cardinal Albani.—West introduced to Mengs.—Satisfactory result of Wests's first essay in Rome.—Consequences of the continual excitement which the Artist's feelings endured.—He goes to Florence for advice.—He accompanies Mr. Matthews in a tour.—Singular instance of liberality towards the Artist from several Gentlemen of Philadelphia.
It was not, however, the novelty, variety, and magnificence of the works of art and antiquity in Rome, that kept Mr. West in a constant state of high excitement; the vast difference in the manners of the people from those of the inhabitants of America, acted also as an incessant stimulus on his feelings and imagination: even that difference, great as it happened to be, was rendered particularly interesting to him by incidents arising out of his own peculiar situation. One night, soon after his arrival in Rome, Mr. Gavin Hamilton, the painter, to whom he had been introduced by Mr. Robinson, took him to a coffee-house, the usual resort of the British travellers. While they were sitting at one of the tables, a venerable old man, with a guitar suspended from his shoulder, entered the room, and coming immediately to their table, Mr. Hamilton addressed him by the name of Homer.—He was the most celebrated Improvisatore in all Italy, and the richness of expression, and nobleness of conception which he displayed in his effusions, had obtained for him that distinguished name. Those who once heard his poetry, never ceased to lament that it was lost in the same moment, affirming, that it often was so regular and dignified, as to equal the finest compositions of Tasso and Ariosto.—It will, perhaps, afford some gratification to the admirers of native genius to learn, that this old man, though led by the fine frenzy of his imagination to prefer a wild and wandering life to the offer of a settled independence, which had been often made to him in his youth, enjoyed in his old age, by the liberality of several Englishmen, who had raised a subscription for the purpose, a small pension, sufficient to keep him comfortable in his own way, when he became incapable of amusing the public.
After some conversation, Homer requested Mr. Hamilton to give him a subject for a poem. In the mean time, a number of Italians had gathered round them to look at Mr. West, who they had heard was an American, and whom, like Cardinal Albani, they imagined to be an Indian. Some of them, on hearing Homer's request, observed, that he had exhausted his vein, and had already said and sung every subject over and over. Mr. Hamilton, however, remarked that he thought he could propose something new to the bard, and pointing to Mr. West, said, that he was an American come to study the fine arts in Rome; and that such an event furnished a new and magnificent theme. Homer took possession of the thought with the ardour of inspiration. He immediately unslung his guitar, and began to draw his fingers rapidly over the strings, swinging his body from side to side, and striking fine and impressive chords. When he had thus brought his motions and his feelings into unison with the instrument, he began an extemporaneous ode in a manner so dignified, so pathetic, and so enthusiastic, that Mr. West was scarcely less interested by his appearance than those who enjoyed the subject and melody of his numbers. He sung the darkness which for so many ages veiled America from the eyes of Science. He described the fulness of time when the purposes for which it had been raised from the deep were to be manifested. He painted the seraph of knowledge descending from heaven, and directing Columbus to undertake the discovery; and he related the leading incidents of the voyage. He invoked the fancy of his auditors to contemplate the wild magnificence of mountain, lake, and wood, in the new world; and he raised, as it were, in vivid perspective, the Indians in the chase, and at their horrible sacrifices. "But," he exclaimed, "the beneficent spririt of improvement is ever on the wing, and, like the ray from the throne of God which inspired the conception of the Virgin, it has descended on this youth, and the hope which ushered in its new miracle, like the star that guided the magi to Bethlehem, has led him to Rome. Methinks I behold in him an instrument chosen by heaven, to raise in America the taste for those arts which elevate the nature of man,—an assurance that his country will afford a refuge to science and knowledge, when in the old age of Europe they shall have forsaken her shores. But all things of heavenly origin, like the glorious sun, move Westward; and Truth and Art have their periods of shining, and of night. Rejoice then, O venerable Rome, in thy divine destiny, for though darkness overshadow thy seats, and though thy mitred head must descend into the dust, as deep as the earth that now covers thy antient helmet and imperial diadem, thy spirit, immortal and undecayed, already spreads towards a new world, where, like the soul of man in Paradise, it will be perfected in virtue and beauty more and more." The highest efforts of the greatest actors, even of Garrick himself delivering the poetry of Shakespeare, never produced a more immediate and inspiring effect than this rapid burst of genius. When the applause had abated, Mr. West being the stranger, and the party addressed, according to the common practice, made the bard a present. Mr. Hamilton explained the subject of the ode: though with the weakness of a verbal translation, and the imperfection of an indistinct echo, it was so connected with the appearance which the author made in the recital, that the incident has never been obliterated from Mr. West's recollection.
While the Artist was gratifying himself with a cursory view of the works of art, and of the curiosities, Mr. Hope, of Amsterdam, the father of the gentlemen who have since become so well known in London for their taste in the arts, and their superb collections of pictures and marbles, arrived in Rome. Mr. West being introduced to him, accompanied him to Cardinal Albani, to whom he had letters of introduction, and witnessed a proof of the peculiar skill of his Eminence. The Cardinal requested Mr. Hope to come near him, and according to his usual custom with strangers, drew his hands over his face, observing that he was a German. In doing the same thing to Mr. West, he recognized him as the young American.
At this time Mengs was in the zenith of his popularity, and West was introduced to him at the Cardinal's villa. He appeared to be as much struck as every other person, with the extraordinary circumstance of an American coming to study the fine arts; and begged that Mr. West would show him a speciman of his proficiency in drawing. In returning home, our Artist mentioned to Mr. Robinson that as he had never learnt to draw, he could not produce any sketch like those made by the other students; but that he could paint a little, and if Mr. Robinson would take the trouble to sit, he would execute his portrait to shew Mengs. The proposal was readily acceded to, and it was also agreed, that except to two of their most intimate acquaintances, the undertaking should be kept a profound secret. When the picture was finished, it was so advantageous to the Artist, that it tended to confirm the opinion which was entertained of his powers, founded only on the strength of the curiosity which had brought him from America. But, before shewing it to Mengs, it was resolved that the taste and judgment of the public with respect to its merits should be ascertained.
Mr. Crespigne, one of the two friends in the secret, lived as a Roman gentleman, and twice a year gave a grand assembly at his house, to which all the nobility and strangers in Rome, the most eminent for rank, birth, and talents, were invited. It was agreed that the portrait should be exhibited at one of his parties, which happened to take place soon after it was finished. A suitable frame being provided, the painting was hung up in one of the rooms. The first guests who arrived, were Amateurs and Artists; and as it was known among them that Robinson was sitting to Mengs for his portrait, it was at once thought to be that picture, and they agreed that they had never seen any painting of the Artist so well coloured. As the guests assembled, the portrait became more and more the subject of attention, and Mr. West sat behind on a sofa equally agitated and delighted by their strictures, which Mr. Robinson reported to him from time to time. In the course of the evening Mr. Dance, an Englishman of great shrewdness, was observed looking with an eye of more than common scrutiny at the portrait, by Mr. Jenkins, another of the guests, who, congratulating Robinson in getting so good a portrait from Mengs, turned to Dance, and said, "The he must now acknowledge that Mengs could colour as well as he could draw." Dance confessed that he thought the picture much better coloured than those usually painted by Mengs, but added that he did not think the drawing either so firm or good as the usual style of that Artist. This remark occasioned some debate, in which Jenkins, attributing the strictures of Dance to some prejudice which he had early conceived against Mengs, drew the company around to take a part in the discussion. Mr. Crespigne seizing the proper moment in their conversation to produce the effect intended, said to Jenkins that he was mistaken, and that Dance was in the right, for, in truth, the picture was not painted by Mengs. By whom then, vociferated every one, "for there is no other painted now in Rome capable of executing any thing so?" "By that young gentleman there," said Mr. Crespigne, turning to West. At once all eyes were bent towards him, and the Italians, in their way, ran and embraced him. Thus did the best judges at once, by this picture, acknowledge him as only second in the executive department of the art to the first painter then in Rome. Mengs himself, on seeing the picture, expressed his opinion in terms that did great honour to his liberality, and gave the Artist an advice which he never forgot, nor remembered without gratitude. He told him that the portrait showed that he had no occasion to learn to paint at Rome. "You have already, sir," said he, "the mechanical part of your art: what I would, therefore, recommend to you, is to see and examine every thing deserving of your attention here, and after making a few drawings of about half a dozen of the best statues, go to Florence, and observe what has been done for Art in the collections there. Then proceed to Bologna, and study the works of the Caracci; afterwards visit Parma, and examine, attentively, the pictures of Corregio; and then go to Venice and view the productions of Tintoretti, Titian, and Paul Veronese. When you have made this tour, come back to Rome, and paint an historical composition to be exhibited to the Roman public; and the opinion which will then be formed of your talents should determine the line of our profession which you ought to follow." This judicious advice, so different from those absurd academical dogmas which would confine genius to the looking only to the works of art, for that perfection which they but dimly reflect from nature, West found accord so well with his own reflections and principles, that he resolved to follow it with care and attention. But the thought of being in Rome, and the constant excitement arising from extraordinary and interesting objects, so affected his mind, accustomed to the sober and uniform habits of the Quakers, that sleep deserted his pillow, and he became ill and constantly feverish. The public took an interest in his situation. A consultation of the best Physicians in Rome was held on his case, the result of which was a formal communication to Mr. Robinson, that his friend must immediately quit the capital, and seek relief from the irritated state of his sensibility in quiet and retirement. Accordingly, on the 20th of August he returned to Leghorn.
Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford, by whose most friendly recommendation he had obtained so much flattering distinction at Rome, received him into their own house, and treated him with a degree of hospitality that merits for them the honour of being considered among the number of his early patrons. Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Dick, then the British Consul at Leghorn, and his lady, also treated him with great partiality, and procured for him the use of the Imperial baths. His mind being thus relieved from the restless ecstasy which he had suffered in Rome, and the intensity of interest being diminished by the circumscribed nature of the society of Leghorn, together with the bracing effects of sea-bathing, he was soon again in a condition to resume his study in the capital. But the same overpowering attacks on his feelings and imagination soon produced a relapse of his former indisposition, and compelled him to return to Leghorn, where he was again speedily cured of his fever, but it left in its dregs a painful affection in the ancle, that threatened the loss of the limb. The well-known Nanoni, an eminent surgeon, who had introduced many improvements in the treatment of diseased joints, was at this period resident in Florence, and Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford wrote to Sir Horace Mann, then the British Minister at the Ducal Court, to consult him relative to the case of Mr. West: his answer induced them to advise the Artist to go to Florence. After a painful period of eleven months confinement to his couch and chamber, he was perfectly and radically cured.
A state of pain and disease is adverse to mental improvement; but there were intervals in which Mr. West felt his anguish abate, and in which he could not only participate in the conversation of the gentlemen to whose kindness he had been recommended, but was able, occastionally, to exercise his pencil. The testimonies of friendship which he received at this perdiod from Sir Horace Mann, the Marquesses of Creni and Riccardi, the late Lord Cooper, and many others of the British nobility then travelling in Italy, made an indelible impression on his mind, and became a stimulating motive to his wishes to excel in his art, in order to demonstrate by his proficiency that he was not unworthy of their solicitude. He had a table constructed so as to enable him to draw while he lay in bed; and in that situation he amused and improved himself in delineating the picturesque conceptions which were constantly presenting themselves to his fancy.
When he was so far recovered as to be able to take exercise, and to endure the fatigue of travelling, a circumstance happened which may be numbered among the many fortunate accidents of his professional career. Mr. Matthews, the manager of the important commercial concerns of Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford, was one of those singular men who are but rarely met with in mercantile life, combining the highest degree of literary and elegant accomplishments with the best talents for active business. He was not only confessedly one of the finest classical scholars in all Italy, but, out of all comparison, the best practical antiquary, perhaps, then in that country, uniting, along with the minutest accuracy of criticism, a delicacy of taste in the perception of the beauty and judgment of the antients, seldom found blended with an equal degree of classical erudition. Affairs connected with the business of the house, and a wish to see the principal cities of Italy, led Mr. Matthews, about the period of Mr. West's recovery, to visit Florence, and it was agreed between them that they should together make the tour recommended by Mengs.
In the mean time, the good fortune of West was working to happy effects in another part of the world. The story of Mr. Robinson's portrait had made so great a noise among the travellers in Italy, that Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford, in sending back the ship to Philadelphia, in which the Artist had come passenger, mentioned it in their letters to Mr. Allen. It is seldom that commercial affairs are mingled with those of art, and it was only from the Italian shore that a mercantile house could introduce such a topic into their correspondence. It happened that on the very day this letter reached Mr. Allen, Mr. Hamilton, then Governor of Pennsylvania, and the principal members of the government, along with the most considerable citizens of Philadelphia, were dining with him. After dinner, Mr. Allen read the letter to the company, and mentioned the amount of the sum of money which West had paid into his hands at the period of his departure from America, adding that it must be pretty far reduced. But, said he with warmth, "I regard this young man as an honour to the country, and as he is the first that America has sent to cultivate the fine arts, he shall not be frustrated in his studies, for I have resolved to write to my correspondents at Leghorn, to give him, from myself, whatever money he may require." Mr. Hamilton felt the force of this generous declaration, and said, with equal animation, "I think exactly as you do, Sir, but you shall not have all the honour of it to yourself, and, therefore, I beg that you will consider me as joining you in the responsibility of the credit." The consequence of this was, that upon West going, previously to leaving Florence, to take a small sum of about ten pounds from the bankers to whom he had been recommended by Messrs. Jackson and Rutherford, a letter was brought in, while he was waiting for his money, and the gentleman who opened it said to him, "that the contents of the letter would probably afford him unexpected pleasure, as it instructed them to give him unlimited credit." A more splendid instance of liberality is not to be found even in the records of Florence. The munificence of the Medici was excelled by that of the magistracy of Philadelphia.
The result of the Artist's experiment to discover the methods by which Titian produced his splendid colouring.—He returns to Rome.—Reflections suggested by inspecting the Egyptian Obelisk.—Considerations of the Author on the same subject; an anecdote of a Mohawk Indian who became an Actor at New York.—Anecdote of a Scottish Fanatic who arrived in Rome, to convert the Pope.—Sequel of the Adventure.—The Artist prepares to visit England.—Having completed his St. Jerome, after Corregio's famous picture, he is elected an Honorary Member of the Academy of Parma, and invited to Court.—He proceeds by the way of Genoa towards France.— Reflections on the State of Italy.—Adventure on reaching the French frontiers.—State of Taste in France.
From Florence the Artist proceeded to Bologna, and having staid some time there, carefully inspecting every work of celebrity to which he could obtain access, he went on to Venice, visiting in his route all the objects which Mengs had recommended to his attention. The style of Titian, which in breadth and clearness of colouring so much excels that of almost every other painter, was the peculiar characteristic of the Venetian school which interested him the most, and seemed to him, at first, involved in inexplicable mystery. He was never satisfied with the explanations which the Italian amateurs attempted to give him of what they called the internal light of that master's productions. Repeated experiments, however, enabled him, at last, to make the discovery himself. Indeed, he was from the first persuaded that it was chiefly owing to the peculiar genius of the Artist himself,—to an exquisite delicacy of sight which enabled him to perceive the most approximate tints,—and not to any particular dexterity of pencilling, nor to any superiority in the materials of his colours. This notion led Mr. West to try the effect of painting in the first place with the pure primary colours, and softening them afterwards with the semi tints; and the result confirmed him in the notion that such was probably the peculiar method of Titian. But although this idea was suggested by his visits to the collections of Venice, he was not perfectly satisfied with its soundness as a rule, till many years after his arrival in London, and many unsuccessful experiments.
Having completed his tour to the most celebrated repositories of art in Italy, and enriched his mind, and improved his taste, by the perusal rather than the imitation of their best pieces, he returned to Rome, and applied himself to a minute and assiduous study of the great ornaments of that capital, directing his principal attention to the works of Raphael, and improving his knowledge of the antient costume by the study of Cameos, in which he was assisted by Mr. Wilcox, the author of the Roman Conversations,—to whom he had been introduced by Mr. Robinson, at Mr. Crespigne's, on the occasion of the exhibition of the Portrait,—a man of singular attainments in learning, and of a serene and composed dignity of mind and manners that rendered him more remarkable to strangers than even his great classical knowledge.
Of all the monuments of antient art in Rome, the Obelisk brought from Egypt, in the reign of Augustus, interested his curiosity the most, and even for a time affected him as much as those which so agitated him by their beauty. The hieroglyphics appeared to resemble so exactly the figures in the Wampum belts of the Indians, that it occurred to him, if ever the mysteries of Egypt were to be interpreted, it might be by the aborigines of America. This singular notion was not, however, the mere suggestion of fancy, but the effect of an opinion which his early friend and tutor Provost Smith conceived, in consequence of attending the grand meeting of the Indian chiefs, with the Governors of the British colonies, held at East town, in Pennsylvania, in the year following the disastrous fate of Bradock's army. The chiefs had requested this interview, in order to state to the officers the wrongs and injuries of which they complained; and at the meeting they evidently read the reports and circumstances of their grievances from the hieroglyphical chronicle of the Wampum belts, which they held in their hands, and by which, from the date of their grand alliance with William Penn, the man from the ocean, as they called him, they minutely related all the circumstances in which they conceived the terms and spirit of the treaty had been infringed by the British, defying the officers to show any one point in which the Indians had swerved from their engagements. It seemed to Dr. Smith that such a minute traditionary detail of facts could not have been preserved without some contemporary record; and he, therefore, imagined, that the constant reference made to the figures on the belts was a proof that they were chronicles. This notion was countenanced by another circumstance which Mr. West had himself often noticed. The course of some of the high roads through Pennsylvania lies along what were formerly the war tracks of the Indians; and he had frequently seen hieroglyphics engraved on the trees and rocks. He was told that they were inscriptions left by some of the tribes who had passed that way in order to apprize their friends of the route which they had taken, and of any other matter which it concerned them to know. He had also noticed among the Indians who annually visited Philadelphia, that there were certain old chiefs who occasionally instructed the young warriors to draw red and black figures, similar to those which are made on the belts, and who explained their signification with great emphasis, while the students listened to the recital with profound silence and attention. It was not, therefore, extraordinary, that, on seeing similar figures on the Egyptian trophy, he should have thought that they were intended to transmit the record of transactions like the Wampum belts.—A language of signs derived from natural objects, must have something universal in its very nature; for the qualities represented by the emblematic figure, would, doubtless, be those for which the original of the figure was most remarkable: and, therefore, if there be any resemblance between the Egyptian hieroglyphics and those used by the American Indians, the probability is, that there is also some similar intrinsic meaning in their signification. But the Wampum belts are probably not all chronicles; there is reason to believe that some of them partake of the nature of calendars, by which the Indians are regulated in proceedings dependant on the seasons; and that, in this respect, they answer to the household Gods of the patriarchal times, which are supposed to have been calendars, and the figure of each an emblem of some portion of the year, or sign of the Zodiac. It would be foreign to the nature of this work to investigate the evidence which may be adduced on this subject, or to collect those various and scattered hints which have given rise to the opinion, and with a faint, but not fallacious ray, have penetrated that obscure region of antient history, between the period when the devotion of mankind, withdrawn from the worship of the Deity, was transferred to the adoration of the stars, and prior to the still greater degradation of the human faculties when altars were raised to idols.
The idea of the Indians being in possession of hieroglyphical writings, is calculated to lead us to form a very different opinion of them to that which is usually entertained by the world. Except in the mere enjoyments of sense, they do not appear to be inferior to the rest of mankind; and their notions of moral dignity are exactly those which are recommended to our imitation by the literature of all antiquity. But they have a systematic contempt for whatever either tends to increase their troubles, to encumber the freedom of their motions, or to fix them to settled habitations. In their unsheltered nakedness, they have a prouder consciousness of their importance in the scale of beings, than the philosophers of Europe, with all their multiplicity of sensual and intellectual gratifications, to supply which so many of the human race are degraded from their natural equality. The Indian, however, is not deficient in mental enjoyments, or a stranger to the exercise of the dignified faculties of our common nature. He delivers himself on suitable occasions with a majesty of eloquence that would beggar the oratory of the parliaments, and the pulpits of Christendom; and his poetry unfolds the loftiest imagery and sentiment of the epic and the hymn. He considers himself as the lord of the creation, and regards the starry heaven as his canopy, and the everlasting mountain as his throne. It would be absurd, however, to assert with Rousseau, that he is, therefore, better or happier than civilized man; but it would be equally so to deny him the same sense of dignity, the same feeling of dishonour, the same love of renown, or ascribe to his actions in war, and his recreations in peace, baser motives than to the luxurious warriors and statesmen of Europe. Before Mr. West left America, an attempt was made to educate three young Indians at New York; and their progress, notwithstanding that they still retained something of their original wildness of character, exceeded the utmost expectations of those who were interested in the experiment. Two of them, however, in the end, returned to their tribe, but they were rendered miserable by the contempt with which they were received; and the brother of the one who remained behind, was so affected with their degradation, that he came to the city determined to redeem his brother from the thraldom of civilization. On his arrival he found he had become an actor, and was fast rising into celebrity on the stage. On learning this circumstance, the resolute Indian went to the theatre, and seated himself in the pit. The moment that his brother appeared, he leapt upon the stage, and drawing his knife, threatened to sacrifice him on the spot unless he would immediately strip himself naked, and return with him to their home in the woods. He upbraided him with the meanness of his disposition, in consenting to make himself a slave. He demanded if he had forgotten that the Great Spirit had planted the Indian corn for their use, and filled the forests with game, the air with birds, and the waters with fish, that they might be free. He represented the institutions of civilized society as calculated to make him dependant on the labour of others, and subject to every chance that might interrupt their disposition to supply his wants. The actor obeyed his brother, and returning to the woods, was never seen again in the town. [A]
It may, perhaps, not be an impertinent digression to contrast this singular occurrence in the theatre of New York with another truly European, to which Mr. West was a witness, in the Cathedral of St. Peter. Among other intelligent acquaintances which he formed in Rome was the Abate Grant, one of the adherents of that unfortunate family, whom the baseness of their confidential servants, and the factions of ambitious demagogues, deprived, collectively, of their birthright. This priest, though a firm Jacobite in principle, was, like many others of the same political sentiments, liberal and enlightened, refuting, by his conduct, the false and fraudulent calumnies which have been so long alleged against the gallant men who supported the cause of the ill-fated Stuarts. On St. Peter's day, when the Pope in person performs high mass in the cathedral, the Abate offered to take Mr. West to the church, as he could place him among the ecclesiastics, in an advantageous situation to witness the ceremony. Glad of such an offer, Mr. West willingly accompanied him. The vast edifice; the immense multitude of spectators; the sublimity of the music; and the effect of the pomp addressed to the sight, produced on the mind of the Painter feelings scarcely less enthusiastic than those which the devoutest of the worshippers experienced, or the craftiest inhabitant of the Vatican affected to feel. At the elevation of the host, and as he was kneeling beside the Abate, to their equal astonishment he heard a voice, exclaiming behind them in a broad Scottish accent, "O Lord, cast not the church down on them for this abomination!" The surrounding Italian priests, not understanding what the enthusiast was saying, listened with great comfort to such a lively manifestation of a zeal, which they attributed to the blessed effects of the performance. The Abate, however, with genuine Scottish partiality, was alarmed for his countryman, and endeavoured to persuade him to hold his tongue during the ceremony, as he ran the risk of being torn to pieces by the mob.
It appeared that this zealous Presbyterian, without understanding a word of any civilized language, but only a dialect of his own, had come to Rome for the express purpose of attempting to convert the Pope, as the shortest way, in his opinion, of putting an end to the reign of Antichrist. When mass was over, the Abate, anxious to avert from him the consequences which his extravagance would undoubtedly entail, if he continued to persevere in it, entered into conversation with him. It appeared he had only that morning arrived in Babylon, and being unable to rest until he had seen a glimpse of the gorgeous harlot, he had not then provided himself with lodgings. The Abate conducted him to a house where he knew he would be carefully attended; and he also endeavoured to reason with him on the absurdity of his self-assumed mission, assuring him that unless he desisted, and behaved with circumspection, he would inevitably be seized by the Inquisition. But the prospect of Martyrdom augmented his zeal; and the representations of the benevolent Catholic only stimulated his enterprise; so that in the course of a few days, much to his own exceeding great joy, and with many comfortable salutations of the spirit, he was seized by the Inquisition, and lodged in a dungeon, On hearing this, the Abate applied to King James in his behalf, and by his Majesty's influence he was released, and sent to the British Consul at Leghorn, on condition of being immediately conveyed to his friends in Scotland. It happened, however, that no vessel was then ready to sail, and the taste of persecution partaking more of the relish of adventure than the pungency of suffering, the missionary was not to be so easily frustrated in his meritorious design; and, therefore, he took the first opportunity of stealing silently back to Rome, where he was again arrested and confined. By this time the affair had made some noise, and it was universally thought by all the English travellers, that the best way of treating the ridiculous madman was to allow him to remain some time in solitary confinement in the dungeons of the Inquisition. When he had been imprisoned about three months, he was again liberated, sent to Leghorn, and embarked for England, radically cured of his inclination to convert the Pope, but still believing that the punishment which he had suffered for his folly would be recorded as a trial which he had endured in the service of the faith.
In the mean time West was carefully furnishing his mind by an attentive study of the costume of antiquity, and the beauties of the great works of modern genius. In doing this, he regarded Rome only as an university, in which he should graduate; and, as a thesis preparatory to taking his degree among the students, he painted a picture of Cimon and Iphigenia, and, subsequently, another of Angelica and Madoro. The applause which they received justified the opinion which Mengs had so early expressed of his talent, and certainly answered every object for which they were composed. He was honoured, in consequence, with the marks of academical approbation, usually bestowed on fortunate Artists. He then proposed to return to America, with a view to cultivate in his native country that profession in which he had already acquired so much celebrity. At this juncture he received a letter from his father, advising him, as peace had been concluded between France and England, to go home for a short time before coming to America; for the mother country was at that period still regarded as the home of her American offspring. The advice of his father was in unison with his own wishes, and he mentioned his intention to Mr. Wilcox. That gentleman, conceiving that he spoke of America as his home, expressed himself with grief and surprise at a determination so different from what he had expected; but, upon being informed of the ambiguity in the phrase, he exclaimed that he could hardly have resolved, on quitting Italy, more opportunely, for Dr. Patoune, a Scotish gentleman, of considerable learning, and some taste in painting, was then returning homeward, and waiting at that time in Rome, until he should be able to meet with a companion. It was therefore agreed that West should be introduced to him; and it was soon after arranged that the Doctor should proceed to Florence, while the Artist went to take leave of his friends at Leghorn, to express to them his gratitude for the advantages he had derived from their constant and extraordinary kindness, which he estimated so highly, that he could not think of leaving Italy without performing this pleasing and honourable pilgrimage. It was also agreed between him and his companion, that the Doctor should stop a short time at Parma, until West should have completed a copy of the St. Jerome of Corregio, which he had begun during his visit to that city with Mr. Matthews.
During their stay at Parma, the Academy elected Mr. West a member, an honour which the Academies of Florence and Bologna had previously conferred on him; and it was mentioned to the Prince that a young American had made a copy of the St. Jerome of Corregio in a style of excellence such as the oldest Academicians had not witnessed. The Prince expressed a wish to see this extraordinary Artist, particularly when be heard that he was from Pennsylvania, and a Quaker. Mr. West was, in consequence, informed that a visit from him would be acceptable at Court: and it was arranged that he should be introduced to His Highness by the chief Minister. Mr. West thought that, in a matter of this kind, he should regulate his behaviour by what he understood to be the practice in the court of London; and, accordingly, to the astonishment of the whole of the courtiers, he kept his hat on during the audience. This, however, instead of offending the Prince, was observed with evident pleasure, and made his reception more particular and distinguished; for His Highness had heard of the peculiar simplicity of the Quakers, and of the singularly Christian conduct of William Penn.
From Parma he proceeded to Genoa, and thence to Turin. Considering this City as the last stage of his professional observations in Italy, his mind unconsciously took a retrospective view of the different objects he had seen, and the knowledge which he had acquired since his departure from America. Although his art was always uppermost in his thoughts, and although he could not reflect on the course of his observations without pleasure and hope, he was often led to advert to the lamentable state into which every thing, as well as Art, had fallen in Italy, in consequence of the general theocratical despotism which over-spread the whole country, like an unwholesome vapour, and of those minute subdivisions of territory, in which political tyranny exercised its baleful influence even where the ecclesiastical oppression seemed disposed to spare. He saw, in the infamous establishment of the cicisbeo, the settled effect of that general disposition to palliate vice, which is the first symptom of decay in nations; and he was convinced that, before vice could be thus exalted into custom, there must exist in the community which would tolerate such an institution, a disregard of all those obligations which it is the pride of virtue to incur, and the object of law to preserve. It seemed to him that every thing in Italy was in a state of disease; and that the moral energy was subsiding, as the vital flame diminishes with the progress of old age. For although the forms and graces of the human character were often seen in all their genuine dignity among the common people, still even the general population seemed to be defective in that detestation of vice found in all countries in a healthful state of morals, and which is often strongest among the lowest of the vulgar, especially in what respects the conduct of the great. He thought that the commonalty of Italy had lost the tact by which the good and evil of actions are discriminated; and that, whatever was good in their disposition, was constitutional, and unconnected with any principle of religion, or sense of right. In the Papal states, this appeared to be particularly the case. All the creative powers of the mind seemed there to be extinct. The country was covered with ruins, and the human character was in ashes. Sometimes, indeed, a few embers of intellect were seen among the clergy; but the brightness of their scintillation was owing to the blackness of death with which they were contrasted. The splendour of the nobility struck him only as a more conspicuous poverty than the beggary of the common people; and the perfect contempt with which they treated the feelings of their dependants, seemed to him scarcely less despicable than the apathy with which it was endured. The innumerable examples of the effects of this moral paralysis to which he was a witness on his arrival in Rome, filled him for some time with indescribable anxiety, and all his veneration for the Roman majesty was lost in reflections on the offences which mankind may be brought to commit on one another. But at Genoa, Leghorn, and Venice, the Italians were seen to less disadvantage. Commerce, by diffusring opulence, and interweaving the interests of all classes, preserved in those cities some community of feeling, which was manifested in an interchange of respect and consideration between the higher and the lower orders; and Lucca he thought afforded a perfect exception to the general degeneracy of the country. The inhabitants of that little republic presented the finest view of human nature that he had ever witnessed. With the manliness of the British character they appeared to blend the suavity of the Italian manners; and their private morals were not inferior to the celebrity of their public virtues. So true it is, that man, under the police and vigilance of despotism, becomes more and more vicious; while, in proportion to the extension of his freedom, is the vigour of his private virtue. When deprived of the right of exercising his own judgment, he feels, as it were, his moral responsibility at an end, and naturally blames the system by which he is oppressed, for the crimes which his own unresisted passions instigate him to commit. To an Englishman the remembrance of a journey in Italy is however often more delightful than that of any other country, for no where else is his arrogance more patiently endured, his eccentricities more humourously indulged, nor the generosity of his character more publicly acknowledged.
In coming from Italy into France, Mr. West was particularly struck with the picturesque difference in the character of the peasantry of the two countries; and while he thought, as an Artist, that to give appropriate effect to a national landscape it would not only be necessary to introduce figures in the costume of the country, but in employments and recreations no less national, he was sensible of the truth of a remark which occurs to almost every traveller, that there are different races of the human species, and that the nature of the dog and horse do not vary more in different climates than man himself. In making the observation, he was not, however, disposed to agree with the continental philosophers, that this difference, arising from climate, at all narrowed the powers of the mind, though it influenced the choice of objects of taste. For whatever tends to make the mind more familiar with one class of agreeable sensations than another, will, undoubtedly, contribute to form the cause of that preference for particular qualities in objects by which the characteristics of the taste of different nations is discriminated. Although, of all the general circumstances which modify the opinions of mankind, climate is, perhaps, the most permanent, it does not, therefore, follow that, because the climate of France or Italy induces the inhabitants to prefer, in works of art, certain qualities of the excellence of which the people of England are not so sensible, the climate of Great Britain does not, in like manner, lead the inhabitants to discover other qualities equally valuable as sources of enjoyment. Thus, in sculpture for example, it would seem that in naked figures the inhabitants of a cold climate can never hope to attain that degree of eminence which we see exemplified in the productions of the Grecian and Italian sculptors; not that the Artists may not execute as well, but because they will not so readily find models; or, what is perhaps more to the point, they will not find a taste so capable of appreciating the merits of their performances. In Italy the eye is familiar with the human form in a state of almost complete nudity; and the beauty of muscular expression, and of the osteological proportions of man, is there as well known as that of the features and complexion of his countenance; but the same degree of nakedness could not be endured in the climate of England, for it is associated with sentiments of modesty and shame, which render even the accidental innocent exposure of so much of the body offensive to the feelings of decorum. It is not, therefore, just to allege, that, because the Italians are a calm, persuasive, and pensive people, and the French all stir, talk, and inconstancy, they are respectively actuated by different moral causes. It will not be asserted that, though the sources of their taste in art spring from different qualities in the same common objects, any innate incapacity for excellence in the fine arts is induced by the English climate, merely because that climate has the effect of producing a different moral temperament among the inhabitants.
On the morning after arriving at the first frontier town, in coming from Savoy into France, and while breakfast was preparing, Mr. West and his companion heard the noise of a crowd assembled in the yard of the inn. The Doctor rose and went to the window to inquire the occasion: immediately on his appearance the mob became turbulent, and seemed to menace him with some outrage.—The Peace of 1763 had been but lately concluded, and without having any other cause for the thought, it occurred to the travellers that the turbulence must have originated in some political occurrence, and they hastily summoned the landlord, who informed them, "That the people had, indeed, assembled in a tumultuous manner round the inn on hearing that two Englishmen were in the house, but that they might make themselves easy, as he had sent to inform the magistrates of the riot." Soon after, one of the magistrates arrived, and on being introduced by the landlord to the travellers, expressed himself to the following effect: "I am sorry that this occurrence should have happened, because had I known in time, I should, on hearing that you were Englishmen, have come with the other magistrates to express to you the sentiments of respect which we feel towards your illustrious nation; but, since it has not been in our power to give you that testimony of our esteem; on the contrary, since we are necessitated by our duty to protect you, I assure you that I feel exceedingly mortified. I trust, however, that you will suffer no inconvenience, for the people are dispersing, and you will be able to leave the town in safety!" "This place," he continued, "is a manufacturing town, which has been almost ruined by the war. Our goods went to the ocean from Marseilles and Toulon; but the vigilance of your fleets ruined our trade, and these poor people, who have felt the consequence, consider not the real cause of their distress. However, although the populace do not look beyond the effects which immediately press upon themselves, there are many among us well acquainted with the fountain-head of the misfortunes which afflict France, and who know that it is less to you than to ourselves that we ought to ascribe the disgraces of the late war. You had a man at the head of your government (alluding to the first Lord Chatham), and your counsellors are men. But it is the curse of France that she is ruled by one who is, in fact, but the agent and organ of valets and strumpets. The Court of France is no longer the focus of the great men of the country, but a band of profligates that have driven away the great. This state of things, however, cannot last long, the reign of the Pompadours must draw to an end, and Frenchmen will one day take a terrible revenge for the insults which they suffer in being regarded only as the materials of those who pander to the prodigality of the Court." This singular address, made in the year 1763, requires no comment; but it is a curious historical instance of the commencement of that, moral re-action to oppression which subsequently has so fully realized the prediction of the magistrate, and which, in its violence, has done so much mischief, and occasioned so many misfortunes to Europe.