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Washington Allston

©2001 Mick Cusimano


The American historical painter Washington Allston was born in on the Allston Plantation in the Georgetown district of South Carolina Nov. 5, 1779. His parents sent him to Harvard, where not only did paintings but satirical cartoons and caricatures.
Graduating in 1800, he returned to South Carolina. Too restless for the rural life he sold off his inherited land to study art in Europe. He went to London for a year to study under Benjamin West. He then spent 4 years in Italy studying the coloristic styles of Roman and Venetian painters. His first year in Rome was spent with Washington Irving and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Returning to England, he was very influenced by romantic artists like Fuseli and Blake, as well as by his continued friendship with Coleridge. He was accepted to the Royal Academy of Art and did portrait and historical paintings. When in London he nearly finished a painting called Belshazzar's Feast illustrating the Old Testament story of the Assyrian King's vision of ominous writing on the wall. When his wife died in London he was heartbroken and homesick and returned to Boston. He was on the verge of becoming president of the Royal Academy with fame and commissions beginning to come his way. The artistic atmosphere and community in America could not compare to the one in Europe. According to H.L.W. Dana, „Washington Allston brought his enthusiasm for art and for romanticism into the very environment that needed them most and cared for them least. That was Allston's glory. That was Allston's tragedy.

Allston set up a studio in Cambridgeport (on the corner of Auburn and Magazine Streets in Central Square, where a plaque on the building still honors him.) where he did portraits, historical, and biblical paintings. Upon returning Allston was struggling financially. Soon after his father in law left him an inheritance: a young black slave named Diana. Allston could have sold her for a substantial sum at the Charlestown slave market but instead granted the woman her freedom.

When Allston showed the nearly completed Belshazzar's Feast painting to Gilbert Stuart (the artist whose G. Washington portrait graces the dollar bill), Stuart told Allston that the perspective was all wrong. Allston covered the canvas over in paint to start over completely and labored on the painting on and off for 25 years, never finishing it. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard have two versions of the Feast, along with other paintings and drawings of the artist. Some of Allston's work can also be found in the Boston Atheneum. Some art historians consider the Feast painting to be the tragedy of Allston's life that prevented him from fulfilling the promise as the American Titian, which he was called. A year before Allston died Charles Dickens came to Boston and was inspired by meeting the artist who was still much revered in England and America. Allston is buried in the old cemetery in Harvard Square a block from Church Street. Allston is one of the few places in America named after an artist.


...........Many and varied were the visitors that made their way to Allston's studio to breathe venetian air.......Washington Irving, who, like Washington Allston, had been named for the Father of his Country visited Cambridgeport. At the beginning of the century, in Italy, he had formed a friendship with Allston which had been renewed in England when Allston was doing illustrations for Irving's „Knickerbocker History of New York.* Now, at length, returning to America and recognized the as the foremost man of letters there, one of his first impulses was to make a pilgimage to see Allston.

In the same year as Irving's visit to Allston, 1832, Sophia Peabody, later the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, asked Allston's permission to copy some of his pictures and called him whimsically the "Tiger of the Age" Margaret Fuller, as a youthful prodigy, had seen Allston*s pictures when she was sixteen and found his art "sweet silvery music, rising by its clear tone to be heard above the din of life, long forest glades glimmering with golden light." Seven years later she wrote to Emerson about her visit. „There was at last an interview with Mr. Allston. He is as beautiful as the town criers have said.....He got engaged upon his Art, and flamed up in a galaxy of Platonism. Yet what he said was not so beautiful as his smile of genius saying it. Unfortunately I was so fascinated that I forgot to make myself interesting." She and Emerson went together to see the Allston Exhibition, of which she wrote a glowing account for the first number of The Dial. Emerson himself in his own "Essays on Art" in The Dial bases many of his ideas on these discussions among the Transcendentslists about Allston and even mentions Allston in the same breath as Homer and Shakespeare. Other American authors--Holmes and Hawthorne, Lowell, and Longfellow- also visited the same Allston Exhibition of 1839 and wrote their impressions. Holmes comparing various American artists in the North American Review speaks of Allston as "the brightest and noblest of all."

In 1842, the year before Allston*s death, the English novelist Charles Dickens came to Boston and all of Allston*s old love of England was kindled anew. Sick and feeble as Allston then was he resolved to attend the great banquet that was to be given in honor of Dickens. With great effort, he donned his best green coat with large brass buttons and yellow waistcoat and high white stock and took the stagecoach into Boston to Papanti's Hall. There he was presented to Dickens or if you prefer, Dickens was presented to Allston. Mr. James Fields remembered seeing the "Immortal Boz...take a pinch of snuff from Allston*s snuff box. At the fifteen dollar banquet there were ten courses, innumerable wines, and no less than thirty toasts and thirty orations..... " On the eve of his departure, Dickens made his way to the picturesque ivy-studded studio in Cambridgeport to make a farewell call on Allston. Writing to a friend in England, Dickens said: "Washington Allston the painter is a fine specimen of glorious old genius."