« PreviousContinue »
neath the cloud of a veil? Oh! banish me not from thy sight command me it will be charitable-command me to die. How long wilt thou reject the amorous solicitation of thy Khacan? Wilt thou drive him to madness by thy unrelenting cruelty? Is he doomed to endless tears and lamentations?
FOR THE PORT FOLIO.-REVIEW OF LITERATURE.
And do you think there are any who are inftuenced by this?
Oh lud! yes, sir;—the number of those, who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves, is very small indeed.
The Life and Studies of Benjamin West, Esq. President of the
Royal Academy of London, prior to his arrival in England; compiled from materials furnished by himself. By John Galt. London printed. Philadelphia reprinted; Moses Thomas, 8vo, pp. 196: $2, with a portrait.
It is related of Alexander, that he envied the good fortune of Achilles, in having a llomer to inscribe the monument of his fame. We do not think Mr. West need indulge any regret of this sort. His biographer has taken an artless, but captivating view of the subject entrusted to bim. His materials have enabled the writer to throw an air of the wonderful into his narrative, which tends to increase the respect with which the reader comes to the perusal of it; and we do not doubt that he has ex. ceeded the bounds of truth, no further than a portrait painter, who contrives, from an ugly face, to make a handsome portrait, and still retain the features of the original. There is something in the fortunes of Mr. West so peculiar, that credulity readily seizes the sceptre, because reason is almost unable to accompany his rapid career to wealth and fame. A quaker at the head of the fine arts:-an American among the first favourites of the British king, presents an anomaly not less honourable to the talents of the subject than the liberality of the monarch.
Mr. West was born in Chester county, in this commonwealth, on the 10th October, 1738. Of his father, it deserves to be mentioned, that he was the first person who maintained that it was the duty of christians to give freedom to their slaves. Instead of thrumming the oid threadbare topics of liberty and equality, he gave an unequivocal proof of his sincerity, by manumitting a person who stood in this relation to him. Not satisfied with this, he proposed the matter to his neighbours, and, about the
year 1753, his efforts were crowned with complete success; for it was established as one of the tenets of the sect of friends, or quakers, as they are vulgarly called, that no person could remain a member of their community who held a human creature in slavery. Those who have followed the indefatigable steps of Clarkson, while he was engaged in a similar enterprise, will not fail to draw a comparison, highly honourable to this pacific sect: and they who estimate so lightly the state of society in this country, may blush to receive a precedent, in the code of humanity and the law of nature, from the woods and wilds of a remote province.
We shall pass by the prediction of an enthusiast, named Peckover, that West would prove no ordinary man, because the story is really too ridiculous to claim our attention. The first indication of a taste for the profession which he has since adorned, was given by West in his seventh year, when he executed a likeness of an infaat niece, whom he was rocking in the cradle. Here is a distinct inspiration of genius; for he had never seen an engraving or a picture; nor is it probable that he had even heard any conversation on such subjects, as the quakers have no esteem for the fine arts, and regard artists as “ things of naught.”
We are told, in this volume (p. 23), that it was the custom of those who resided near the highways, after supper and the last religious exercises of the evening, to make a large fire in the hall, and to set out a table, with refreshments for such travellers as might have occasion to pass during the night; and when the families assembled in the morning, they seldom found that their tables had been unvisited. This, continues our author, who, most assuredly, never was in Chester county, was particularly the case at Springfield, where West was born. After a lapse of many years, and in a foreign country, fancy naturally reverts to the scenes and days of infancy, with fond and romantic enthusiasm. What is harsh and rugged we forget or soften; and exaggeration insensibly spreads her canvass to receive the brighter colours. To what extent the charity of the elder West may have been carried we shall not pretend to say. It is evident that his means were very narrow, because the son was indebted entirely to strangers or friends for every aid that he had in his professional education. We do not believe that such a custom ever did exist in this country, and least of all should we seek for it in the habits of this sect. We know that they are kind to each other, but their charity does not extend beyond the pale of their own church. They are Dot known on our pauper list; and a quaker beggar was never seen in our streets. If the scene of such open-handed hospitality had been laid in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia or the Carolinas, there would have been some probability in this representation:--but that the good folks of Ches
ter county! ever practised such prodigal benevolence, is beyond the memory of those who have lived near the spot long enough to have heard the fact. It is by no means unusual, in the unfrequented parts of this state, for travellers to be invited to partake of what is going; and the good folks of the house will relinquish their bed, in order to accommodate the weary with the “ chief nourisher in life's feast.” In the morning, if a compensation is mentioned, it is firmly rejected, eo nomine, when offered under that name; though you are sometimes told you may give "the wife" one or two dimes for her " trouble.”
The pen and ink miniature of little Sarah was shown to Mr. West, who, we are told, remembering the prediction of Peckover, was delighted with this early indication of talent in his son. (p. 21.) But the author says, that although he was allowed to amuse his leisure hours in the same manner, it did not occur to any of the family to provide him with better materials! (p. 28.) Luckily for the young artist, some Indians, on an annual visit to Springfield, were pleased with his sketches of birds and flowers, and they taught him to prepare red and yellow colours: his mother then gave him a piece of indigo, and he was thus provided with the three primary colours. The fancy, says our author,
“is disposed to expatiate on this interesting fact; for the mythologies of antiquity furnish no allegory more beautiful; and a painter who would embody the metaphor of an artist instructed by nature, could scarcely imagine any thing more picturesque than the real incident of the Indians instructing West to pre. pare the prismatic colours. The Indians also taught him to be an expert archer, and he was sometimes in the practice of shooting birds for models, when he thought that their plumage would look well in a picture.” P. 29.
Some of his neighbours, like the Indians, were struck with his ingenuity; and from their description of a pencil, he contrived to furnish himself with a substitute, by clipping the tail, and afterwards shaving the back, of his father's favourite cat. The old gentleman was amused with his ingenuity; but he was still left to grope his way, with no other guide, until the following year, when that singular good fortune, which we shall find always following him, brought to the house a merchant of this city, named Pennington. This gentleman did something more than the father: he presented to the artist a box of paints and pencils, together with canvass prepared for the easel, and a few of Grevling's engravings. West was then in his eighth year, had never seen any but his own drawings, and it is said that he was even ignorant of the existence of such an art as that of the engraver. The reader may easily imagine with what enthusiasm he contemplated his present.
Endow'd with all that nature can bestow,
O'er these mix'd treasures of his pregnant breast,
The pastimes of youth and the tasks of the school were forgotten for several days, during which, concealed in the garret, he finished a composition from two of the engravings!
Sixty-seven years afterwarıls the writer of these memoirs had the gratification to see this piece in the same room with the sublime painting of “Christ Rejected," on which occasion the painter declared to him, that there were in. ventive touches art in his first and juvenile essay, which, with all his subse. quent knowledge and experience, he had not been able to surpass.” P. 36.
We omit, with reluctance, several other incidents, indicative of wonderful precocity. He was allowed to visit Mr. Pennington, at Philadelphia; and he soon composed a landscape, in which he represented a river, with vessels on the water, and cattle pasturing on the banks. This picture is exhibited in our Academy of Fine Arts. In Philadelphia he met a Mr. Williams, a painter; and this appears to have been the first person who was able to form a proper judgment respecting the artist. He lent him the works of Fresnoy and Richardson on painting; and these books, the prediction of Peckover, the preacher, together with the indications of genius which he had displayed, and continued to exbibit, during the space of eight years, at length opened the eyes of his parents. But a serious difficulty arose. We have already stated that the sect of friends is opposed to any pursuit or profession that is merely ornamental; and Mr. West had already been taken to task for his indulgence of a predilection in his son, which was regarded as little less than criminal. We are acquainted with an artist, who was born in this city, and belonged to the same persuasion with West, who, very early in life, gave proof of considerable taste in portrait painting. After the bent of his genius had been resisted for a long time, by his father, the old gentleman, at length told him that, as he seemed to be determined to pursue this vain calling, he might do it in a manner that might be of some use to his fellow-citizens, by going to Thomas Rutter's, where he could ornament fire buck. ets and signs. Here he learned to mingle colours; and with this acquisition he threw himself upon the world.
Mr. West was unwilling iu thwart the bias which was so evident, and he referred the destiny of his son to a public meeting of the friends. That the result of their del beration was favourable to the wishes of our young artist, must have been owing to the wonder which his abilities had
excited, and to a singular exertion of magnanimity, mingled with christian humility. When the proverbial pertinacity of this sect is taken into view, we are at a loss for adequate language to express the feelings of admiration which this anecdote excites. We do not see any evidence, in the speech of John Williamson, of that “ astonishing gift of convincing eloquence,” which Mr. Galt attributes to him. It is a plain and sensible discourse, which would readily occur to any man of liberal notions. At the conclusion of his address, “the women arose, and kissed the artist; and the men, one by one, laid their hands on his head, and prayed that the Lord might verify, in his life, the value of the gift which had induced them, in despite of their religious tenets, to allow him to cultivate the faculties of his genius.”
The principal argument of Williamson was drawn from the pacific purposes of the art of painting; and it is a little singular, that in the very next moment, we find the artist strutting as a soldier. It does not appear, however, that he took the field. He returned to Philadelphia, and was very soon in full practice, as a portrait painter. His evenings were generally spent with our old provost, Dr. Smith, one of his earliest patrons; from whose conversations he probably derived most of his literary education. How long he remained in Philadelphia we are not informed; but as soon as his funds enabled him to undertake the journey, he went to New York. The remarks that occur here, on the comparative state of society in the two cities, show that Mr. West is still a Philadelphian. In one of the earliest volumes of the Gentleman's Magazine, we recollect to have seen a copy of verses, in which this city is hailed as the Athens of America, and the ridiculous vanity still prevails—although it is impossible to discern, among the opulent and the learned, much evidence of a title to so proud a rank. " It would be difficult,” says Mr. Galt, “ 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." We believe that the fame of Franklin rests upon his philosophical writings, and his labours as a politician. His literary essays are a model of easy style, but they are too meagre to have augmented the stock of in-' tellectual enjoyment in the world, as our author supposes, and they are very little read.
We should have more authors if we had more readers. But our libraries are loaded with the best ancient and modern writers; and who shall enter the lists, when the field is so crowded with all that genius can invent, and art achieve with Shakspeare and Otway, with Dryden and Pope-Addison, Steele, Goldsmith, Johnson and Mackenzie, with D’Arblay, Fielding, Smollett, Edgeworth, Radcliffe, llannah Moore and Mrs. West? Besides this most appalling spectacle, there is a disposition among us to put down every effort of this description that is indige