Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne and the "Old Dutch Wizards": Matter and Spirit in the Marble Faun

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Hawthorne and the "Old Dutch Wizards": Matter and Spirit in the Marble Faun

Article excerpt

Leland Schubert's Hawthorne, the Artist (1944), Millicent Bell's Hawthornes View of the Artist (1962) and Rita Gollin and John Idol's Prophetic Pictures (1991) show respectively that Hawthorne developed a painterly style, seriously and critically considered the role of the artist in society and was a serious student of both Northern and Southern European art. According to Gollin and Idol, Hawthorne's studies in art directly influenced his own work (3). The protagonists, settings, and symbolism of The Marble Faun support this argument. While Hawthorne explored the symbolic potential of several works of classical Italian art in his final completed romance, his notebook entries written during his travels through England and Italy reveal that the American writer admired the "old Dutch wizards" (14:317) most of all. It was at the "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom" exhibition, at Manchester (1837), that Hawthorne first encountered works by Teniers, Dou, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Ruisdael (Scharf 45-76). As a first response he conventionally grouped these painters into a school of art, but in contrast to the opinion of nineteenth-century critics, he described them as "the most wonderful set of men that ever handled a brush" (12:356). Even after immersing himself in the fine-art galleries of Rome and studying the works of Murillo and Raphael, Hawthorne retained his preference for the "homely" and "human interest" of the Dutch Masters at the Uffizi (14:428). Hawthorne's clear admiration for these Dutch Masters has received little close attention in Hawthorne scholarship.

This essay explores in more detail the extent to which Hawthorne's love of Dutch art influenced the way in which he explored the principles and function of art in The Marble Faun. But firstly, Hawthorne's admiration for the Dutch school needs to be placed in a broader context of taste, the status of realism and classical art standards in nineteenth-century culture.

While Dutch and Flemish art was popular with the nineteenth-century general public, it had been criticized by several key figures within the British art establishment for failing to conform to the classical Aristotelian conception of mimesis, which involved above all the perfection of nature through art. As early as 1747, the British innovator of taste Horace Walpole, whose eccentric and eclectic neo-Gothic mansion Strawberry Hill had been "an intensely personal statement of apartness" (Mowl 231), described the Dutch Masters as "drudging Mimics of Nature's most uncomely courseness [sic]" (qtd. in Grijzenhout 17). In his Discourses on Art, which "were tantamount to a statement of policy" (Wark xvi) for the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds rejected Dutch art as a model for budding artists. He highlighted its low subject matter and its failure to give the observer greater insight into the human condition (Grijzenhout 18-19). Despite his admiration for the technique of Rembrandt and Rubens, Reynolds was an entrenched classicist. In "Discourse VI" he put forward an argument that can be summarized as follows: if only Jan Steen had been born in Rome instead of Leiden, and had studied under Michelangelo and Rafael, he could have become a great artist (Wark 109-10). The Victorian critic John Ruskin dismissed Dutch art because it presented, in Yeazell's words, "a world from which God has been utterly banished" (40). In France, Alison McQueen writes, ever "[s]ince the foundation of the French Academy, Italian art, and specifically the work of Raphael, had stood as a principal benchmark for conventional definitions of beauty and good or high-quality art" (94), relegating the Dutch Masters to the lesser ranks.

While the understanding of Dutch genre painting as a form of low realism did little to enhance its status amongst the cultural elite, it remained popular with the general public and was adopted by literary critics as a tool with which to define the "realism" that characterized many novels appearing in the course of the nineteenth century (Demetz 100). …

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