The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

7. Washington Allston's Moonlit Landscape MARCIA BRIGGS WALLACE, Fashion Institute of Technology

Autobiographical content in Allston's work has been noted by a number of scholars. 1 Indeed, the assumption that Allston made use of self-referential imagery serves as a basis for Bryan Jay Wolf's arguments concerning some of the artist's most important landscape paintings. Elizabeth Johns, moreover, has interpreted the prevailing endeavor in Allston's late American period, the period in which he produced the Moonlit Landscape (Color Plate 6), as one in which he undertook an inward probe of his own creative imagination.

The Moonlit Landscape (which has never been fully interpreted) may well be autobiographical; it seems to be an allegory in paint presented with mysterious and elusive self-referential imagery. On the assumption that autobiographical content is present in the painting, it can be positioned stylistically within the mainstream of European Romanticism. The prevalence of conscious and subliminal self-referentiality in the art and writing of the Romantic movement, both in theory and in practice, has of course been extensively discussed in the literature of art history and literary criticism. The individualization or personalization of the art-making process, a phenomenon originating in the eighteenth century, has come to be recognized as inherent in the very spirit of the era. It is therefore not surprising that there is a good deal of evidence in what Allston wrote and painted to show that for him creativity was "an aspect of selfdiscovery," 2 as it was for so many other Romantics of his generation, such as his good friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or William Wordsworth, whom he also knew.

Allston's autobiographical impulse could only have been strengthened by his conviction that creativity was synonymous with self-memory, testifying to the importance that he (like Wordsworth) placed on the act of memory in the art-making process. 3 Allston once said that when he stepped into, as he put it, "the ideal world," that is, the world of making art, he usually found himself "going back to the age of first impressions. The germs of our best thoughts are certainly often to be found there; sometimes, indeed, (though rarely) we find them in full flower; and when so, how beautiful seem to us these flowers through an atmosphere of thirty years!" He then continues in the most moving terms to restate the importance of memory in the creative process. "There is a period of life," he writes, "when the ocean of time seems to force upon the mind a barrier against itself, forming, as it were, a permanent beach, on which the advancing years successively break, only to be carried back by a returning current to that furthest deep whence they first flowed. Upon this beach the poetry of life may be said to have its birth; where the real ends and the ideal begins." 4

The Moonlit Landscape was conceived, in my view, through an "atmosphere" of some twenty years. If this reading is correct, memory served as a vehicle in shaping the autobiographical content of the picture, which seems to manifest through metaphor the artist's ruminations on his past and present at the time it was painted. Such musings, which are thoroughly Romantic in conception, illustrate that final pretension of the Romantic movement, as Charles Rosen and Henri Zemer have put it--the "poeticizing, or 'romanticizing,' of life itself." 5

There is yet another aspect of the Moonlit Landscape, central to the picture's meaning, as I see it, that links it with European Romanticism. It is Allston's apparent use of the universal metaphysical system M. H. Abrams has termed the "circuitous journey" as a format for the autobiographical content of the picture. 6 The circuitous journey, an age-

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