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 Washington Allston  (1779 - 1843)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/South Carolina      Known for: allegorical, portrait, history and religious painting

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Washington Allston
from Auction House Records.
Head of a Jew
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Achieving an international reputation as a romantic painter, poet and art philosopher, Washington Allston did historical, portrait and historical painting in a dark, wild, mystical, lofty style.   His many years spent abroad became a major influence for American artists to study in Europe.  He also affected the changing image of United States artists from being slightly disreputable artisans to romantic, poetic idealists.

He was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, and graduated from Harvard College in Boston in 1800.  From 1800 to 1818, excepting three years that he spent in Boston, he was in Europe where he adopted a romantic classicism that influenced a number of painters who followed him.

He studied at the Royal Academy in London with Benjamin West and traveled and painted with John Vanderlyn.  In 1805, he settled in Rome until 1808, and became friends with Washington Irving, Samuel Coleridge and other well-known Americans living abroad.

In England, he became recognized as one of the important history painters, especially in Biblical themes rather than the classical subjects he had painted in Italy.  An impediment to his productivity was years of struggle on a large painting, Belshazzar's Feast, begun in 1817 with the ten-thousand dollar subscription of ten wealthy Americans.  He never completed it.

By 1818, he was settled in Boston, and lauded as the nation's top artist.  However, the demand for history painting was minimal, and he turned to smaller works, both figural and landscape, many of them romanticized, pastoral figures in landscapes.

His place in American art history is hard to pinpoint.  His styles changed from Classicism to Romanticism, and his subject matter was wide ranging.  He had tremendous influence on succeeding generations of artists who admired him for his refined sensibilities and serious, professional approach to fine art, but Thomas Cole, leader of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, was critical of Allston for his lack of interest in the virgin American wilderness.  However, this new approach of artists finding personal inspiration in their native soil was rejected by Allston, whose interest in landscape was rooted in the European "Virgilian aesthetic", meaning rooted in history.  For Allston, nature was dignified only by its association with human history.  "It followed that American scenery, which bore less than any other the marks of cultivation, was of all nature the least paintable. . . .When in Massachusetts Allston created a landscape, it was a memory of Italy, rendered in an unrealistic style that Cole was later to denounce." (Flexner, 15)

Sources include:
Michael David Zellman, "300 Years of American Art"
James Flexner, History of American Painting: That Wilder Image, Volume III

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

ALLSTON, WASHINGTON

Washington Allston was one of the leading painters of the American School.  During his lifetime, he was considered, by admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, the first great American painter--an opinion that reflected his personal charm as much as the beauty of his art.  He was born in Maccamaw, South Carolina in November 1779.  He graduated from Harvard College, then lived in Charleston, South Carolina until 1801 when he went to London, determined to be an artist in spite of his family's objections. He entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he became acquainted with Nathaniel West who was president. In 1804, he traveled with Vanderlyn to Paris and Rome, where he became good friends with Washington Irving and Coleridge.

Allston returned to America in 1809 and married Ann Channing, then went back to London where he painted a great deal and was quite successful.  In 1816 he returned to America and settled in Boston, weakened in health from overwork and sorrow at the death of his wife.  That same year he was elected an Associate at the Royal Academy.  In America, his reputation continued to grow. 

Gradually his style became more elegiac and intimate.  He had brought the unfinished canvas of 'Belshazzar's Feast,' 12' x 17' from Europe and continued to be obsessed by it the rest of his life.  He began working on it in 1817 with a ten-thousand dollar subscription of ten wealthy Americans.  He never completed it.

One report (in Time Magazine) claimed that the mature Allston wasted most of his talent on huge Biblical canvases hopelessly designed to shake the world, e.g., his unfinished "Belshazzar's Feast."  Trapped in the cheerful, chilly Boston of the transcendentalists, the well-springs of his art running dry, he looked back longingly to the Mediterranean world that he had always been too much of a Puritan to grasp.

In 1830 he married again, to Martha Dana.  He spent the remainder of his life in secluded industry, often ill. He painted his best work, "Spalatro's Vision of the Bloody Hand," remarkable for light and shade and facial expressions.   He excelled in portraiture as well as historical painting.  The pride of his country, he was called the American Titian because of his remarkable beauty and power of coloring but he painted also with a fondness for the terrible.

He was working on 'Belshazzar' the day he died, in July 1843 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California

Sources include:
Time Magazine, February 29, 1960
internet


Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Washington Allston was born at Brookgreen Plantation (now home to Brookgreen Gardens) on the Waccamaw River near Georgetown, South Carolina. His father, a wealthy planter who had served with General Francis Marion, died when Washington was a small child; upon his mother’s remarriage, the family moved to Newport, Rhode Island. After graduating from Harvard University in 1800, Allston spent the following year in Charleston. In 1801, he traveled to London in the company of the miniaturist Edward Greene Malbone and entered the Royal Academy in September of that year. Inspired by his teacher Benjamin West, Allston resolved to become a history painter, an ambition which would lead him to create vast, complex paintings.

From 1801 to 1818, Allston spent most of his time in Europe where he made extended study tours of continental museums. On those journeys, Allston—himself an author of several volumes of poetry and art criticism—met several fellow artists and writers, including John Vanderlyn, Washington Irving and the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all of whom became lifelong friends. His portrait of Coleridge, painted in 1814, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; several other works, including Rebecca at the Well and Uriel in the Sun, were well received at the Royal Academy and resulted in his being made an academy associate in 1819. Allston began his most ambitious project, a monumental painting titled Belshazzar’s Feast, in 1817, a work which remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Throughout his career, Allston sought to imbue his portraiture with a romantic sensibility, resulting in works that were “statements of mood, of shadow, of pensive solitude and reverie.” This proclivity can be seen in an 1811 likeness of the artist’s mother-in-law. The daughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wife of the attorney general of Rhode Island, Lucy Ellery Channing (1752-1834) is presented as a model of somber dignity, the painting’s golden glow suggesting great strength of character. In remembering his mother, Lucy’s son, the prominent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, could not “recall one word or action betraying the slightest insincerity. She had keen insight into character … [and] her partialities did not blind her, even to her own children. Her love was without illusion.”

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


Biography from Spanierman Gallery (retired):
As well as achieving fame as America’s first major landscapist and the country’s premiere exponent of Romanticism, Washington Allston also won acclaim as a painter of portraits, history subjects and scenes from the Bible. His urbane style, his penchant for Venetian glazing methods, his masterful draftsmanship and the diversity of his motifs appealed to the most sophisticated and cultivate art lovers of his day. His many admirers included the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who called him a “man of genius, and the best painter yet produced by America,” and the novelist, Anna Jameson, who declared that he was “Not only the greatest painter America has yet produced, but one of the greatest painters of the age. An admirable designer, a rich and harmonist colourist, and a true poet in his art.”

Allston was born in Georgetown, South Carolina on November 5th 1779 to an affluent family of landowners. He began drawing as a young boy, while attending Mrs. Colcott’s school in Charleston. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him to Newport, Rhode Island to receive the type of education that would suitably prepare him for Harvard. It was there that he made drawings after prints and began working in watercolor. He also received his earliest art lessons, from the portrait painter and instrument maker Samuel King, and befriended the miniature painter Edward Greene Malbone.

In 1796 Allston began his studies at Harvard College, painting landscapes and a few portraits in his spare time and serving as class poet. Despite family opposition, he decided to pursue a career as an artist. Indeed, following his graduation in the spring of 1800, he returned to South Carolina, selling some of his personal property in order to raise funds to study art abroad. Accompanied by Malbone, he traveled to London in 1801, spending the next two years studying at the Royal Academy with the American expatriate painter Benjamin West and the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli and developing the romantic classicism for which he became known. During this period, he painted his first important oil, The Dead Man Revived, which was awarded a prize of two hundred guineas from the British Institute and was subsequently purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

In 1803, Allston left England and began traveling the Continent. While visiting Paris, he studied Old Master paintings at the Louvre, along with his friend and fellow artist John Vanderlyn. He also painted one of his earliest Romantic canvases, Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea (1804; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a dark and dramatic work that reflects the influence of the British painter J.M.W. Turner. In 1805 he went to Rome, where he spent three productive years painting pastoral landscapes that, in their emphasis on order and symmetry, reveal a debt to the great classical landscapist, Nicholas Poussin. Allston’s penchant for rich colors, delicate atmospheric effects and his painstaking application of glazes prompted members of the German art colony in Rome to dub him the “American Titian.”

Allston returned to Boston in 1808 and spent the next few years painting portraits and landscapes. However, by 1811 he was back in England, accompanied by a pupil, Samuel F.B. Morse. In the ensuing years, he endured illness and the death of his wife, Ann. However, he continued his prolific activity as an artist, creating dramatic, large-scale portrayals of religious, historical and allegorical subjects, among them The Angel Releasing Saint Peter from Prison (1814-16; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Painted for the noted art patron Sir George Beaumont, the work brought him widespread acclaim from English collectors and critics and election as an associate of the Royal Academy. In fact, Allston’s success was such that he was actually the first American painter who did not have to depend on portraiture to earn his living.

By the time Allston returned to Boston in 1818, he was at the height of his critical and popular success, a well-known and highly regarded figure in international art and cultural circles. His later paintings are characterized by a greater degree of lyricism, mood and intimacy, as exemplified in works such as Moonlit Landscape (1819; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and The Spanish Girl (1831; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In general, his painting output decreased towards the end of his career, due in part to his attempt to complete his Belshazzar’s Feast (Detroit Institute of Arts), a grand manner history painting that he had begun in England in 1817 and that remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Although Allston’s romantic style was eventually eclipsed by the detailed, transcriptive approach of the Hudson River School, he remained a pivotal figure in the history of American art. His aesthetic and philosophical ideals and his cosmopolitan outlook embraced the spirit of the age of Rr\omanticism and served to inspired a younger generation of American painters, among them the aforementioned Morse, as well as the sculptors Horatio Greenough and Thomas Crawford. His passion for color set an example for a number of mid-nineteenth century painters, such as William Page and George Fuller.

Allston died in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts on the evening of July 9th 1843, having spent an exhausting day working on Belshazzar’s Feast, during which he had to constantly ascend and descend a ladder in order to evaluate his progress.

In addition to his activity as a painter, Allston was also a writer, publishing a novel, Monaldi, in 1841. A series of his lectures on art, as well as a number of his poems, were published in posthumously in 1850. The artist’s work is represented in major public collections throughout the United States and England, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts; Baltimore Museum of Art; the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida; Detroit Institute of Arts; the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut; the National Portrait Gallery, London; the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the National Academy of Design, New York; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the Toledo Museum of Art; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

CL

© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC, nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

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Washington Allston is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Hudson River School Painters
Painters of Nudes
Paris Pre 1900

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