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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On the Study of Form in the Works of Raphael and Michael Angelo

By Washington Allston (1779–1843)

[From Lectures on Art, and Poems, by Washington Allston. Edited by R. H. Dana, Jr. 1850.]

THERE is no school from which something may not be learned. But chiefly to the Italian should the student be directed, who would enlarge his views on the present subject, and especially to the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo; in whose highest efforts we have, so to speak, certain revelations of Nature which could only have been made by her privileged seers. And we refer to them more particularly, as to the two great sovereigns of the two distinct empires of Truth,—the Actual and the Imaginative; in which their claims are acknowledged by that within us, of which we know nothing but that it must respond to all things true. We refer to them, also, as important examples in their mode of study; in which it is evident that, whatever the source of instruction, it was never considered as a law of servitude, but rather as the means of giving visible shape to their own conceptions.

From the celebrated antique fragment, called the Torso, Michael Angelo is said to have constructed his forms. If this be true,—and we have no reason to doubt it,—it could nevertheless have been to him little more than a hint. But that is enough to a man of genius, who stands in need, no less than others, of a point to start from. There was something in this fragment which he seems to have felt, as if of a kindred nature to the unembodied creatures in his own mind; and he pondered over it until he mastered the spell of its author. He then turned to his own, to the germs of life that still awaited birth, to knit their joints, to attach the tendons, to mould the muscles,—finally, to sway the limbs by a mighty will. Then emerged into being that gigantic race of the Sistina,—giants in mind no less than in body, that appear to have descended as from another planet. His Prophets and Sybils seem to carry in their persons the commanding evidence of their mission. They neither look nor move like beings to be affected by the ordinary concerns of life; but as if they could only be moved by the vast of human events, the fall of empires, the extinction of nations: as if the awful secrets of the future had overwhelmed in them all present sympathies. As we have stood before these lofty apparitions of the painter’s mind, it has seemed to us impossible that the most vulgar spectator could have remained there irreverent.

With many critics it seems to have been doubted whether much that we now admire in Raphael would ever have been but for his great contemporary. Be this as it may, it is a fact of history, that, after seeing the works of Michael Angelo, both his form and his style assumed a breadth and grandeur which they possessed not before. And yet these great artists had little, if anything, in common; a sufficient proof that an original mind may owe, and even freely acknowledge, its impetus to another without any self-sacrifice.

As Michael Angelo adopted from others only what accorded with his own peculiar genius, so did Raphael; and, wherever collected, the materials of both could not but enter their respective minds as their natural aliment.

The genius of Michael Angelo was essentially Imaginative. It seems rarely to have been excited by the objects with which we are daily familiar; and when he did treat them, it was rather as things past, as they appear to us through the atmosphere of the hallowing memory. We have a striking instance of this in his statue of Lorenzo de’ Medici; where, retaining of the original only enough to mark the individual, and investing the rest with an air of grandeur that should accord with his actions, he has left to his country, not a mere effigy of the person, but an embodiment of the mind; a portrait for posterity, in which the unborn might recognize Lorenzo the Magnificent.

But the mind of Raphael was an ever-flowing fountain of human sympathies; and in all that concerns man, in his vast varieties and complicated relations, from the highest forms of majesty to the humblest condition of humanity, even to the maimed and misshapen, he may well be called a master. His Apostles, his philosophers, and most ordinary subordinates, are all to us as living beings; nor do we feel any doubt that they all had mothers, and brothers, and kindred. In the assemblage of the Apostles (already referred to) at the Death of Ananias, we look upon men whom the effusion of the Spirit has equally sublimated above every unholy thought; a common power seems to have invested them all with a preternatural majesty. Yet not an iota of the individual is lost in any one; the gentle bearing and amenity of John still follow him in his office of almoner; nor in Peter does the deep repose of the erect attitude of the Apostle, as he deals the death-stroke to the offender by a simple bend of his finger, subdue the energetic, sanguine temperament of the Disciple.

If any man may be said to have reigned over the hearts of his fellows, it was Raphael Sanzio. Not that he knew better what was in the hearts and minds of men than many others, but that he better understood their relations to the external. In this the greatest names in Art fall before him; in this he has no rival; and, however derived, or in whatever degree improved by study, in him it seems to have risen to intuition. We know not how he touches and enthralls us; as if he had wrought with the simplicity of Nature, we see no effort; and we yield as to a living influence, sure, yet inscrutable.

It is not to be supposed that these two celebrated Artists were at all times successful. Like other men, they had their moments of weakness, when they fell into manner, and gave us diagrams, instead of life. Perhaps no one, however, had fewer lapses of this nature than Raphael; and yet they are to be found in some of his best works. We shall notice now only one instance,—the figure of St. Catherine in the admirable picture of the Madonna di Sisto; in which we see an evident rescript from the Antique, with all the received lines of beauty, as laid down by the analyst,—apparently faultless, yet without a single inflection which the mind can recognize as allied to our sympathies; and we turn from it coldly, as from the work of an artificer, not of an Artist. But not so can we turn from the intense life, that seems almost to breathe upon us from the celestial group of the Virgin and her Child, and from the Angels below: in these we have the evidence of the divine afflatus,—of inspired Art.

in the works of Michael Angelo it were easy to point out numerous examples of a similar failure, though from a different cause; not from mechanically following the Antique, but rather from erecting into a model the exaggerated shadow of his own practice; from repeating lines and masses that might have impressed us with grandeur but for the utter absence of the informing soul. And that such is the character—or rather want of character—of many of the figures in his Last Judgment cannot be gainsaid by his warmest admirers,—among whom there is no one more sincere than the present writer. But the failures of great men are our most profitable lessons,—provided only, that we have hearts and heads to respond to their success.

In conclusion. We have now arrived at what appears to us the turning-point, that, by a natural reflux, must carry us back to our original position; in other words, it seems to us clear, that the result of the argument is that which was anticipated in our main proposition; namely, that no given number of Standard Forms can with certainty apply to the Human Being; that all Rules therefore, thence derived, can only be considered as Expedient Fictions, and consequently subject to be overruled by the Artist,—in whose mind alone is the ultimate Rule; and, finally, that without an intimate acquaintance with Nature, in all its varieties of the moral, intellectual, and physical, the highest powers are wanting in their necessary condition of action, and are therefore incapable of supplying the Rule.