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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By William James Stillman (1828–1901)

WILLIAM JAMES STILLMAN was prominent among those American writers whose lives are spent for the most part away from the country of their birth. His writings partake to a degree of the character of this voluntary exile; being somewhat desultory, concerned with what is of uppermost importance at the moment,—whether a search for a rare intaglio in forgotten little streets of Rome, or an insurrection in Crete, whither the author has wandered, or a discussion concerning the identity of an exhumed Greek statue. Yet these seemingly ephemeral magazine articles are of a true literary quality, witnessing to deep and fine perceptions of art and life underneath their surface carelessness. Mr. Stillman began his life as an artist, but was drawn by its natural currents into the career of a writer. Born in Schenectady in 1828, he was graduated from Union College in 1848; beginning soon after the study of painting under F. E. Church. He was for a time a resident artist in New York City, where he established with Mr. Durand the first art journal ever published in this country, the Crayon. After the year 1870 he devoted himself, however, exclusively to literature; yet his art training proved invaluable to him in his office of critic, enabling him to understand and to formulate the instincts of his artistic temperament. From 1861 to 1865 he was United States consul in Rome; holding the same office in Crete from 1865 to 1869. He was therefore a witness of the insurrection in that island, concerning which he wrote the volume entitled ‘The Cretan Insurrection.’ For many years he was a regular staff correspondent of the London Times, being stationed first at Athens, and afterward at Rome; and for another long period he was art critic of the New York Evening Post. His environment was ever peculiarly well adapted to his temperament: a fierce, free soul, rejoicing in beauty and battle, he was equally at home in the still art galleries of Florence and Rome, and in scenes of strife. His appreciation of art was subtle and intimate, in the nature of instinct, as was also his appreciation of nature; though in this he was more mystical, more deeply touched with the invisible soul of things. He was one of the first artists who penetrated the Adirondacks, feeling to the uttermost the almost oppressive beauty of the wilderness. His simple, sensuous, and passionate love of art led him directly back to Titian.

  • “In our time we have a new ideal, a new and maybe a higher development of intellectual art; and as great a soul as Titian’s might to-day reach further towards the reconciled perfections of graphic art: but what he did, no one can now do; the glory of that time has passed away, its unreasoning faith, its wanton instinct,—reveling in art like children in the sunshine, and rejoicing in childlike perception of the pomp and glory which overlay creation, unconscious of effort, indifferent to science,—all gone with the fairies, the saints, the ecstatic visions which framed their poor lives in gold. Only, still reflecting the glory, as eastern mountains the sunken sun, came a few sympathetic souls kindling into like glow with faint perception of what had passed from the whole world beside: Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, and Delacroix kept the line of color, now at last utterly extinguished. Now we reason, now we see facts; sentiment is out of joint, and appearances are known to be liars; we have found the greater substance: we kindle with the utilities, and worship the aspiring spirit of a common humanity; we banish the saints from our souls and the gewgaws from our garments, and walk clothed and in our right mind:… but we have lost the art of painting; for when Eugène Delacroix died, the last painter (visible above the man) who understood art as Titian understood it, and painted with such art as Veronese’s, passed away, leaving no pupil or successor. It is as when the last scion of a kingly race dies in some alien land.”
  • Again he writes of the Venetian painters: “Their lives developed their instincts and their instincts their art;” and of a modern painting: “It is in the minor key of that lovely Eastern color-work such as we see in the Persian carpets, and to me always something weird and mysterious and touching, like the tones of an Æolian harp, or the greeting of certain sad-voiced children touched by the shadow of death before their babyhood is gone.” These passages indicate an unusual degree of sensitiveness to both the spirit and matter of art products,—a sensitiveness especially marked in Mr. Stillman’s articles on the ‘Old Italian Masters’ contributed to the Century Magazine.

    The side of his nature which was congenial with struggle is exhibited in high light in ‘The Cretan Insurrection’; and ‘Herzegovina,’ a book dealing with the insurrection of 1875–76 in that country. Regarding the Eastern question he writes: “The interests of civilization—of Europe entire—demand its [the Mussulman government’s] replacement by a new government which shall be amenable to those interests and progress…. Having once admitted the necessity for its cessation, we shall more quickly find an accord over the manner of replacing it. It is in attempting to reform it that the danger lies.” Besides his various magazine articles on subjects of art or politics, and the two books already mentioned, Mr. Stillman published ‘Turkish Rule and Turkish Warfare,’ ‘The Acropolis of Athens,’ and ‘On the Track of Ulysses.’ He died at Surrey, England, July 6, 1901.