Hawthorne and the "old Dutch wizards": matter and spirit in The Marble Faun.
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). Eventually, novelists as diverse as Austen, Gaskell, Oliphant, Thackeray, Flaubert, Balzac, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens, and Proust would all be classified as realists of the Dutch school (see Yeazell). When Hawthorne was working on The Marble Faun, Eliot's defense of Dutch art in Adam Bede (1859) helped to popularize this critical understanding (see Witemeyer). Associating prose realism with seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting solidified into a literary-critical convention by 1872 when Thomas Hardy subtitled his novel Under the Greenwood Tree: "a rural painting of the Dutch school."
Hawthorne has long been considered one of the masters of American Gothic, and issues of romance, allegory and symbolism have dominated discussions of his style. Despite this critical reputation, Hawthorne's enthusiasm for Dutch art is not as "puzzling" as Susan Manning suggests (xiv). With respect to painting, Hawthorne most admired "realistic representation that nonetheless suggested spirituality" (Gollin and Idol 4), and he found these two qualities united in Dutch art. Significantly, modern scholarship on the pictures Hawthorne so admired has shown that they do not have to be understood as merely realistic representations of everyday subject matter. Equally, Hawthorne's work does not have to be understood as primarily dark Romantic, as Bell and others have suggested.
The literary critic Evert Duyckinck already highlighted Hawthorne's penchant for detailed description and verisimilitude. In an 1842 review of Twice-Told Tales he compared Hawthorne to Dickens (Stokes 13). A decade later (April 1851), Duyckinck described Hawthorne's character sketches in The House of the Seven Gables as "plain," yet "clear, distinct, full," constructed "by repeated touches" (Crowley 193). An anonymous reviewer of Seven Gables in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (May 1851) used similar metaphorical vehicles, borrowed from painting, to remark that:
the characters of the story [are] drawn with ... sharp and vigorous perspective. They stand out from the canvas as living realities. In spite of the supernatural drapery in which they are enveloped, they have such a genuine expression of flesh and blood, that we cannot doubt we have known them all our days. (Crowley 196)
In Britain, several reviewers of Eliot's work found similarities in style of characterization between the self-professed "Dutch" realist and the American romancer (Stokes 94). While Hawthorne's themes are often fantastic, his atmosphere Gothic, and his central motifs symbolic, his figures were understood, in his own day at least, to be vivid, life-like, almost alive.
Apart from constructing realistic characters, Hawthorne was also adept at sketching realistic scenes, even if he never concerned himself with constructing realistic plots. In 1860, an anonymous critic reviewing Hawthorne's work remarked that in Seven Gables "nothing can surpass the art with which the familiar figures of the street and the shop are embroidered, as it were, on this dusky background, which seems to throw them into more prominent relief" (Crowley 360-1). According to Schubert, Hawthorne had "a true feeling for chiaroscuro" (102). By utilizing this compositional technique of clearly defined spatial sections of light and shade, Hawthorne was (unwittingly) following a principle often used by his favorite Dutch artist: Gerrit Dou. Wayne Franits explains that Dou's paintings (e.g. Violin Player, Kitchen Maid with a Boy in a Window, or The Young Mother), (1) were often composed of clear and bright foregrounds containing sharp and distinct images, contrasted to "suggestively painted and dimly lit background elements" (Dutch 119). According to Franits, "the meaning of these distant motifs, which invariably clarify the foreground scene, can only be teased out by close investigation on the viewer's part" (Dutch 119). While it is impossible to prove that Hawthorne deliberately crafted The House of the Seven Gables in the style of the Dutch Masters (79), as Gollin and Idol suggest, their claim remains a salient point that warrants further exploration.
Apart from its verisimilitude, Dutch genre painting was also popular with the general public because it often represented immediately recognizable domestic tableaux. These tableaux were mostly realistic in appearance, yet featured idealizations of women at work that "shaped and in turn were shaped by a firmly established system of beliefs and values about women that were endorsed within the patriarchal social order of the day" (Franits, Paragons I). Every motif in a painting like The Young Mother is "strategically positioned" to ensure the painting communicated "what contemporaries considered virtuous behavior among housewives and maids" (Franits, Dutch 120-1). Other good examples are Old Woman Saying Grace, Old Woman Eating and Old Woman Peeling Apples (Franits, Paragons 171, 178 and 182). According to Yeazell, this ideological dimension to Dutch art was another feature that made it a useful analogue to the "realistic" novels of the nineteenth century, which were often engaged with the ideology of domesticity (9).
Gillian Brown and Lora Romero, amongst others, have shown that Hawthorne was also immersed in the culture of domesticity. Consciously or not, he followed both the conventions of Dutch genre painting, as well as many Victorian "realist" novels, in his choice and arrangement of domestic scenes. Brown makes this point about Phoebe and Hepzibah in Seven Gables:
Not only do housekeepers appear as ladies in this romance, but housework appears as leisure. The ascension of the Angel in the House romanticizes market history by spiritualizing women's work so that it is dissociated from the physical efforts that signify the human imprint on history. (79)
Like the Dutch pictures, Hawthorne's tableaux are carefully constructed fictions revealing not so much the reality as an ideal within his culture of how domestic spaces should be arranged and could function properly within a wider social network. Hawthorne's initial admiration of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, therefore, could be the result of awareness on the author's part that he shared a style of representation and a choice of subject matter. This recognition of shared themes and principles could have opened a door for Hawthorne to a new, yet strangely familiar world of visual art, which he decided to explore more thoroughly during his travels in France and Italy.
Peter Demetz and Alison McQueen have shown that in nineteenth-century France, Dutch art became popular amongst a circle of artists and critics with radical socio-political ideas. Demetz explains that for this French avant-garde:
going back to the Dutch was something unusual, provocative, perhaps nonconformist, the unearthing of a long misjudged or unknown tradition which has been relegated for centuries to the very periphery of art and excluded from the serious attention of critics and connoisseurs. (Demetz 98-9)
One French critic, Theophile Thore, "suggested that the Dutch, as they appear on their pictures, anticipate a brave new world which is being realized across the Atlantic--'la jeune societe americaine, protestante, et democratique'" (Demetz 113). In short, Thore argued that Dutch art was "ART FOR MANKIND," that could reveal truths about this world as yet undiscovered (qtd. in Carasso 126). While Hawthorne was born and raised in the society that Thore believed shared core values with Dutch art, it is beyond the scope of this article to explore whether Hawthorne was ideologically attracted to these pictures. His Italian Notebooks show, however, that he became aware of the cultural politics inherent in expressing taste in art. And it looks like Hawthorne was unwittingly on the side of the French avant-garde.
For Thore Raphael and Rembrandt were the two-faced Janus of art. The Italian Master looked backward into tradition and represented mankind only in abstract terms through mythological and religious symbols. The Dutch Master looked forward and viewed mankind directly in all its flesh, blood and spirit (Carasso 126). Hawthorne followed Thore when, in February 1858, he complained of "a terrible lack of variety" in Italian art, which he believed was "seldom" painted in "a homely way," and lacked true religious sentiment (14:111). The Italian Masters were "men of polished steel, not human, nor addressing themselves so much to human sympathies as to a formed intellectual taste" (14:112). In Hawthorne's day, Ronni Baer explains, words such as "soulless" were more customarily used to describe paintings by Dou rather than Raphael (7). But for Hawthorne, as for the French avant-garde, classical Italian art stood for an adherence to (outmoded) artistic conventions and decorum and reflected the kind of reverence for dead authorities Hawthorne had mocked in an early notebook entry (8:252).
Significantly, in reflecting on his own taste in art, in April 1858, Hawthorne described himself as one of the legendary conquerors of Rome: "I am partly sensible that some unwritten rules of taste are making their way into my mind; that all this Greek beauty has done something towards refining me, who am still, however, a very sturdy Goth" (14:166). On the one hand, this statement can be read as a playful remark in which Hawthorne acknowledges his lack of artistic understanding, as Schubert claimed (5). On the other hand, the term Goth, within the context of Roman culture, is loaded with radical and dissident connotations. By describing himself as a sturdy, rather than a reluctant Goth, Hawthorne implies a conscious resistance to assimilation into the crowd of art connoisseurs who accepted the classical rules as a universal standard of artistic beauty and excellence.
What needs to be taken into account in any approach to Hawthorne's taste and understanding of the visual arts is the literary tradition with which he aligned himself. By the time Hawthorne encountered the Dutch Masters he was a well-versed and keen practitioner of symbolic and allegorical art, even if he was equally interested in carefully recording everyday life. While the Dutch Masters' techniques for creating verisimilitude are striking, their art is understood today as having a symbolic or moralizing aspect (Haak 70). Dou's works, for instance, "more often than not, are metaphorical abstractions and do not depict a moment in time, despite the plausible reality of the scene" (Baer 40). Because Hawthorne was himself an artist who used literary techniques to transform everyday life into symbolic and allegorical art, it is not surprising that he recognized symbolic potential in the realistic works of the Dutch Masters.
For Hawthorne, the most important symbolic power of Dutch genre painting was its potential to spiritualize the mundane objects it represented, and in doing so to bridge the divide between matter and spirit:
... it is strange how spiritual and suggestive the commonest household article--an earthen pitcher, for example--becomes when represented with entire accuracy. These Dutchmen get at the soul of common things, and so make them types and interpreters of the spiritual world. (12:356)
This quality of transforming everyday objects into symbols of divine spirit was what Italian art lacked. In fact, Hawthorne believed that much Italian art de-spiritualized the often religious subjects it represented. Through his observations of Dutch painting Hawthorne learned that a work of art did not need to represent a religious or supernatural subject in order to express the divine essence of humanity. As Gollin and Idol summarize, for Hawthorne, "Dutch paintings at their best ... offered glimpses of the ideal. These glimpses revealed the artist's intuitive or imaginative perception of the link between the outward world of mundane fact and the inward sphere of spiritual or transcendental truth or form" (35).
What Hawthorne came to understand from contemplating the Dutch Masters--especially Dou--was that a realistic style of representation did not have to stifle the exploration of spiritual themes. In fact, the Dutch Masters' successful illumination of the spiritual in the material had the effect of making their pictures "more real than reality" (12:356). Such a phrase reveals much about Hawthorne's own understanding of what "real" meant to him. For all his struggles with New England's Puritan past, Hawthorne remained a firm believer in God and the divine spirit of humanity. Consequently, for any artist to be a realist, by Hawthorne's definition, he had to address the physical and the spiritual simultaneously. By illuminating the spirit in matter, Dutch art was hyper-real, so to speak. Strikingly, the Dutch art historian Eric J. Sluijter used this exact same phrase to describe the essence of Dou's work: "'echter' dan de werkelijkheid" (74). This suggests that Hawthorne had a keener insight into what made the art of Dou--"the master among these queer magicians" (12:356)--great than scholars have given him credit for. In fact, it shows that his wizard metaphor is actually appropriate. The wizards of legend, such as Agrippa or Paracelsus, were those scholar-alchemists and divine philosophers who professed to have gained insight into the ultimate unity of matter and spirit (Marshall 347-352).
Hawthorne was a wordsmith, so it would have been impossible for him to literally follow in the footsteps of Dou. Schubert has shown, however, that Hawthorne was always concerned with "the arrangement of images" (11), their structure, coloring, shading and rhythm. In September 1879, Anthony Trollope remarked that The Marble Faun also consisted of "a series of pictures" rather than a plot (Crowley 522). Schubert is probably right in arguing that Hawthorne did not copy any techniques directly from visual artists or art manuals (13). But the analysis of several key scenes in The Marble Faun will show that his careful observation of Dutch art taught him that in order for a detailed and lifelike picture to have symbolic potential, for it to transcend the mundane and to become expressive of a spiritual theme, the central subject needed
to be appropriately lighted and simultaneously contrasted to a background scene or counter-image depicted in the shadow spaces of the proverbial canvas.
The quality and success of The Marble Faun, E.P. Whipple remarked (May 1860), lay in "the vivid truthfulness of its descriptions of Italian life, manners, and scenery" (Crowley 348-9). The novel's popularity as a travel-guide attests to its verisimilitude. Yet, for all its surface realism, as Henry James remarked, "a great many light threads of symbolism ... shimmer in the texture of the tale" (154). It is in this overt intermingling of verisimilitude, iconic representation and carefully crafted symbolism that The Marble Faun can be understood as a Romance infused with Hawthorne's understanding of the magical Dutch art he so admired.
While I agree with Trollope that the structure of The Marble Faun can be defined as a series of related, but self-contained pictures, rather than a woven plot (Hawthorne himself described the novel as a tapestry in the final chapter), Hawthorne could not work on a canvas, and consequently could not represent differently lighted areas simultaneously on a single surface. The sense of chiaroscuro had to be created by sequential yet complementary scenes. It is more useful, therefore, to think of a complete picture in The Marble Faun as constructed over a series of interrelated chapters that are connected and defined by their contrast in lighting and imagery.
The first four chapters of the novel combine to form just such an iconic image in the mind of the reader: the Capitoline Faun, contrasted to his shadow, the Satyr of the Catacombs. On a bright blue day in Rome the four friends visit the Capitol and examine the statue of Praxiteles, discovering its "magic peculiarity" (4:8), which resides in its resemblance to a real Italian: Donatello. As the group discuss the marble faun's resemblance to their friend, the narrator gives a detailed portrait of the statue. It is "the marble image of a young man" (4:8), rather than the mythical creature he is said to represent, which attests to Praxiteles' penchant for realism. This Faun is "an amiable and sensual creature" with "more flesh, and less of heroic muscle" (4:8). His figure is "rounded, and somewhat voluptuously developed, especially about the throat and chin" (4:9). His lips are "full, yet delicate" (4:9). These sensual qualities, the narrator explains, including "the very lack of moral severity," make the faun "so delightful an object to the human eye and to the frailty of the human heart" (4:9). While the narrator's delight in contemplating the sensual aspects of the statue may seem odd at first, Hawthorne had himself enjoyed Rubens's "ugly, old, fat, jolly Bacchus" (14:318), a figure representing the enjoyment of physical pleasures more than any classical artistic ideal. For the narrator, the Faun of Praxiteles is a figure that could have featured in a similar mythological painting by the Flemish Master.
Despite its sensuality and its potential to evoke human sympathy, the Faun initially inspires the four friends only with an ideal vision of natural man: "true and honest, by dint of his simplicity" (4:9). They do not immediately share the narrator's insight that the statue simultaneously foregrounds the worldly enjoyment to be had from the senses. While Praxiteles can be said to have achieved the goal of Aristotelian mimesis, the perfection of nature through art, Hawthorne's story reveals that the perfection in form and texture that most other sculptors achieve in marble, bars them from expressing the humanity of his subject in the way that Praxiteles achieved. Miriam deems Kenyon "as cold and pitiless as [his] own marble" (4:129). His work--with the exception of his Cleopatra--lacks soul.
As a statue representing a classical ideal, the marble faun lacks the key ingredient that can tie him to humanity: a soul. Similarly, Donatello, the faun's spitting image, is at the start of the story only half human: "on the verge of Nature, and yet within it" (4:13), "indefinable" and existing "outside of rules" (4:14). After having recognized how much Donatello resembles the statue, Miriam has the following vision:
this fantasy takes hold of me.... Imagine, now, a real being, similar to this mythic Faun; how happy, how genial, how satisfactory would be his life, enjoying the warm, sensuous, earthy side of Nature; revelling [sic] in the merriment of woods and streams; living as our four-footed kindred do--as mankind did in its innocent childhood, before sin, sorrow, or morality itself, had ever been thought of!.... I suppose the Faun had no conscience, no remorse, no burthen on the heart, no troublesome recollections of any sort; no dark future neither! (4:13-4)
Miriam is able to recognize the ideal that Donatello represents, but she is simultaneously aware that this ideal lacks humanity, lacks a soul. Hawthorne may have chosen the name Donatello for his Italian protagonist because the sculptor Donatello is renowned for the realism he brought to classical sculpture. Like Donatello's sculptures, Hawthorne's figure looks real, but seems to lack that key ingredient that makes him human, a soul. By rejecting the shadows, natural or moral, that are part of his being, the living faun rejects a basic part of his humanity.
Miriam's vision remains attractive to her because it represents a world into which she desires to escape. In contrast to Donatello, Miriam has been all too aware of the dark side of human life and has lived literally too long in the shadows. The very fact that her mysterious and troubled past keeps haunting her has made her aware that it is impossible for the sylvan idyll that Donatello inspires to become a reality. Her function in the novel is to teach Donatello to accept the shadows as a constituent part of his and humanity's nature, which is why Hawthorne later on describes her art as similar in subject matter and style to that of the Dutch Masters: "sketches of common life, and the affections that spiritualize it" (4:46).
In chapters three and four, the "perfect" classical statue is starkly contrasted to the grotesque, Gothic Satyr hiding in the catacombs. Significantly, chapters three and four constitute a flashback. Chronologically, the meeting with the Satyr in the catacombs happens before the encounter with the Faun at the Capitol and as such it functions as the shadowy background scene that will force the reader to re-interpret the bright and positive image of the faun in the opening chapters, simultaneously explaining the dark conclusion to Miriam's sylvan vision.
The catacombs are a historical reality of Rome and a literal underworld, which allows Hawthorne to further develop the symbolic potential of the picture he is sketching of the marble faun, whose clarity and beauty are heightened by the shadowy figure in the background. Donatello, as the Faun, and the mysterious model/monk, as the Satyr, both represent aspects of the mythological creatures to which they are likened. Significantly, while the Faun of Praxiteles can be viewed distinctly, in a space specifically designed to highlight its beauties, the four friends struggle to determine the features and garb of the model/ monk by "the smoky light of their torches" (4:30) in the catacombs. By describing the model as a Satyr (4:30), Hawthorne draws the reader's attention to his similarities with Donatello. Satyr is Greek for Faun, and within classical mythology little distinction is made between the two creatures. Hawthorne was a careful student of mythology and knew that the Satyr/Faun was "a pleasant and kindly" creature that was equally "capable of savage fierceness" (4:233). He could well have known that:
[a]ccording to Hesiod the Satyrs were originally a lazy and useless race who loved only pleasure and good cheer. Sensual and lascivious, they delighted in chasing the nymphs through the forests. Later, although they preserved their malicious nature, they acquired more grace and specialized in the pleasures of music and the dance. (Aldington and Ames 161)
By calling Donatello the Faun, and the model/monk the Satyr, Hawthorne was able to separate these two contrasting features of the creature's character into two distinct figures, showing simultaneously how art can distort reality by foregrounding one aspect of a being over another.
As a Satyr, the model/monk represents the shadow-side of the bright and beautiful Faun. The model/monk is not a Gothic villain, though, in the tradition of Radcliffe's Schedoni. In contrast to Gothic novels such as The Monk, The Italian, or Melmoth, the Wanderer, the Roman-Catholic Church, and the monks and priests that serve it, form part of the realistic backdrop of Hawthorne's Italian story. Rather than being sinister figures of intrigue and corruption, they are intrinsic aspects of the daily life of Rome and especially significant to Rome's tourist trade, which Hawthorne suggests in the novel increasingly relies on selling the Faith to foreigners by organizing tours through the catacombs, offering multi-lingual confessionals, selling religious souvenirs and restyling Churches into art-galleries. What distinguishes the model from his fellow Roman monks is his mysterious association with Miriam. His symbolic function is more that of a counter-image to Donatello. While the Faun eschews all forms of shade, the Satyr is "a creature to whom midnight would be more congenial than noonday" (4:30), everything that Donatello represses about his own personality.
Unsurprisingly, it is exactly at midnight, just outside the place where the friends first encountered Praxiteles' Faun, that the live Satyr and the live Faun finally merge into a single figure around Miriam. The central murder scene is carefully composed by means of an illuminated foreground subject, contrasted by means of chiaroscuro with a gloomy background image. In this scene Miriam and Donatello form the central subject standing on the edge of the precipice at midnight in a lunar spotlight (4:167-8). Yet, as in so many of Miriam's (as well as the Dutch Masters) pictures, the shadowy background contains relevant information for a proper understanding of the tableau. Here a figure stands in "a deep, empty niche, that had probably once contained a statue" (4:170-1). By positioning the monk in a dark place where once a statue stood, Hawthorne foregrounds the Satyr's function as the Faun's nemesis. The painterly feel of this image is further enhanced by the doorway that functions literally as the frame of the picture. The image of Donatello's and Miriam's struggle with the Monk, that Hilda observes, for all its symbolic import, is very real and the action dramatized has direct consequences for both the actors in the scene as well as the unsuspecting observer.
The scene Hilda witnesses reveals to her that the idealism of classical art erases rather than foregrounds fundamental aspects to human nature: Donatello is revealed to be a creature of flesh and blood, and in this moment the passion and desire that motivate his regrettable action, as well as Miriam's silent blessing of it, come to the fore. Consequently, in order to be able to forgive her two friends, rather than seeing them as monsters, Hilda needs to learn to recognize passion and desire as forming an integral rather than abject aspect of humanity. In fact, this scene reveals to both Donatello and Hilda the truth of Miriam's earlier statement that for art to speak to humanity it should incorporate "the joys and sorrows, the intertwining light and shadow, of human life" (4:46).
The contrasting way in which Hilda and Miriam read Guido's St. Michael Trampling the Devil, after the death of the model, plays a central role in clarifying their different conceptions of human nature, which in turn explains why they reacted so differently to the Faun's murder of his Satyr double. Hawthorne probably chose an Italian painting as the central symbolic image in his novel, rather than a Dutch painting, because he was often frustrated by the way in which the Italian Masters executed their ideal subjects. In June of 1858, while contemplating the verisimilitude of the Dutch Masters, Hawthorne had expressed the following desire:
For my part, I wish Raphael had painted the Transfiguration in this style, at the same time preserving his breadth and grandeur of design; nor do I believe that there is any real impediment to the combination of the two styles, except that no possible span of human life would suffice to cover a quarter part of the canvas of the Transfiguration with such touches as Gerard Duow's [sicl. (14:317)
Hawthorne had commented earlier that the sketches of great paintings often seemed to get closer to the truth than the finished article because they lay closer to the artist's original vision. Significantly, Miriam admires the realism of the sketch of Guido's St. Michael Trampling the Devil that Hilda shows her: "[w]hat a spirit is conveyed into the ugliness of this strong, writhing, squirming dragon, under the Archangel's foot! Neither is the face an impossible one. Upon my word, I have seen it somewhere, and on the shoulders of a living man!" (4:140). Miriam clearly echoes Hawthorne's view on art by admiring the more realistic sketch and then criticizing the actual painting for being unrealistic. The angel is too beautiful, too clean and his dress too fashionable, which for Miriam (as for Hawthorne) actually hinders the painting from communicating its uplifting spiritual message to the viewer.
By expressing the idea that Guido should have painted the Archangel as a soldier who has just been through the thick of battle, Miriam reveals herself to be a painter in the tradition of Rembrandt. Kenneth Clark has pointed out that Rembrandt depicted Proserpina kicking against and scratching at an alarmed Pluto (Rembrandt 10); and that his Blinding of Samson is "an extremely disturbing picture" dominated by "the revolting realism of the actual blinding" and a representation of the human body in which "every detail, every hand and foot is ugly in itself" (Clark, Rembrandt 20-2). Miriam's preference for a more realistic portrayal of religious scenes is understandable since her own pictures are:
domestic and common scenes, so finely and subtly realized that they seemed such as we may see at any moment, and everywhere; while still there was the indefinable something added, or taken away, which makes all the difference between sordid life and an earthly paradise. The feeling and sympathy in all of them were deep and true. (4:45)
To the nineteenth-century art establishment, Miriam's "Dutch" style would have been understood as dissident, which is clearly how Hawthorne wants his readers to understand her art and character. This does not mean, however, that Miriam functions as a foil to the ideal Hilda.
Hilda limits her creativity to copying Italian Masters. She is stifled by convention and tradition: "too grateful for all they [the Italian Masters] bestowed upon her--too loyal--too humble, in their awful presence" (4:57). She has imprisoned herself within the Italian picture galleries and the (outmoded) artistic conventions they represent. She has encountered humanity only through the ideal, which is a life lived only in theory. Hilda needs to develop a more personal and freer understanding of art in relation to life before she can develop as an artist.
Hawthorne's understanding of Italian art as conventional and empty of human spirit becomes part of Hilda's newly developing understanding of art after having witnessed the murder. Initially, after the murder, Hilda is hyper-conscious of the ugly realities and human passions that everywhere surround her. Rome is described as "a long decaying corpse" (4:325), through which Hilda roams in a state of "torpor ... like a half-dead serpent knotting its cold, inextricable wreaths about her limbs" (4:328). Yet Hilda is able to develop what the narrator calls "a sturdier quality, which made her less pliable to the influence of other minds," the Italian Masters she had been copying (4:375; my italics). As weary of the Italian Masters as Hawthorne had been when he started on the romance, Hilda finds in them "hollowness" (4:338) and suspects that the pictures she has been copying for so long lack truth. It is at this point that the narrator speculates, as Hawthorne himself had done in his notebooks, that "a taste for pictorial art is often no more than a polish upon the hard enamel of an artificial character" (4:339). The hollowness of Italian art is mirrored by Hilda's recognition of the worldliness of the Catholic Church. The priest who takes her confession turns out to have vested interests in giving her spiritual counsel. While the priest should ideally be a figure of spiritual authority and council, Hilda realizes that he also plays an active part in Rome's political and legal life. Miriam was always aware of the fact that the Church, as an institution, was not immune to worldly matters, but Hilda, high up in her tower, had refused to acknowledge this fact. Hilda's new understanding of the worldliness of Catholic religion feeds into her understanding of the idealism of Italian art. Returning to the galleries, Hilda is now able to distinguish "the large portion that is unreal, in every work of art" (4:375). She realizes that the Italian masters' tendency to idealize their religious subjects has robbed their pictures of the necessary human qualities that can allow them to transfer the spiritual wisdom they contain to the onlooker. Consequently, she can no longer lose herself in the paintings and merge with their creators, a self-effacing quality that had made her such a successful copyist. This loss of identification breaks the spell that the Italian Masters had cast on her, which is a necessary condition for Hilda to be able to go home.
While Donatello had once resembled "the genial wine-god in his very person" (4:237), he is actually shocked when he awakens to the baser human passions residing within himself. He tries to deny them by locking himself away at the top of his tower at Monte Beni. Kenyon finds him acting out the life of a hermit, much like Hilda had done previously, apparently devoted to spirit, yet in reality closing himself off from reality altogether. Kenyon makes the hermit analogy explicit when he says "your tower resembles the spiritual experience of many a sinful soul, which, nevertheless, may struggle upward into the pure air and light of Heaven, at last" (4:253). The narrator describes Donatello's bed-chamber at the top of the tower as akin to an "oratory," containing both the typical Catholic memorabilia as well as "a human skull, which looked as if it might have been dug up out of some old grave," but which was in fact a sculpture "most skillfully done to the death" (4:255). Like Hilda earlier in the novel, Donatello relies too much on the rituals and conventions of an institutionalized religion--a cross, holy water, the act of crossing yourself--and as such remains spiritually in the dark. This reliance on religious habits rather than personal faith is highlighted by the presence of artifacts that represent the human spirit by convention only. The deceiving artificiality of the human skull, a cliche memento mori, suggests that embracing religious habits and conventional symbols will not lead Donatello to any new insight into his spiritual plight.
Kenyon understands that by turning to religious rituals as an outward show of penance for his sins, Donatello is rejecting his nature and mortifying his soul. Kenyons strategy for pulling Donatello out of his slough of despond is to re-introduce him to the beauties of the landscape surrounding home, which for Kenyon are infused with the spirit of Monte Beni, which is Donatello's spirit. If Donatello is going to find redemption, he is first going to have to acknowledge that he is a creature of flesh and blood, of passion and desire, and not the earthly realization of an artistic ideal, as his resemblance to the Faun of Praxiteles suggests. He also needs to learn that accepting the reality does not necessarily mean he has to reject the ideal. Kenyon knows as much: "While we live on earth, 'tis true, we must needs carry our skeletons about with us; but, for Heaven's sake, do not let us burthen our spirits with them, in our feeble efforts to soar upward!" (4:256). In order to convince Donatello of the presence of the spiritual in nature, he takes pains to describe the Umbrian landscape in great painterly detail, a style Hawthorne himself had encountered in the work of the American landscape artist George Loring Brown.
Hawthorne admired Brown and described him as "plain," "homely," "unpolished," "unpicturesque" (14:176), lacking grace even: a sturdy Goth like Hawthorne himself. In contrast to the man, Hawthorne described his paintings as "beautiful and true," and importantly as "magical" (14:176), the word he used to describe his beloved Dutch Masters. In his notebooks Hawthorne remarks that Brown had a talent for structuring his pictures by means of carefully arranged sources of natural light and shadow, and great attention to the minute details of Nature. Such general principles link the American landscape painter to his contemporaries Huet and Constable, and significantly, also to the Dutch master of landscape Jacob van Ruisdael, who had inspired many Romantic-era landscape artists (see Slive). Ruisdael was "the first Western artist to depict a variety of trees and shrubs which are unequivocally recognizable to the botanist on account of his faithful representation of their shape and characteristic growth" (Slive 4). He was also a dramatic artist, the distribution of light and dark suggesting a sky "in continual movement" with corresponding changes of shadow in the landscape (Clarke, Landscape 64).
Like so many tableaux in the novel, the picture of the Umbrian valley is carefully composed and defined by a combination of attention to detail and chiaroscuro:
set in its grand frame-work of nearer and more distant hills. It seemed as if all Italy lay under his [Kenyon's] eyes, in that one picture. For there was the broad, sunny smile of God, which we fancy to be spread over that favoured land more abundantly than on other regions, and, beneath it, glowed a most rich and varied fertility. (4:257)
The narrator goes on to describe the details of the picture, its many natural as well as man-made features: fig-trees, mulberry bushes, olive orchards, grain fields, white villas, grey convents, church spires and the like, including the ubiquitous river. Hawthorne shows his insight into the compositional techniques of landscape painting by pointing out how the sense of space--"what made the valley look still wider"--was enhanced by means of chiaroscuro:
Here lay the quiet sunshine; there, fell the great black patches of ominous shadow from the clouds; and behind them, like a giant of league-long strides, came hurrying the thunder-storm, which had already swept midway across the plain. (4:257)
Hawthorne foregrounds the fact that Kenyon--"a devout man in his way" (4:258)--is the focalizor here. In April 1858 Hawthorne had described the painter Brown's relationship to his subject as one of love. It was only through a "successful wooing of a beloved object" (14:177), Hawthorne believed, that Brown could achieve the inspirational effect his pictures had on him. Kenyon seems to understand that Donatello has lost his love for his land. As a man of strong faith Kenyon interprets the Italian sunshine as God's smile, and by reading the details of the picture in front of him, he feels "as if his being were suddenly magnified a hundred fold" (4:257). For Kenyon, careful observation of the landscape "strengthens the poor human spirit in its reliance on His Providence, to ascend but this little way above the common level, and so attain a somewhat wider glimpse of His dealings with mankind! He doeth all things right! His will be done!" (4:258).
At this moment, Donatello is still unable to read the landscape in the way that Kenyon does, because he is too pre-occupied with his own sorrows. He confesses to seeing cloud and sunshine, but rather than acknowledging their simultaneous existence, he projects the sunshine onto Kenyon and the cloud onto himself (4:258). Kenyon's advice to Donatello is: "only begin to read it, and you will find it interpreting itself without the aid of words. It is a great mistake to put our best thoughts into human language" (4:258). This is the central moral of the romance with respect to humanity's relation to its art. Hawthorne valued art to the extent that it could function as a source of divine revelation, of the spirit within matter. Kenyon is able to read the Italian landscape in the way in which Hawthorne read his favorite Dutch Masters. To him the intermingling of light and shadow, the simultaneous presence of sunshine and storm, of Nature and Architecture, is symbolic of the unity between matter and spirit, heaven and earth; yet for such a revelation to occur there needs to be a reciprocity between observer and image. The picture as such needs to extract from within the observer his own sense of spiritual being, his soul, before he can interpret the picture as expressive of the spirit in matter.
Kenyon is able to interpret this picture of the Umbrian Valley as symbolic of the unification of heaven and earth because he accepts, with Miriam, that each human life consists simultaneously of sunshine and shadow and that the rejection of one or the other is in fact a rejection of life. Kenyon literally takes Donatello on a trip into the canvas that is the Umbrian Valley so that the living Faun can reconnect with his nature, which is the first necessary step towards reunification with Miriam.
Miriam and Donatello's appearance at Rome is again symbolic. They come together at the Carnival, which Mikhail Bakhtin famously described as "a second world and a second life, outside of officialdom" (Morris 197). In contrast to the religiosity of Church ritual and dogma, there is the "sensuous character" of the Carnival with its ritualized form of play that, according to Bakhtin, "belongs to the borderline between art and life" (Morris 198). Bakhtin chose the word "spectacle" (Morris 197) to denote this moment of life lived as art, which is also how Hawthorne described it in his notebook (14:67). Significantly, his initial comments (February 1858) were rather negative, as he noted that "a person must have very broad sunshine within himself to be very joyous on such shallow provocation" (14:67). Hawthorne was aware, however, that his failure to enjoy the spectacle, to live in it, rather than look at it, was due to his "cold criticism" (14:71) of the event, rather than any quality intrinsic to the festival. By March 1859, Hawthorne had drunk enough of Donatello's vintage, and like Kenyon had absorbed the Sunshine into his system, to understand the life of the spectacle and to partake in the joy of the Carnival with his family (14:499). Hawthorne, like Kenyon, understood that the human spirit resided more in the sacredness of everyday physical realities than in the customs and tradition of institutionalized religion, or the severities of the law. Miriam and Donatello can live the life of lovers and feeling human beings at the Carnival, but remain outsiders and criminals in the "official world" from which the carnival offers an escape.
The fact that Hawthorne refused to ultimately clarify the exact nature and fate of Donatello and Miriam to his readers attests to the fact that, for all its surface verisimilitude, he was not concerned with the "realities" of his story, but with its symbolic potential. In contrast to the sensation novels popular in Hawthorne's day, The Marble Faun is not concerned with solving a mystery or bringing a criminal to justice. It is a novel about reading images and scenes symbolically, about recognizing the sacred in the everyday, the spirit in matter. The final chapter of the novel finds Kenyon and Hilda in the Pantheon contemplating exactly this theme. Kenyon draws Hilda's attention to how the rain and sunlight falling through "the aperture in the Dome" have literally brought nature into this sacred place, as "fine moss, such as grows over tombstones in a damp English churchyard" (4:457), has grown on the pavement. For Kenyon, this is the only truly sacred spot, because here heaven and earth unite, but Hilda still prefers to look upward into the sky, suggesting she still holds on to her Puritan heritage. Yet even Hilda, the most traditionally religious figure in the novel, having descended from her tower, cannot escape being confronted with the symbolic power of everyday realities. As they move towards the altar to observe a work of sacred Italian art they find instead "a very plump and comfortable tabby-cat ... on the altar" (4:458) and a woman kneeling down before it in an attitude of prayer. This image evokes the style of a Dutch genre painting in which the homely warmth and comforts of the cat are highlighted against the dusky background containing a painting of a sacred image "little worth looking at" (4:458), according to the narrator.
When Kenyon and Hilda turn their eyes away from the gloomy work of sacred Italian art, and towards the image of the woman praying to the cat on the altar, Hawthorne prepares his reader to meet the final symbolic image: Miriam in an act of prayer--or is it penitence--on the mossy ground beneath "the great central eye" (4:459). Despite her attempt to reject what she sees, Hilda recognizes and acknowledges Miriam's presence, which suggests that she, too, is now able to recognize the spiritual in the everyday.
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(1) Rather than providing small reprints of Dutch paintings, which will be expensive to print, I suggest the reader use the internet to find larger full-color digital images of the paintings mentioned in the text. High quality digital images of many paintings can be found easily for instance via "Wikimedia Commons" at: www.wikimedia.org.
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|Author:||van Leeuwen, Evert Jan|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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