Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Blithedale Romance,1852

 

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At my first entrance, old Moodie was not there. The more patiently to await him, I lighted a cigar, and establishing myself in a corner, took a quiet, and, by sympathy, a boozy kind of pleasure in the customary life that was going forward. The saloon was fitted up with a good deal of taste. There were pictures on the walls, and among them an oil-painting of a beefsteak, with such an admirable show of juicy tenderness, that the beholder sighed to think it merely visionary, and incapable of ever being put upon a gridiron. Another work of high art was the lifelike representation of a noble sirloin; another, the hindquarters of a deer, retaining the hoofs and tawny fur; another, the head and shoulders of a salmon; and, still more exquisitely finished, a brace of canvasback ducks, in which the mottled feathers were depicted with the accuracy of a daguerreotype. Some very hungry painter, I suppose, had wrought these subjects of still-life, heightening his imagination with his appetite, and earning, it is to be hoped, the privilege of a daily dinner off whichever of his pictorial viands he liked best.

Then there was a fine old cheese, in which you could almost discern the mites; and some sardines, on a small plate, very richly done, and looking as if oozy with the oil in which they had been smothered. All these things were so perfectly imitated, that you seemed to have the genuine article before you, and yet with an indescribable, ideal charm; it took away the grossness from what was fleshiest and fattest, and thus helped the life of man, even in its earthliest relations, to appear rich and noble, as well as warm, cheerful, and substantial. There were pictures, too, of gallant revellers, those of the old time, Flemish, apparently, with doublets and slashed sleeves, drinking their wine out of fantastic, long-stemmed glasses; quaffing joyously, quaffing forever, with inaudible laughter and song; while the champagne bubbled immortally against their moustaches, or the purple tide of Burgundy ran inexhaustibly down their throats.

But, in an obscure corner of the saloon, there was a little picture excellently done, moreover of a ragged, bloated, New England toper, stretched out on a bench, in the heavy, apoplectic sleep of drunkenness. The death-in-life was too well portrayed. You smelt the fumy liquor that had brought on this syncope. Your only comfort lay in the forced reflection, that, real as he looked, the poor caitiff was but imaginary, a bit of painted canvas, whom no delirium tremens, nor so much as a retributive headache, awaited, on the morrow.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864. The Blithedale. Romance,1852. Chapter XXI. An Old Acquaintance

Hawthorne lived from April to November 1841 at Brook Farm, Massachusetts, a utopian community, which lasted from 1841-1847. His observations of Brook Farm in the romantic tale of The Blithedale Romance are told through the narrator Miles Coverdale. In the novel’s preface, Hawthorne recalls his time at the commune as “essentially a daydream, and yet a fact” which he employs as “an available foothold between fiction and reality.” The paintings described in the saloon as the imaginings of “Some very hungry painter”, present a “lifelike representation of a noble sirloin. . . the head and shoulders of a salmon . . . a brace of canvasback ducks, in which the mottled feathers were depicted with the accuracy of a daguerreotype”. They are notable for their realism, rooted in European realist painting and Dutch genre painting. Henry James described the novel as “the lightest, the brightest, the liveliest” of Hawthorne’s “unhumorous fictions”.

Image: Anonymous, British School, Folk Painting, 1830s. Still Life of Fish,  19th Century

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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