Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston

Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston (1818)

Today my featured artist was considered to be the first American Romantic landscape painter.  Washington Allston was born on the family plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1779.    His father, William Allston, was a captain in the army and who died shortly after the Battle of Cowpens in the American Revolutionary War when Washington was only two years of age.  After his father’s death, his mother, Rachel re-married, this time to the son of a wealthy shipping merchant Doctor Henry Flag.  Washington Allston graduated from Harvard in 1800 and for a short period settled down in Charleston, South Carolina.  A year later he went to England and was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art in London.  At that time Benjamin West, the Anglo-American painter was president of the Academy and Washington learnt much from the “Master”.

He spent the next decade travelling around Europe visiting all the major art galleries and museums. He met and became great friends with the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge whose portrait he painted and now hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.   In 1809, aged thirty, he married Ann Channing, the daughter of the great American Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing.  After further travels around Europe the couple settled down in London where his artistic career blossomed and he won many prizes for his paintings.   Besides being a great artist, Washington Allston was an accomplished writer and many of his books were published.  His first major work of art, which established him as a great artist was painted in 1814, entitled Dead Man Revived by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha.  Sadly, in 1815, after just six years of marriage, his wife Ann died.  Her death devastated Washington and he beacme homesick for his country of birth.  He moved back to America in 1818 and went to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He remained there for the rest of his life, dying in 1843 at the age of 63.  He is buried in Harvard Square, in “the Old Burying Ground” between the First Parish Church and Christ Church.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of his friend:

“…I consider him a man of high and rare genius, whether I contemplate him in character of a Poet, a Painter or a Philosophic Analyst…”

My Daily Art Display for today is a painting which Washington Allston completed in 1818 and which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It is entitled Elijah in the Desert.  The subject of this painting comes from the Old Testament (1Kings 17:1-7) story in which God ordered the prophet Elijah into the desert and where he managed to stay alive with the help of the ravens who fed him with bread and meat.  The painting vividly depicts the vast and unwelcoming landscape of the wilderness, using a sober palette of browns, grays and steely blues.  The prophet Elijah, dressed in rags can be seen on his hands and knees pitifully crawling to reach a piece of meat the raven has just dropped on the ground in front of him.  It is a poignant and distressing depiction.  The size of the tiny figure of the prophet against this eerie setting adds to a sense of wretchedness and rejection and the observer experiences the tragedy of Elijah’s circumstances.

The painting was owned by Mrs Samuel and Miss Alice Hooper, who donated it to the “yet to be built” Boston museum.  It was actually the first painting which was acquired for the museum and entered the collection in 1870.  Of Washington Allston and his painting, the donors said:

“..We thought we couldn’t better testify our interest in this new art movement [American Romanticism] at home than by adding a really fine Allston to our public collection..”The donors went on to suggest that the museum, when completed, should be named after the artist but in the end it was simply known as the Museum of Fine Arts but a western suburb of Boston was named Allston..

This great American artist not only gained fame with his works of art but was a much heralded poet and author.   His works were appreciated and loved by many including the great English novelist Charles Dickins, who called him “a fine specimen of old genius.  

Great praise indeed.