Washington Allston, (1779-1843), American
Washington Allston was educated at Harvard and went twice to England to study. “Hermia and Helena” was painted just before he returned from the second trip in 1818. A revival of Shakespeare’s plays was then underway in England. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was lecturing widely on them. He considered them the most perfect expression of human sentiment. In England, Allston was friends with Coleridge and also with William Wordsworth. Like these romantic poets, Allston celebrated dreams and ideas as well as nature. Shakespeare’s enchanted wood is the second focus of Allston’s painting. The dense foliage and glowing, distant light suggest that Allston knew the work of German romantic painters who had translated the nature poetry of Goethe and Rilke into lush, evocative images. For all these borrowings of literary and philosophical concepts, however, Allston remained persuaded that the painter’s art was one of magic formulas. He experimented to find the secret of Titian’s subtle glazes, seeking the kind of translucent depth in his pigments that the old Venetian masters had achieved. The foreground areas of “Hermia and Helena,” especially show these deep, rich colors. Unfortunately, after returning to America in 1818, his experiments often led to later deterioration of the paint film. Many of Allston’s paintings have darkened dramatically. Allston is widely regarded as one of the great seekers in American art, with the highest aspirations for the new nation’s culture. In Washington D.C. in the 19th century, when architects of William Corcoran’s art gallery chiseled the names of the great masters into the cornice of his new building, they chose to inscribe Phidias, Giotto, Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Reynolds, Ingres, and Allston. It’s pretty good company for an artist from the New World.
Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Coast Scene on the Mediterranean", 1811, by Washington Allston, Columbia Museum of Art
"Rising Thunderstorm at Sea", 1804, by Washington Allston, Museum of Fine arts, Boston
"Hermia and Helena", before 1818, by Washington Allston, Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Italian Landscape", ca.1805, by Washington Allston, Addison Gallery of American Art, Philips Academy
"Self-Portrait", 1805, by Washington Allston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston