We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
OR
Melville and the Trope of the Starving American Artist in Rome
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Melville and the Trope of the Starving American Artist in Rome

Bemoaning America’s lack of support for the arts, Herman Melville voiced the lament of many American artists. Abroad in Rome in 1857, he wondered why Italian-style patronage could not flourish at home. His beliefs mirrored those of American painters and sculptors living at the time in Rome, such as Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), Horatio Greenough (1805–52), William Page (1811–85), Edward Bartholomew (1822–58), and Thomas Crawford (1814–57), who blossomed under the Mediterranean sun. During the first half of the nineteenth century, writers and artists adopted the role of the struggling artist not only to address their condition as artists but also to assail their own country’s lack of patronage. By evoking the glory of Rome, American writers and artists promoted the arts in their own country.

Many of America’s early artists faced intellectual rather than financial struggles; they wanted recognition more than money. Thus, the “starving artist,” whether used as a pictorial or literary representation, is not simply a stereotype. Although some of the artists may have endured difficult early years, their primary struggle involved encouraging a democratic public to support their artistic endeavors, first intellectually and then financially. In his 1811painting The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller (Pl. 7), Washington Allston used his art to criticize the lack of artistic support in America. His choice to depict a struggling artist mirrored his mounting personal frustrations but also demonstrated his use of a recognized trope. In the painting, a thin, balding writer with tattered clothing gingerly lifts his foot as a young assistant sweeps up the papers under him. On the left sits his antithesis, a rotund bookseller proffering a crumpled piece of paper similar to those in the poor author’s pocket, probably either manuscripts or rejection notices. Allston, who in 1822 wrote his own novel, Monaldi, was a friend to many writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Washington Irving. Given his interest in the fine and literary arts, it was not surprising that in his starving artist image, The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller, he chose to represent a struggling author. In this way, he could critique the arts in general while also deflecting a purely autobiographical reading. (For [End Page 55] a fuller analysis of the painting and its context, see Schneider, chapter 1.) Perhaps recognizing a kindred, careworn spirit, Melville underlined a telling passage in James Jackson Jarves’s 1864 Art Idea describing Allston’s resignation with American philistinism: “the artistic fire was too deep within him to be put out even by the aesthetic chill of New England. What a man of the exquisite impressibility of Allston must have felt in this atmosphere can only be conjectured. He, however, nobly stood his post” (Jarves 206, Robillard 50).) Melville encountered Allston in Jarves’s The Art Idea and perhaps earlier, since the two men shared a friendship with Richard Henry Dana. Melville’s admiration of Jarves stretches back to 1857 when he tried to meet the critic and art collector in Italy (Robillard 50, 119). Mid-century American artists admired Italy’s support for the arts and were correspondingly disappointed by their native land’s chilliness toward such support.

While on the lecture circuit from November 1857 to February 1858, Melville spoke on “Statues in Rome” to audiences in sixteen cities from Quebec to Tennessee. Stressing the universality of the arts, Melville embraced the democratic idea of art for the people. “Art,” he declared, “strikes a chord in the lowest as well as the highest; the rude and uncultivated feel its influence as well as the polite and polished. It is a spirit that pervades all classes” (NN PT 398). Melville embraced the democratic idea of art for the people, but misjudged the interests of his audiences. He emphasized the universality of the arts by admitting he had no expertise but could still appreciate beauty when he saw it. Unfortunately, this approach endeared him neither to individuals who did have artistic knowledge nor to those who did not and expected to hear salacious details about his Polynesian travels. A Boston journalist reported that “the...