Tre Amici Artistici: E.B. Browning, Hiram Powers, and William Page in Florence and Rome

Robert W. Gladish

Covenant 1.4 (1998): 273–91.


Italy! The appeal of that name has been a magnet for the Western imagination for centuries. It still casts its powerful spell today, but for the generations after the Renaissance whose educations and imaginations were fed by the languages, history, and lore of the classical Greece and Rome, that appeal was even more compelling. Goethe's famous poetic invitation to "Mignon" to escape with him to Italy—"Kennst du das land wo die Citronen bliihn? / Im dunkeln laub die Gold-Orangen glühn" (Do you know the land where citrus blooms? Amid dusky foliage the gold orange gleams)—captured part of the essence of that wistful magic the South held for his generation. Keats, who had traveled to the "realms of gold" only in his imagination, brilliantly evoked the spell of those classical lands, of the enchantment of

Flora and the country green
 Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker of the warm South,
 Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
  And purple-stained mouth. . . .
And Shelley, speaking for himself and Byron, wrote:
How beautiful is sunset, when the glow
Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee,
Thou paradise of exiles, Italy!
In the 1840s and 1850s, the allure of Italy for exiles, artists, tourists, included a steady stream of Americans. In 1853, the editor and author, Nathaniel P. Willis, writing one of the many sketches of European travels that Americans supplied for an avid public at home, told his readers that there were "rarely less than three hundred Americans" within Tuscany.1 Van Wyck Brooks called his 1958 study of the nineteenth-century American experience in Italy The Dream of Arcadia, a title that captures powerfully that classical nostalgia haunting the paintings of Poussin. "Rome in the mid-century years," said Brooks, "was the refuge of expatriates that Paris was to become a generation later."2

It was into this milieu that two notable American artists and a famous English poet encountered each other, establishing friendships that had a significant influence on their lives and careers. The English poet was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, already a house-hold name on both sides of the Atlantic, a poet, scholar, and social critic, whose elopement with Robert Browning now lent a romantic aura to a distinguished reputation. One of the Americans was the sculptor, Hiram Powers, then achieving an international reputation, an artist whose neoclassical statuary was displaying, in the words of one recent critic, "a quality of finish . . . unmatched in his own time and unprecedented in the history of marble sculpture."3

The other American was the painter, William Page, now a relatively obscure figure, but then famous enough to have been dubbed "the American Titian" by his countrymen for his striking use of color, even though Page had probably never set eyes on a real Titian until he arrived in Italy in 1850. Robert Browning, too, became warm friends with the Americans, but his wife, Powers, and Page shared an absorption in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg that, as best we can tell, was more intensive and longer lasting than was Browning's. Our focus here is on the first three figures, though Browning certainly makes his presence felt.

Considering the humble origins of Powers and Page, their very surfacing as artists in Italy is truly remarkable. It speaks volumes both for the men's native talents and special personal qualities, as well as for the openness of the society that gave them birth. Powers, six years older than Page, was born in Woodstock, Vermont in 1805, the eighth of nine children. As was the case with many New Englanders, Powers's father sought more fertile farmland, pulling up stakes in 1820 to settle outside the raw new town of Cincinnati. But no sooner had the family reached its destination than Hiram's father died. At the age of fifteen, then, Powers was pretty much on his own, backed only by a scanty formal education, his personal attractiveness, and an already remarkable capacity to craft quite ingenious mechanical shapes and contrivances.

All his life Powers showed evidence of striking mechanical aptitude and inventiveness, creating tools and devices to aid him in his sculpture. In 1857, in a moment of pique and frustration over capricious or delinquent clients and jealous fellow artists, long after his fame and financial standing had both been firmly established, Powers grumbled that he would have been better off to have given his allegiance to "the God of mechanics" rather than to the fickle Goddess of Art. "I have courted too long," he wrote an acquaintance, "a capricious deity who gives her fame to martyrs, and her cash to humbugs."4

It was in Cincinnati that the youthful Powers, then working in a clock and organ shop, began to realize that his inventive hands and keen eye also had skill in modeling. He made beeswax figures for a local wax museum and horror show, and began to develop his skill in sculpting. In his early twenties he took formal lessons in modeling and casting from the German immigrant sculptor, Frederick Eckstein, and by the 1830s Powers's reputation as a sculptor had grown to the point that he was receiving significant commissions to produce statuary. Of particular significance for Powers's later life is the fact that two powerful influences in his youth and early manhood—Luman Watson, the owner of the clock and organ factory, and the sculptor Eckstein—were both Swedenborgians. It was they who planted the seeds that bore fruit later on when he was more formally introduced to Swedenborg's theological works in Italy in 1841.

By that date Powers had concluded that if he was to establish himself firmly as a creator of marble busts and statues in the neoclassical style of Canova and Thorwaldsen he needed to go to Italy, the source of the best statuary marble and of the most accomplished artisans in stone. In 1837 he arrived in Florence with his wife and young family, and there he lived and worked until his death thirty-six years later.

The early years in Italy were difficult ones for Powers. Commissions were spotty, and he relied on friends and patrons in the United States for loans and moral support. His wife, Elizabeth, never grew to like Italy, distrusted Italians, and despite having been reared a Catholic became far more comfortable with her husband's Swedenborgianism than with Italian Catholicism. In 1841, Powers was sought out by a Cincinnati portrait artist, Minor Kellogg, who had been baptized into the New Church and who came to Florence with copies of some of Swedenborg's works that he lent to Powers. Their effect represented a kind of re-awakening for the sculptor. The most recent biographer of Powers, Richard Wunder, says of Powers's religious experience prior to this:

In his early life Powers rarely went to church, and after settling in Italy not at all. He had long since abandoned the universalist doctrine of his early childhood and as neither of his parents had been regular churchgoers [sic], his religious upbringing had been of the most casual
sort. . . . With Kellogg's arrival in Florence, however, his spiritual growth had now reached a point where this new philosophy, seemingly so scientifically logical, made sense.5

Elizabeth Powers, writing to her mother at this time, affirmed that her husband "had often declared the explanations of the scripture by Swedenborg the only rational doctrine he had heard in relation to them. Mr. K [this was Kellogg] brought some books by Swedenborg & we have more pleasure in reading them than in anything else."6 Powers's and his wife's attachment to Swedenborg's writings was lifelong, and in 1850 the Rev. Thomas Worcester, who had been sitting for a bust by Powers in Florence, baptized the sculptor and his children into the New Church. In recalling his early life to the Rev. Henry Bellows, Powers's first biographer, the sculptor told him:

It was not until I came across Swedenborg's writings, that my mind opened to the truth and claims of Christianity. There I found the Trinity set forth in a reasonable and credible way, as the several manifestations of the divine wisdom, goodness, and power.7
Whatever his wife's feelings about Italy, the couple's home became not only a visiting place for their countrymen but also a sort of social center for the Anglo-American community in Florence. Like many largely self-educated and self-made men, Powers could be opinionated and dogmatic, and he certainly held no low opinion of himself as an artist and critic. But he was also an eminently approachable figure—warm, open, honest, friendly. Thomas Trollope, the brother of the novelist, Anthony, referred to Powers as "one of Nature's noblemen." He knew numerous Americans (Trollope and his mother had lived in Cincinnati when Powers was a youth there), Trollope continued, but none like Powers whom he saw as an original, a man "singularly free from prejudice of any kind. . . . He seemed to me a sort of Adam, a fresh, new and original man, unclassifiable and unjudgeable by any of the formulae or prejudices which served me as a means of appreciating men."8 At their Thursday evening at-homes, the Powerses offered New England corn bread and home made jam with the tea they served to their numerous visitors. As Wunder puts it: "No brilliant salon of the day could have attracted a more varied, yet interesting group of literati, artists, musicians, clergymen and self-made men of affairs than that which gathered regularly in the simply furnished Powers parlor."9 In addition, that parlor served for more than a decade as a site for Swedenborgian Sunday religious services conducted by the Rev. Alfred E. Ford, an American Swedenborgian clergyman living in Florence.

Under these circumstances, it is only natural that when the newly-wedded Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning arrived in Florence in 1847 and came to settle in Casa Guidi, just around the corner from the Powers home and studio, Powers should pay the couple a visit. Mrs. Browning recorded that meeting in a letter to her sister, Henrietta, the next day:

While we sate at tea yesterday evening in walked Mr. Powers! (he of the Greek slave and listening boy,) and had coffee with us and staid more than an hour. Like most men of true genius, he is as simple as a child, quiet and gentle, calling himself 'a beginner in art' which is the way of making a great end. I took one of my fancies to the man, and might well do so as he was very kind to me and begged me to go to his studio.10
And by October of that year, her friendship with Powers had warmed to the point that she wrote Mary Russell Mitford, the English novelist, dramatist and confidante of Mrs. Browning:
Very few acquaintances we have made at Florence, and very quietly lived out our days. Mr. Powers the sculptor is our chief friend and favorite, a most charming, simple, straightforward, genial American, as simple as the man of genius he has proved himself needs be. He sometimes comes to talk and take coffee with us, and we like him much. His wife is an amiable woman, and they have heaps of children from thirteen downwards, all, except the eldest boy, Florentines, and the sculptor has eyes like a wild Indian's, so black and full of light. You would scarcely wonder if they clave the marble without the help of his hands.11
Mrs. Browning's reference to the Greek Slave in her letter to her sister is an acknowledgment of the growing fame of that piece of statuary, a work that Professor Wunder calls "undoubtedly the most important piece of sculpture to have been produced by an American artist up to that time."12 In 1847, the same year that Powers and the Brownings met, the statue was on a triumphant (and lucrative) tour of the United States, with Minor Kellogg serving as impresario; and when the nude statue was exhibited at the famed Great Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, it was, in Albert Ten Eyck Gardner's words, "the artistic sensation of the age."13 Mrs. Browning wrote a sonnet in its honor, in which she praised its "passionless perfection." Typically, however, she particularly praised the work because of its strong appeal to the conscience, because it confronted "man's crimes in different lands/ With mans ideal sense."

But other links connected the English poet and the Yankee sculptor. It is impossible to say just when Mrs. Browning came to know Swedenborg as more than a name. Certainly it is reasonable to assume that Powers's outspoken advocacy of Swedenborg had some influence on what came to be her absorption in Swedenborg for the remainder of her life. We know that the English Swedenborgian, Charles Augustus Tulk, visited the Brownings in Florence in 1848 and discussed the work Conjugial Love with them. And we also know that by 1852–53 Mrs. Browning was doing extensive and avid study of Swedenborg's works. In April, 1853, she wrote a friend in England describing sitting "dreaming over the fire, reading heaps of books, from M. Proudhon to Emanuel Swedenborg inclusively. . . . Robert marvels at me (at the degree of transition I mean) when I put down Alexandre Dumas to take up Emanuel Swedenborg—but I like holding the world by two handles."14

During that same year, she wrote the Brownings' friend, Isa Blagden, of her state of mind at that stage of her reading:

I have not read the 'Arcana' and some of his other works, and, of what I have read, the Heaven and Hell struck me the most. He is wonderful, it seems to me—his scheme of the natural and spiritual worlds and natures appears to me, in an internal light of its own, divine and true. I receive it as a self-evident verity of which one wonders 'Why did not I think of that before?' If he was not taught it, if we are to consider him a common man and no seer, then I maintain that, of all makers of systems and dreamers of ideal philosophies, from Plato to Fourier, he stands first . . . a man of genius beyond all their genius. I say this with regard to his general system . . . I can't receive everything . . . and there are points in his theology which don't in my mind, harmonize with the scriptures . . . but really I hold him in such respect, that even where I cant receive or understand, I would speak very humbly of differences. I mean to read him more fully than I have yet done. In the meanwhile he is the only thinker who throws any light on the so-called spiritual manifestations which are increasing on all sides of us.15

These "manifestations" that Mrs. Browning referred to were the source of another bond with Powers. Both of them, along with others in the Anglo-American community in Florence, were absorbed by the spiritualism craze that had swept across the Atlantic from the United States to Europe in the late 1840s. For a period, Powers's home became the site of seances and of mediums, professional and amateur, who fed off the spiritualism mania. To both Mrs. Browning and Powers, the "signs" were simply evidence of the thinness of the veil between the spiritual and natural worlds, evidence of the dawning of a new age. In time, mounting evidence seemed to open Powers's eyes to the fraudulence of much of what passed for this "communication" between the two worlds. As for Robert Browning, he passed through a stage of skepticism about all this, to annoyance at what he saw as his wife's credulousness, to indignation and then rage over his wife's victimization at the hands of frauds. It was a subject that became taboo in the Browning household, and it is my personal belief that because interest in Swedenborg was so muddied and muddled by the claims and pretensions of spiritualism, Browning kept concealed the extent to which Swedenborg's works influenced his own thought and writing. When his wife did come to see some of the quackery and fraud in the business, she still maintained her faith in the possibility of genuine communication between the worlds. In 1858, three years before her death, she and her husband visited Powers's studio and wrote in the visitors' book separate observations that suggest some sharp distinctions in the couple's minds as they regarded some of these matters. "With me," Browning wrote (perhaps for the benefit of Powers who might be reading what his distinguished visitors inscribed), "Faith means perpetual unbelief, Kept quiet like the snake 'neath Michael's foot,' who stand [sic] calm just because he feels it writhe." For her part, Mrs. Browning wrote "It takes a soul to move a body; it takes a high souled man to the move the masses to a cleaner style; it takes the ideal to blow a hair's breadth off the dust of the actual."16

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for in 1853, the same year that Mrs. Browning wrote of sitting by the fire reading Proudhon and Swedenborg, and six years after the Brownings had met Powers, they made the acquaintance of William Page, the "American Titian," who, like Powers had come to Italy to develop his art and to burnish his reputation.

Page and Powers make fascinating studies, for there is nothing in either man's early life and experience to suggest the possibility, let alone the likelihood, of a distinguished artistic career. Page was born in Albany, New York in 1811 to a maker of carpenters' planes and to a wife then in her second marriage. Like Powers, Page had only a slender formal education. At age nine he moved with his family to New York City, and when he was eleven he had begun to show interest in drawing. In his early teens he was working in the law office of a man who happened to be secretary of the American Academy of Fine Arts. It was that association that led Page to an artist's studio where, at fourteen, he began to receive his first real training in art. In 1826, he became a student of Samuel F.B. Morse (whom we are more likely to think of as the father of the telegraph than as a painter), and a year later when he was sixteen, he began his professional career, primarily as a portrait artist.

Beyond their obvious abundance of latent talent, Page and Powers had other gifts that doubtless had a powerful impact on their careers. Both men were handsome, but, more than just physical good looks, they had qualities of openness, candor, warmth, and intelligence that made others seek them out and want to help them. Both men were brilliant conversationalists. Both read extensively. Page, who loved poetry, was a marvelous reciter of verse. Like Powers, Page had unbounded confidence in his artistic abilities and taste; like Powers, he was a deliberate, meticulous worker and experimenter in his medium. But there was another characteristic that the pair shared, one that surely accounted for the effect that Powers later had on Page when they became personally acquainted in Italy: both looked for their work in stone and paint to express the ideal. Both men also had strong religious inclinations. As a young man, Page had thoughts of the Presbyterian ministry, and though that ardor died as he turned to art, Page's biographer, Joshua C. Taylor, notes that Page "seems always to have looked upon art as a branch of religion."17 Page's lifelong quest, says Taylor, was "the study of materiality to achieve a spiritual goal."18 As for Powers, he wrote to Mrs. Browning in 1853, telling her that "the legitimate aim of art should be spiritual and not animal."' The nude statue, he went on, "'should be an unveiled soul."19

By the time that Page came to Europe in 1850, following in the footsteps of a procession of fellow artists, he had achieved broad acclaim in the United States as a brilliant portraitist, whose experiments in color attracted critics and clients, and whose vibrant use of color drew repeated comparisons with Titian's. His friend, the poet James Russell Lowell, had already linked Powers's and Page's names in the Fable for Critics of 1848, in which Lowell called on his American countrymen to

Be strong-backed, brown handed, upright as your pines,
By the scale of a hemisphere shape your designs,
Be true to yourselves and this new nineteenth age,
As a statue by Powers or a picture by Page.
In August 1851, Page was settled in an apartment in Florence below that of George Inness—although the two artists did not develop a friendship, until many years later when both were back in the United States, and when Page aroused Inness's interest in Swedenborg. We have no direct evidence that Page knew Powers personally until they met in Florence, but Page had been an ardent supporter of the older man's work.20 When they met in Florence, Powers was brimming with an infectious enthusiasm for Swedenborg's writings. In April of 1851, Powers wrote to the Rev. Thomas Worcester, then in Rome setting up a Swedenborgian congregation:
Since you left here, Mr. Wm. Page, the artist, has embraced the doctrines with great earnestness and pleasure, I am happy to say, and there are two others who are reading them. What will you say when I tell you that Mrs. Trollope is one of them! I have loaned her all the books I could spare and she told my wife that she had nearly read her eyes out over them!21
Powers's introduction of Page to Swedenborg's works had a dramatic and lasting effect. What Page gained from Swedenborg was a solid foundation for feelings he had always held about the ideal in life and art, and so taken was he with what he found in Swedenborg's works that, in the words of Joshua Taylor, he "would utter scarcely another word on art not colored by the thought, or at least the vocabulary, of Swedenborg."22 Professor Taylor clarifies this effect when he writes:
Page's struggle to maintain an equilibrium between his belief in a study of the specific and the "real" and his devotion to a universal God-related "ideal" was happily resolved in Swedenborg's illuminating concept of "correspondences." In fact, what had been an obstinate paradox became a simple and lucid equation. The experimental method of science, so highly regarded by . . . Page, was, through the teaching of Swedenborg, given the spiritual significance Page had always believed it somehow deserved. His newly discovered theories did not, then, so much alter Page's thoughts as give them the dignity and confirmation of a fully expounded religious system.23
Page's paintings had always shown "a general groping toward spiritual content," says Taylor; "in his works now the effect was conscious and intensified. Every line, every color, now had a dual purpose: to represent with accuracy the perfect forms of nature and to evoke directly through the emotions an awareness of spiritual being."24

In much of the two years that Page was living in Florence, the Brownings were in England and France. Page apparently did not become personally acquainted with them until November of 1853 when the Brownings came to Rome and took an apartment directly above Page on the Boca di Leone. The timing of their acquaintance and fast friendship was especially propitious. Page was not only a near neighbor, but his absorption in Swedenborg found in Mrs. Browning a fellow enthusiast. Robert Brownings interest in art and artists had been stimulated over the previous year by his studies of Italian art (studies in music and art that found their way into the great poems to appear in Brownings Men and Women in 1855). When Browning sat for a portrait in Page's studio in 1854, Page's charm and warmth created a firm bond. Browning translated for Page an Italian work describing Titian's artistic methods and techniques, and Page kept that manuscript for the rest of his life.

By early January 1854, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was calling Page an "immense favorite" of hers and her husband's. She loudly proclaimed his genius to her correspondents, and Browning echoed that praise by writing John Forster, an influential critic and the biographer of Charles Dickens, that he had never seen such brilliant contemporary art as Page displayed.25 Mrs. Browning wrote her fellow author, Anna Jameson, describing the portrait that Page had done of the actress, Charlotte Cushman:

You can show nothing like it in England, take for granted. Indeed, the American artists consider themselves a little aggrieved when you call it as good as a Titian. 'Did Titian ever produce anything like it?' said an admirer in my hearing. Critics wonder whether the colour will stand. It is a theory of this artist that time does not tone, and that Titian's pictures were painted as we see them. The consequence of which is that his (Page's) pictures are undertoned in the first instance, and if they change at all will turn black.26

The fear that she was voicing about the staying quality of Page's portraits unfortunately was justified by the fate of the painting he was doing of Browning that Spring. For three months Page worked on it in his painstaking and meticulous fashion, and then he presented it as a gift to Mrs. Browning. Though the picture did rapidly darken and is now virtually completely spoiled (it is now owned by the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, where I have seen it myself), the gift was a gesture that completely won over the Brownings. Browning was flattered by the likeness and was afire to send it off to London to be exhibited as a means of spreading Page's reputation. Mrs. Browning told Miss Mitford that Page had painted the portrait "like an Italian" and presented it to her "like a prince." "It is a wonderful picture," she continued, "the colouring so absolutely Venetian that artists can't keep their temper when they look at it, and the breath of the likeness is literal."27 To Page himself, she wrote a letter of appreciation in most touching terms: "'I always must fail in any adequate expression of my grateful feeling to you for your princely gift. You have done most for me next to God, who gave me my husband."28

Page's influence is shown further by his arousing the Brownings' interest in his theory of proportion in painting the human figure. In 1853, while Page had been carving some mannequins to serve as models, a passage from the twenty-first chapter of Revelation suddenly came to his mind: "And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel." "Knowing, as I did," wrote Page,

. . . something of the Science of Correspondences, and believing much more than I had seen demonstrated, I applied myself to the solution of the problem of the application of these numbers to the measurement of the human figure.29
By dividing a standing figure with outstretched arms into thirds and then each third into fourths, one achieves a square with twelve divisions on a side, a total of 144 squares. In his reading of Swedenborg, Page had become acquainted with the articulation there of the significance of numbers in Scripture, twelve representing all the things of faith in one complex. Very possibly he was referring to number 648:2 of the Arcana Coelestia, which reads: "In Revelation, the number twelve occurs throughout, and this number is most holy because it represents the holy things of faith, and it is therefore added that this measure is 'the measure of a man, that is, of an Angel.'" Joshua Taylor notes that the scheme assumed "a spiritual correspondence in natural forms" and indicated "that beautiful form is form which is in complete accord with this correspondence, a correspondence testable by immutable law formulated in terms of numbers and geometry."30 In an article in which he revealed this discovery, Page wrote:
Beauty in the highest sense is not a mere matter of feeling, or sympathy; its laws are rigorous as those of weights and measures in other things, granting always the subservience of all aspects of body to its continent, the soul, for whatever else the artist may ask of beauty, its highest use is soul manifestation.31

The effect of this concept on the Brownings is noteworthy. Later in that year, 1854, Browning wrote the American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer, about Page's ideas: "I carry in my mind all I can of his doctrine about the true proportions of the human figure . . . and test it by whatever strikes me as beautiful or the reverse."32 Browning later told Page's wife that he had put Page into his poem, "Cleon,"33 clearly a reference to the lines in which Cleon writes to Protus: "I know the true proportions of a man/ And woman also, not observed before . . ." And Mrs. Browning was apparently using Page's term when she made the protagonist of her blank-verse novel, Aurora Leigh, praise poets as "The only teachers who instruct mankind, / From just a shadow on a charnel wall / To find mans veritable stature out, / Erect sublime—the measure of a man, l And that's the measure of an angel, says/ The Apostle."34

When the Brownings left Rome for Florence in 1854, the pair wrote a number of letters to Page, Mrs. Browning often supplying notes appended to her husband's letters, in which she discussed all sorts of news and gossip relating to spiritualism. In 1855, in a most difficult period in Page's personal life, when his wife had deserted him to run off with an Italian admirer, Browning wrote him a letter of sympathy to which Mrs. Browning added this message:

If we could both send you our hearts you would be satisfied of the depth and entireness of their painful sympathy. Great spirits are greatly tried in this world—there must be a proportion in faculty and trial. By the sweat of the brain and of the heart do they eat spiritual bread and there is no surer way. You see, even our sorrows have a spiritual correspondence which is glorious and beautiful. May the vision be kept clear to your eyes.35
In the later 1850s, the Brownings encouraged Page to exhibit in Paris, and they felt his discouragement when his painting of Venus rising from the sea was rejected at the Paris Exhibition because of the subject's nudity. In 1859, Mrs. Browning wrote a letter introducing Page to John Ruskin. Page, she told Ruskin, was "an earnest, simple, noble artist and man, who carries his Christianity down from his deep heart to the point of his brush . . . He has learnt much from Swedenborg, and used it in his views on art." She added: "He has not been successful in life—few are who are uncompromising in their manner of life. When I speak of life, I include art, which is life to him."36

By the end of this decade of the 1850s, the artists had moved to other stages in their lives. In 1860, Page returned to the United States as the specter of civil war became more and more ominous. In 1861, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence, and Robert returned to England with son to reassemble his life. Powers remained in Florence, openly championing abolition and Unionism, the former a cause in which Mrs. Browning had joined him in her poetry and correspondence. Powers, Page, and the Brownings had crossed paths at a significant moment in their personal and professional lives, and their friendship had been a strong one that left its mark in a number of ways.

Among these artists, Page was the most avid in trying to develop an esthetic based on his reading of Swedenborg, but for both Americans and for Mrs. Browning, Swedenborg's works retained their influence. Because of the lingering notoriety that attached to the spiritualism craze and because of Robert Browning's feelings about the subject, Mrs. Browning's family and biographers have tended to treat her absorption in Swedenborg's works as an aberration that, by her death, had run its course. The evidence that her letters supply, however, makes clear that this is not the case at all.

As for Powers and Page, both men were strong in the faith of the new Christianity at their deaths in 1873 and 1885, respectively, and we have already noted that it was Page who introduced George Inness to Swedenborg's works when the pair had neighboring studios in Eagleswood, New Jersey in the 1860s.

The artistic reputations of all three have undergone profound modification, of course, in the past century. Mrs. Browning's reputation, which severely eclipsed that of her husband in her lifetime, has been overshadowed by his. In the case of the Americans, the diminishment of their stature has been assigned to diametrically opposite causes. Page's meticulousness and ceaseless experimentation in color, shade, pigment toning, and glazes are regarded as the prime culprit for his having slipped into virtual anonymity by the time of his death; in the critics' eyes, he never established a distinctive style or manner that set him off from his peers, and a considerable portion of his works that have survived have been severely affected by darkening. Powers has fared somewhat better, but the taste for neoclassical, ideal marble statuary was a passing one, and Powers has been faulted for not being experimental enough, for never having attempted statuary on a more heroic, multi-figured scale.

Yet what all three shared was a belief that it was the artist's role to display what Powers called the "unveiled soul," to "blow a hair's breadth off the dust of the actual," as Mrs. Browning had phrased it. In one of his essays on art, Page had written:

. . . if there is a real love in any human heart, it is evidence of a higher love behind it, leading to its source in infinite love from which all finite love springs. And if these two, love and wisdom, descend into true feeling and thought in the artist and by him are made manifest in the picture, art then becomes on this plane evidence of God, and hence it should manifest both of its elements of feeling and thought.37

In a society convinced of the need to find spiritual values to counter the swelling materialism of their age, these three artists used the power of art to reflect the ideal, to underscore the reality of a spiritual level of existence, an awareness of which offered humans their best chance of giving full meaning to earthly life. It was one basis for the friendship that the three enjoyed. If the artistic acclaim that they experienced has now faded, their lives and ideals still have the power to draw us in our own feverish times, troubled as they are with the desire for values that have the stamp of genuine feeling and permanence.

Footnotes top

1 N.P. Willis, Pencillings by the Way (Rochester, N.Y.: Wanzer, Beardsley and Co., 1853), p. 328.

2 Van Wyck Brooks, The Dream of Arcadia (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1958), p. 85.

3 Donald M. Reynolds, "The'Unveiled Soul': Hiram Powers's Embodiment of the Ideal," Art Bulletin, LIX (March 1977), p. 407.

4 Cited by Richard P. Wunder, Hiram Powers: Vermont Sculptor, 1805–1873 (Newark, Delaware: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1991),1,301.

5 Wunder, I, 128–9.

6 Cited by Wunder, I, 129.

7 Cited by Wunder, I, 47.

8 Cited by Wunder, 1, 55.

9 Wunder, 1, 290.

10 Leonard Huxley (ed.), Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Letters to her Sister, 1846–1859 (London: John Murray, 1929), p. 29.

11 Frederick G. Kenyon (ed.), The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1899),1. 347.

12 Wunder,1, 24.

13 Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, Yankee Stonecutters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), p. 29.

14 Cited by Betty Miller, Robert Browning: A Portrait (London: John Murray, 1952), p. 175.

15 Edward C. McAleer, "New Letters from Mrs. Browning to Isa Blagden," PMLA, LXVI (September, 1951), 596.

16 Cited by Wunder, 1, 341.

17 Joshua C. Taylor, William Page: The American Titian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 29.

18 Taylor, p. 96.

19 Cited by Reynolds, p. 394.

20 Taylor, p. 108.

21 Cited by Wunder, 1, 168.

22 Taylor, p. 113.

23 Taylor, p. 112.

24 Taylor, p. 135.

25 W.C. De Vane and K.L. Knickerbocker (ed.), New Letters of Robert Browning (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 75.

26 Kenyon, II, 148.

27 Kenyon, 11, 170.

28 Cited by Taylor, p. 136.

29 Taylor, p.130.

30 Taylor, p. 130.

31 Cited by Taylor, pp. 130-31.

32 Cited by Taylor, p. 129.

33 Taylor, p. 128.

34 Aurora Leigh, Book 11, 11. 864–69.

35 Cited by Taylor, p. 140.

36 Kenyon,11, 315–16.

37 Cited by Taylor, p. 242.