In this self-portrait, the young Washington Allston presents himself as the new Romantic ideal of an artist. He painted it when he was twenty-six, during his first trip to Rome. A Southerner by birth, Allston graduated from Harvard College in 1800 and left for Europe, determined to become a painter. He studied for two years at the Royal Academy in London and then departed for the Continent to continue his artistic education in Europe’s museums and galleries. After visiting Paris, Allston continued on to Rome where he became friends with other figures of the growing Romantic movement in Europe, including the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the German painter Joseph Anton Koch, and the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen.
In this self-portrait, Allston’s quiet gaze, open collar, loose cravat, and curly, dark locks tousled on his forehead establish his Romantic identity as a sensitive and poetic individual. Contemporary descriptions of Allston seem to match this likeness. His friend Washington Irving, the American writer, described him thus: “He was of a light and graceful form, with large blue eyes and black silken hair, waving and curling round a pale expressive countenance. Everything about him bespoke the man of intellect and refinement.” Instead of including his brush and palette in the portrait in acknowledgement of the traditional view of the artist as craftsman, Allston carefully delineated his Phi Beta Kappa key at his waist, stressing his identity as an intellectual and a gentleman. Indeed, against the blackness of his coat and murkiness of the background, Allston’s head becomes the focal point of the painting, emphasizing his mind and imagination as the origin of his art, while his hands, tools of his trade, are not even included.
Allston’s technique and the setting in which he chose to present himself enhance the portrait’s sense of Romantic reverie. Emulating the sixteenth-century Venetian Renaissance painter Titian, whom he greatly admired, Allston built up layers of oil paint with glazes, giving the painting a shimmering, atmospheric effect. The architecture in the background with its rounded arch and simple forms suggests a classical location. However, the mold and cracks in the masonry imply that the scene is one of a civilization in decline, like the Rome that Allston was currently visiting, a city that fascinated him because of its many ruins poignantly evoking its former glory. Interestingly, the painter placed his signature on the masonry behind his right arm, suggesting that it is inscribed into the architecture itself. This telling detail perhaps reveals the sort of artistic mark this ambitious young American hoped to leave on Rome.
1. Washington Irving quoted in Evert A. Duyckinck and George L. Duyckinck, Cyclopaedia of American Literature, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 14.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).