Biographies & Memoirs

TWO

No One Uninspired by the Muses May Enter

(1811–1815)

LONDON seemed overwhelming, “unlike any thing I had seen before,” Finley wrote. Here was the richest city in the world—noisy, smoky, bustling with commerce and industry, ten miles of labyrinthine streets covered with buildings, “whole forests of spires & towers rising up in all directions.”

The honored place of artists in London society also came as a shock. Americans regarded painters as members of the “lower class of people”; Londoners ranked painters with lords or barons, “… a person cannot be better recommended than by avowing himself a painter.” Indeed, in London art exhibitions were resorts of the fashionable, art was a constant subject of conversation, and no one was considered well educated who lacked an enthusiastic love of painting.

Finley took rooms on Great Titchfield Street, in the Marylebone district, sharing his quarters with another young American artist, Charles Leslie (1794–1859). Only sixteen years old, Leslie had come to London from Philadelphia to study painting for two years. “Every thing we do has a reference to the art,” Finley said, “and all our plans are for our mutual advancement in it.” Finley expected good things of his roommate, predicting that Leslie would become an ornament to the new nation’s culture, as he hoped to become himself.

Many other artists lived in Marylebone, including Benjamin West, Henry Fuseli, and Allston. Finley visited Allston every evening and soon learned that London connoisseurs considered him the painter to watch, destined to “carry the art to greater perfection than it ever has been carried, either in ancient or in modern times.” Allston was beginning work on his large Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha, a characteristic dramatization of Divine power, with elements of gothic horror, that would establish his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Finley cherished Allston’s practical and theoretical instruction, and the example he set of high-mindedness. Allston refused to leave off a painting until it satisfied him, and scorned mere moneymaking. “Oh! he is an angel on earth,” Finley wrote, “I cannot love him too much.”

Through Allston, Finley got to meet the legendary founder of American art, Benjamin West. Now an amiable, white-haired sophisticate of seventy-three, West had left Philadelphia fifty years earlier as a barely literate Quaker youth, to study and paint in Rome. His progress over the next decade had been astonishing. Moving to London, he helped to create the Royal Academy of Arts, at the request of King George III. His Death of General Wolfe excited more interest than any other American picture that had ever been exhibited. Its use of modern dress and contemporary events constituted a revolution in the painting of history. West had never returned to America, but Finley found him eager to know the state of the arts there. Having painted some six hundred pictures in his lifetime—“more than any artist ever did, with the exception of Rubens,” Finley said—West was still active, presiding over the Royal Academy and working on eight or nine different paintings at a time.

Only a few days after Finley’s arrival in London, West took him to see his celebrated life-size sermon on canvas, Christ Healing the Sick. It was probably the first important original painting Finley had ever seen, dazzling: “A sight of it is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” He may have been less impressed by West’s comment that during six weeks of exhibition the picture took in some £9000 ($50,000). Finley came to feel that he could not respect West, despite the grandeur of his thought and perfect understanding of artistic theory. He continued to seek his advice, but believed that Allston would almost as much surpass West as West had surpassed earlier American painters.

With an introduction from West, Finley was admitted as a student at the British Institution. Founded six years earlier to stimulate interest in British art, the Institution was governed mainly by connoisseurs, not artists. Probably for this reason, Finley tried to gain admission instead to the Royal Academy. That was not easy. The select Academy enrolled only about thirty students. They gained entrance by submitting a drawing that, among other virtues, demonstrated an accurate knowledge of anatomy. According to Finley, most applicants had drawn for three or four years before they ventured to submit a figure; yet some were turned down even after a second and third application. But he believed that the anatomical lectures he had attended in Boston would help, and anyway he welcomed the challenge: “the harder it is to gain admittance the greater the honor it will be should I enter.”

Finley first decided to submit a drawing of a classical statue of The Gladiator. Displeased with it, he made another—from a plaster cast of the Laocoön, “the most difficult of all the statues.” Allston praised this drawing as superior to most such works made by third-year students. It at least succeeded in getting Finley admitted to the Royal Academy for a year as a “probationer.”

Finley entered an exclusive artistic domain, sumptuous beyond anything in the raw United States. The Academy was located in Somerset House, a monumental palace fronting the Thames, all colonnades and classical pilasters. Within the Academy were an Antique school, where students drew from casts of classical statues; a meeting room and library, adorned with paintings by West and Sir Joshua Reynolds; and a nearly fifty-foot-square Great Room for exhibitions, inscribed above the doorway, in Greek, “No one uninspired by the Muses may enter.” The Academy did not teach painting, offering instruction only in drawing the human figure. Students painted at home. Older artists sometimes dropped in to draw from a model, so at the next easel a student might find, say, J. M. W. Turner.

Between study at the prestigious Academy and work at his lodgings, Finley painted and drew all day and into the evening. As practice he and Charles Leslie posed for each other in fancy costume—Finley in Scotch tartan plaid with plumed bonnet—and did portraits of acquaintances, who paid for the canvas and colors. Sometimes they painted together in the fields in the open air before breakfast, to study the effect of morning light on the landscape. On his own Finley often walked the mile and a half from his lodgings to Burlington House, residence of Lord Elgin, to draw from the celebrated Elgin marbles, fifth-century B.C. sculptured friezes that, in his view, made all later sculpture seem inferior. Although most of Finley’s London works have unfortunately become lost, a profile self-portrait painted around 1812 survives—himself as a handsome romantic figure of vivid eye and curling dark hair.*

Allston oversaw Finley’s progress. His blunt criticism was not easy to take, as Finley admitted:

It is a mortifying thing sometimes to me, when I have been painting all day very hard, and begin to be pleased with what I have done, and on showing it to Mr. Allston with the expectation of praise, and not only of praise, but a score of “excellents,” “well dones,” and “admirables,” I say it is mortifying to hear him after a long silence say, “very bad Sir, that is not flesh, it is ‘mud’ Sir, it is painted with ‘brick dust and clay.’ ”

At such moments Finley sometimes felt ready to gash the canvas. But on reflection he realized that to improve he must see his own faults. And Allston invariably cheered him up by offering practical advice: “put a few flesh tints here, a few grey ones there … clear up such & such a part, by such and such colors.” Sometimes Allston took the palette and brushes and showed him how.

With Finley’s growing competence came enlarged interest in painting, deeper understanding of its demands, and greater clarity about his own aims. He undertook a program of reading—“the old poets, Spencer [sic], Chaucer, Dante, Tasso &c &c. these are necessary to a painter.” He understood that the painter must study everything in nature with minute attention, under varying conditions. Every species of tree, for instance, then its different parts, then

the color of those different parts in light or in shade, near or at a distance, and then at the different seasons of the year, in spring when they are fresh, in summer when they are ripe and in perfection, in autumn when they fade, and in winter when without leaves, in motion or at rest, and also at different parts of the day, morning noon at night, effect of strong sunshine or of a cloudy threatening atmosphere upon them.

A tree being only a small part of a picture, and of nature, he concluded that he would count himself successful if after eight or ten years he could paint “tolerably.” And ultimately, following the example of West, he wished to excel in “history painting,” the depiction of dramatic scriptural, historical, or mythological scenes. Such works were generally held to be the highest form of the art: “as epic poetry excels all other kinds of poetry, because it addresses itself to the sublimer feelings of our nature, so does historical painting stand preëminent in our art, because it calls forth the same feelings.”

Finley was not daunted by these long-term demands on his energy, intellect, and skill. On the contrary, they deepened his growing sense of consecration, that he now and for the future had a calling: “My passion for my art is so firmly rooted that I am confident no human power could destroy it.”

Finley took time off from his easel to relax and to get around London. When in his quarters his main amusements were music and smoking. His father liked to sing, and before being ordained had even taught a singing school. Finley now got a pianoforte, and apparently learned to play it; he entertained fellow artists at his rooms, one of them said, with “Novels Coffee and Musick by Morse.” He had smuggled a supply of American cigars into England, stuffing some in his pockets and hat, and another hundred or so in his trunk. He slipped the contraband past a good-natured customs officer by giving him a few dozen “for his kindness.” Allston was a great smoker, too, the mantel in his painting room fringed with cigar stubs. For Finley, puffing an evening cigar with Allston meant knowing bliss, “that if there was ever a happy being in the world, I was that person.”

Once settled in London, Finley saw the sights. He took in Vauxhall, the crown jewels, the races at Epsom, and the annual St. Bartholomew’s Fair, with its slack-wire dancers, pickpockets, and deafening confusion of fiddles and drums. In front of St. James’s Palace he got his first glimpse of royalty—the heavy-drinking Prince of Wales, “very red and considerably bloated.” Over time he ventured into the countryside to shoot target practice against a tree, and visited Oxford, the cliffs of Dover, Stratford-upon-Avon. He discovered that in London, as in America, his father was known “pretty extensively.” People who learned that he was an American named Morse often asked if he was related to Jedediah.

Through Allston and West, and on his own, Finley gained some entry into London’s intellectual and literary society. He got to meet the liberal reformer William Wilberforce, the poet Samuel Rogers, and the essayist Charles Lamb. He was especially impressed by Allston’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lecturing in London on Shakespeare and Milton but in ill health and struggling against his opium addiction. Coleridge visited Finley and Leslie in their rooms, where they reportedly tried to relieve his melancholy by drawing him out on aesthetic and metaphysical questions. It also “much pleased” Finley to befriend the colorful American playwright-actor John Howard Payne, said to be the bastard of Tom Paine. Just Finley’s age, Payne had created a sensation as a boy actor in New York. In Boston he became the first American to act Hamlet, playing opposite the Ophelia of Elizabeth Poe—three months after she had given birth to the later-famous son she named Edgar.

Finley became an ardent theatergoer himself. A rebuilt Covent Garden had opened in 1809, one of the largest theaters in Europe, holding nearly three thousand spectators. Finley went often to enjoy “the best acting in the world,” he said, especially the great Sarah Siddons, “the best tragic actress perhaps that ever lived.” One time he made a theater party with Coleridge, Leslie, and Allston to see the opening of Coleridge’s tragedy Remorse. He even tried his hand at writing a farce. He created the main character with Charles Mathews in mind, hoping that this celebrated comedian might consider staging his play on a benefit night. He sent a copy to Mathews, assuring him that the work had widespread approval—“not only of my theatrical friends generally, but of some confessed critics.”

Finley’s new way of life, with its farces, cheroots, and addicted poets, took some explaining to his pious parents. He wrote home often, assuring them of his efforts to be what his mother called a “good child.” His roommate, Leslie, was exemplary, he promised, “very agreeable, industrious, steady.” He himself had become a steady person, having chosen art for his life’s work. He thanked his parents for having tolerated his earlier fidgeting: “They have watched every change of my capricious inclinations,” he wrote home; “I hope that one day my success in my profession will reward you in some measure for the trouble and inconvenience I have so long put you to.” As if to mark his new identity, he stamped the seal of at least one letter with an antique gem—a replica of the original, which had sat in the seal ring of Michelangelo.

But to Elizabeth and Jedediah, Finley’s devotion to painting was itself worrisome. “He is so absorb’d in his art that every thing else is considered unimportant,” she complained to Finley; “I hope he will not think so much of that or any thing else in this Vain World as to neglect his precious soul.” His spiritual nature, in fact, remained undeveloped. He attended a Congregational church near his lodgings, but had yet to experience conversion—the quasi-mystical assurance that he truly loved God, entitling him to full church membership. “The acquisition of a new heart,” his father wrote to him, “would give us more pleasure than any other you could name. Fail not to be emulous of this honor & happiness in preference to every other.” Their son did not seem headed in the right direction, however. Elizabeth frowned on his evenings at Drury Lane—“a most bewitching amusement,” she warned, “ruinous both to soul and body.” Nor did she applaud his keeping company with young Payne, American Hamlet though he was: “however pure you may believe his morals to be…. he is in a situation to ruin the best morals.”

Parents and child scrapped about money as well. Jedediah had agreed to provide Finley an annual allowance of about $800. But Finley protested that to get by on that amount he had to deny himself necessary art supplies, and ordinary needs and pleasures: “I am treated with no dainties, no fruit, no nice dinners,” he wrote home, sounding like the Yale undergraduate rather than the scion of Michelangelo; “I have had no new clothes for nearly a year; my best are threadbare, and my shoes out at the toes.” His wheedling stirred compassion (guilt?) in Jedediah, who praised his thrift but urged him not to risk his health or reputation by it. “Let your appearance be suited to the respectable company you keep, and your living such as will conduce most effectually to preserve health of body and vigor of mind. We shall all be willing to make sacrifices at home so far as may be necessary to the above purposes.” He raised Finley’s allowance to $1000.

Finley stayed in touch with his brothers, Sidney and Richard. Both were completing their studies at Yale and helping Jedediah to ready new geographies for the press. Jedediah tried to enlist Finley as well, offering to send him a volume on American geography that he might try to get reprinted in England, retaining the copyright and the profit. But Finley resisted being drawn into the business world: “my mind has been so habitually employed in works of fancy and imagination, that I found myself perfectly stupid, the moment I thought of the plain, dry, matter of fact, book accounts.”

Jennette Hart, the young woman he had courted in New Haven, stayed on Finley’s mind, too. He wrote to her recalling their cotillion parties and evening walks. But he did not commit himself, signing his letters with emphatic lukewarmth: “Your very sincere friend.” He apparently did not seek much female companionship. English women, compared with American, seemed to him haughty and designing: “all is reserve, affectation, and art.” Besides, he had no time for romance. “I find that love and painting are quarrelsome companions, and that the house of my heart was too small for both of them; so I have turned Mrs. Love out-of-doors.”

One feature of London life angered Finley: the general contempt for America. It had found brutal expression after Napoleon declared a blockade of the British Isles, intending to cripple England by destroying its commerce. The British government replied with Orders in Council declaring a blockade on France. Under the Orders, England freely seized American vessels supposedly trading with the French or their allies. In four and a half years, 390 American ships were taken. American merchantmen were impressed and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. Officials such as Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, assured the public that America was compelled to submit because too weak to resist.

Born in the shadow of Bunker’s Hill, Finley shared with the gentry of the Revolutionary generation a deep concern for personal and national honor. It galled him to read in London newspapers the names of American vessels detained or captured for trading with France. Invited to dine one evening at the home of John Thornton, a noted English philanthropist, he heard his host argue that only the British navy protected America’s shores against Napoleon’s obsession with conquest, that Britain was fighting for the liberties of the world, “that America was in a great degree interested in the decision of the contest, and that she ought to be content to suffer a little.”

No admirer of Napoleon, Finley, too, considered British arms the best hope of preserving liberty in Europe. But this did not excuse legalized British sea robbery against America. If England did not repeal the Orders in Council, he believed, the United States should declare war, “or we cease to be an independent nation.” Across the water, many Americans north and south believed the same. The New Hampshire Patriot called on the government to take spirited action, “or the United States will become proverbial for servility and debasement.” The nation’s failure to resist attacks on its commerce already called into question the vitality of its republican ideals. “Our government is despised for its want of energy,” the Richmond Enquirer wrote, “and our people are held up to scorn for their unmanly sacrifice of rights.”

Over the first half of 1812, as Finley turned twenty-one, Parliament and the British press vigorously debated the question of repeal. On May 11 an ardent supporter of the Orders, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, was shot through the heart as he entered the House of Commons. Finley joined an immense crowd that gathered to view the scene. The following week he went to see Perceval’s assassin mount the scaffold—a man genteelly dressed, who bowed to the crowd, cried out “God bless you,” and drew the cap of execution over his face. The country now seemed to Finley dangerously volatile, “in a very alarming state…. London must soon be the scene of dreadful events.”

One month later, Congress voted by narrow margins to declare war on England. As had happened to Benjamin West at the time of the American Revolution, Finley found himself living in the land of the enemy. As he sat at some coffeehouse or dinner party, he heard English gentlemen discuss sending twenty thousand troops to take New York City and deride the American navy as “below the Chinese.” In naval terms the conflict was wildly unequal: the U.S. force consisted of sixteen ships, Britain’s of over six hundred. Given the odds, Finley exulted in reports of American victories at sea: “the Essex frigate has taken the Sloop of War Alert; bravo!—the privateer Yankee in the West Indies is showing them some yankee tricks.” He longed to join the navy himself, to “teach these insolent Englishmen how to respect us.”

Jedediah and Elizabeth did not join in their son’s cheers. Solid Congregationalist-Federalists, they viewed England as the defender of the Christian civilization of the West against atheistic France. America’s “mad rulers,” Elizabeth wrote to Finley, had plunged the nation into chaos, “into an unnecessary War with a country that I shall always revere as doing more to spread the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ … than any other nation on the globe.” Finley’s parents not only disliked his politics. They also worried that it might be dangerous for him to discuss his beliefs with others in England. “Be the artist wholly,” his father cautioned, “… let politics alone.”

But for Finley there was no separating art and politics. What mattered was that America be respected abroad. This meant that while achieving its own artistic culture, the country must also show that it could not be intimidated. “The only way to please John Bull is to give him a good beating,” he told his parents, “and such is the singularity of his character, that the more you beat him the greater is his respect for you and the more he will esteem you.” Thus beaten by American frigates, the British were already changing their tune. “What!”—he now heard it said—“is this the cowardly, weak, inefficient race of men, we have so often sneered at.” And not only the British. Italian, Dutch, and Swedish newspapers, he added, also reported the country’s naval victories, and “speak in raptures of the rising greatness of America.”

Finley dismissed as fantasy the Federalist charge that in waging war against England, the American government was aiding Napoleon. In fact, by convincing Americans that they needed a strong navy, the war would equip the country to also chastise France, for its insolence. He told his parents that, in his view, many New Englanders who decried the war did so not from political or religious principle but to prevent any interruption of their business affairs: “Is this the spirit of ’76? the spirit of ’76 was sacrifice of individual interest for the good of the public; their spirit seems to be, the sacrifice of the public interest for that of the individual.”

Finley’s parents did not enjoy his lectures. Jedediah stiffened: “It is with great difficulty & self denial that we maintain you abroad. We cannot do it, for the purpose of making you a politician.” But two years of independence in England had made Finley more restive than ever under his parents’ control. When Jedediah sent one of his recent sermons, attacking American policy for undermining “the only Christian nation beside ourselves,” Finley returned an anti-Federalist tirade, nineteen closely written pages long. It came laced with hints of old resentment over inadequate financial support, attempts to maneuver him into the book business.

Now a student at the Royal Academy, a protégé of Washington Allston, Finley made it clear to his parents that he and his ideas deserved to be taken seriously. “I find I am three and twenty years old, that I am neither blind nor deaf, can hear, and I hope understand, that I have some judgment in many things, that I can trace the causes of that judgment to their sources … that I am in England, wide awake & that it is no dream; now having found all this I begin to exercise my judgment.”

Finley worked on through the wartime tension. He decided to submit a painting for the 1813 exhibition of the Royal Academy. He began by making a two-foot-long clay model of the famous Farnese Hercules, his first attempt at sculpture. It pleased Allston, who did much modeling in clay and recommended the practice to young painters for gaining accurate knowledge of the joints. West praised it as no mere academic exercise, saying that it “displayed thought.” Finley glowed: “He could not have paid me a higher compliment.”

Finley used his sculpture of Hercules as a model for a painting of the same subject. Following West’s advice to “paint large,” he made a picture eight feet by six and a half. A Michelangelesque titan of bulging muscularity, the dying Hercules strains to lift himself from a rock. He holds aloft the lethal robe that has poisoned him, his agonized body powerfully dominating the canvas as a diagonal slash. By Finley’s account, West told him that should he live to be West’s own age he would never make a better composition.

The judges at the Royal Academy agreed. They rejected six hundred pictures submitted for the exhibition but accepted Finley’s Hercules, to be displayed with canvases by West, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Turner, and John Constable. Even in this distinguished company the painting made an impression. The London Globe commented that several unheralded artists had shown works of “very high merit,” ranking Finley and one other painter at “the head of this class.” The exhibition won him more than a blurb. The Adelphi Society of Arts awarded his statue its gold medal for the best piece of sculpture. The prize was presented to him by the Duke of Norfolk before a large assembly that included the ambassadors of Turkey, Sardinia, and Russia.

Finley’s parents had long and repeatedly asked him to send evidence of his progress. “We have not seen any of your handy work except the picture in India ink of yourself,” Elizabeth complained, “which we did not think a good likeness.” But Finley now had something to show. He sent home a flattering press clipping about his painting, a plaster cast of his sculpture, and his gold medal from the Adelphi Society. With Americans eager to be appreciated abroad, news of his success spread quickly. He was nominated for membership in the American Antiquarian Society; President Dwight of Yale delighted in his “proficiency”; the Philadelphia Port-Folio, a literary journal, linked him with Allston as successors to West and Copley. Lest Finley’s growing reputation puff him up, Elizabeth sent some deflating advice: “observe a modesty in the reception of premiums and praises on account of your talents, that will show to those who bestow them that you are worthy of them in more senses than merely as an artist.”

Samuel F. B. Morse, Dying Hercules (Yale University Art Gallery)

Hoping to earn money by his art, Finley made two extended trips to Bristol. Many opulent merchants lived in the city, and altogether he spent some eight months there. Little more is known of his first stay than that he thought the place pleasant and got some profitable commissions for portraits. But his second stay was both unprofitable and unpleasant. Almost no one called to look at his pictures, much less order a portrait. Allston was there part of the time, but did little better. Holding one of England’s first one-man shows of works by a living artist, he sold a single picture—to his uncle, the American consul.

Finley decided that businessmen were brutes—“grovelling, avaricious devotees of mammon, whose souls are narrowed to the studious contemplation of a hard-earned shilling.” One Bristol patron, a man worth a hundred thousand pounds, ordered three paintings from him and then declined to take them. He gave no other reason than that he had enough pictures already. Finley regretted that he had catered to such “miserly beings” until it almost seemed to him no longer repugnant to treat his noble art as a mere trade: “Fie! on myself, I am ashamed of myself.”

Finley drew a second conclusion from the merchants’ treatment of him. They were in no mood to encourage an American artist, being absorbed in “the conquest of the United States.” He had arrived in Bristol for his second stay just as extraordinary dispatches from America reached England: British troops had invaded the city of Washington, torched the Treasury Building and Navy Yard, burned President Madison’s furniture in his parlor, and set fire to the Capitol.

Outraged, Finley looked for guidance to the hero he had been taught to emulate: “Oh! for the genius of Washington. Had I but his talents with what alacrity would I return to the relief of that country which … is dearer to me than my life.” He did what he could. He assisted Americans who had been stranded in London, gave money to American prisoners of war. Meanwhile the British press boasted that England would reduce the United States to unconditional submission. The national prejudice had become deadly, Finley thought: “They no longer despise, they hate, the Americans.”

Finley appealed to his parents for another year’s support, beyond the three they had granted. He said that he needed the extra time in order to become a history painter: “I cannot be happy unless I am pursuing the intellectual branch of the art. Portraits have none of it.” Allston backed him up. He wrote to Jedediah that Finley’s progress had been “unusually great.” But should the young man be obliged to return to America, his progress might be squandered in work unworthy of his potential: “It is true he could there paint very good portraits, but I should grieve to hear at any future period that on the foundation now laid, he shall have been able to raise no higher superstructure than the fame of a portrait painter.”

Jedediah’s reply is not known, but Elizabeth was unconvinced. She was certain that Finley could not survive as an artist in America by offering the public wall-size spectacles of Marius before Carthage. “You must not expect to paint anything in this country, for which you will receive any money to support you, but portraits,” she warned; “That is all your hope here, and to be very obliging and condescending to those who are disposed to employ you.” However unkindly expressed, the warning was not groundless. Few artists even in England managed to support themselves as history painters, the notable exception, Benjamin West, having had the patronage of the King. And forward-looking America had no kings and paid not much homage to history. Anyway, Finley’s request for new funds was badly timed. Already in debt and forced to borrow, Jedediah had accumulated new debts of $4000 and feared bankruptcy—“in consequence,” Elizabeth let her son know, “of his endeavors to establish you in the Book Store of Farrand & Mallory … which failed.”

Finley did not help his case by telling his Federalist parents that he wished to spend the extra year in France. He had rejoiced in the Russian-Austrian-Prussian attack on Paris during the spring of 1814 that forced Bonaparte into exile and raised Louis XVIII to the throne of France. When Louis visited London, Finley stood for five hours in Piccadilly to see the new French king, craning his neck for a look and joining the crowd’s cries of “Vive le roi! Vive Louis!” A month later, as other European potentates arrived in London preliminary to the Vienna peace congress, he strained to get close to Czar Alexander, who recently had led a review of mounted Cossacks down the Champs-Elysée—“truly a great man,” he thought, vanquisher of “the most alarming despotism that ever threatened mankind.” He got hold of a ring on the door of Alexander’s coach, and kept pace for a quarter mile as the Czar rolled along.

Finley explained to his parents that the crushing of Napoleon augured a new Renaissance. With Europe once again open to study, art seemed destined to revive as it had in the fifteenth century. “I long to bury myself in the Louvre,” he said. There he would no longer have to bear daily insult to his feelings as an American. He could improve in drawing, where he was still deficient, and undertake a serious historical work. Scarcely any of his fellow art students remained in England; all had gone to liberated Paris. And the thought of them reveling in opportunities to view the Old Masters, while he might be forced to return to Charlestown, brought back his adolescent spells of gloom: “for the first time since I left home,” he told his parents, “have I had one of my desponding fits.”

But to Elizabeth, Paris was no place for a Congregationalist son—“the seat of dissipation,” she called it. Finley had mentioned the possibility of visiting Russia, too, a harebrained notion demonstrating that he had yet to conquer his restlessness: “You must not be a schemer, but determine on a steady, uniform course.” How the issue got resolved is unclear. But in the end Jedediah and Elizabeth agreed to support him for one more year of study, until the fall of 1815. In England, they insisted. Even so, providing another thousand-dollar stipend meant large sacrifices. “We shall have no more left us, when you & your brothers have got through with your educations,” Jedediah protested, “than will carry us comfortably through life—it may not be even that, shd. this dredful war continue much longer.”

Late in December 1814, Londoners learned that representatives of their battle-weary country had met with an American delegation in Ghent and worked out an agreement ending the War of 1812. Finley no sooner heard the welcome news than, with shipping lanes less risky, he packed up and sent home his eight-by-six-foot painting of The Dying Hercules. The picture was admired, “highly approved by all who examine it,” Jedediah informed him, including for once even Elizabeth, who had a handsome frame made for the large canvas, at the substantial cost of $100. She and Jedediah said they would try to get the painting publicly exhibited in Boston, Philadelphia, and perhaps Charleston—a step toward making Finley financially independent by gaining him a reputation.

Finley’s pleasure at the return of peace was dampened by the unexpected death in February of Allston’s wife, a woman refined and angelically sweet. Particularly because of the political situation, he had viewed her, Leslie, Allston, and himself as a domestic circle, a family: “we became in a manner necessary to each others happiness … we could meet, and talk of our beloved country, mutually rejoice in her successes, or lament at her reverses.” He felt “overwhelmed” by the loss, but Allston seemed broken, “almost bereft of his reason.” Finley and Leslie tried to relieve their mentor’s distraught state. But despite their support Allston fell into a year-long depression that brought on something like a religious crisis, in which there was “revealed” to him the divinity of Christ.

Finley still fretted over the lost chance to study in Paris, “letting an opportunity slip,” he said, “which is irrecoverable.” Astoundingly, however, by springtime France was once more under the control of Napoleon. Arising once more from defeat, he had escaped from the island of Elba, raised an army, and put King Louis XVIII to flight. He seemed determined to “again set the world by the ears,” Finley said; “I fear we are apt yet to see a darker and more dreadful storm than any we have yet seen.” That did not happen. In June, now a wheezing forty-five-year-old with a paunch, Bonaparte engaged the Duke of Wellington’s army in the savage battle at Waterloo that left some 25,000 French troops dead or wounded. This time, Finley exulted in British victory. “I wish the British success against everything but my country.” In July he saw and heard the flash-boom of the Hyde Park guns, confirming news that the allies had again entered Paris and that Napoleon had been captured, ending twenty years of European warfare.

During the year, Finley worked on an ambitious picture he planned to submit for the history-painting prize at the Royal Academy’s 1815 exhibition. He chose a subject from mythology, the judgment of Jupiter in the case of Apollo, Marpessa, and Idas. He depicted the shamefaced Marpessa throwing herself into the arms of her husband, Idas, while her spurned lover, Apollo, looks on in surprise and chagrin. The three-by-four-foot canvas required much study, but the Academy rejected his petition to enter it for the prize. The exhibition rules required his presence in London during the show, held in December; he was scheduled to depart for America in August. Allston denounced the Academy’s decision as based on a mere formality that could have been waived: “they resist all kinds of improvement from too great a dread of innovation.” West liked the picture enough to encourage Finley to stay on in England. Instead, Finley packed The Judgment of Jupiter to take home with him.

In depicting Marpessa’s choice to abandon the god of artistic inspiration and return to her mortal husband, he perhaps had in mind a question that his return to Charlestown raised about himself. Did he belong to domestic life, or to his artistic career? To art, he believed. Either way, he felt it necessary to tell his parents that he did not want to endure in person the scoldings they had administered by mail. “I have not, that I recollect since I have been in England, had a turn of low spirits, except when I have received letters from home.” The letters came with affection and solicitude, he knew. But they also contained so much nagging, distrust, and doubt that after reading them he felt miserable for a week, “as though I had been guilty of every crime.”

Finley set down for Jedediah and Elizabeth the terms on which he was returning. He would linger only a year, earning enough money by painting portraits to go abroad again to continue his studies. He would not pursue a permanent career as a portrait painter. He would never abandon his long-range aim of becoming a successful history painter: “My ambition is to be among those who shall revive the splendour of the 15th century, to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michael Angelo, or a Titian; my ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius which is now rising in this country.”

Finley’s manifesto struck Elizabeth no more agreeably than had his teenaged pleas from New Haven to have brandy in his room or go gunning. He addressed his parents from on high, she said, as “poor shortsighted worms.” She sent back pages of reproof, with what she called “a word of kind advice”:

we may and ought to tell you, and that with the greatest plainness, of anything that we deem improper in any part of your conduct, either in a civil, social, or religious view…. and it will ever be your duty to receive from us the advice, counsel, and reproof, which we may, from time to time, favor you with, with the most perfect respect and dutiful observance.

Whether in England or America, that is, Finley remained his parents’ child and would have to listen and obey—even, she added with a sting, “when you are head of a family, and even of a profession, if you ever should be either.”

Jedediah returned a softer answer. He accepted without argument Finley’s decision to remain in America for only a year. But he added his hope that “artists in your profession, and of the first class”—as he respectfully referred to Finley’s situation—might soon be so well supported in the country that they would not have to study and paint abroad. “In this case you can come and live with us,” he said, “which would give us much satisfaction.”

Although Finley considered his return a pause before a fresh start, he brought with him a mission as well. He would do what he could to establish the arts in the United States so that, as his father hoped, the nation’s painters would not have to become exiles and expatriates. What Americans needed was Taste, he believed, the ability to appreciate different kinds of excellence and to separate the real from the meretricious. Such Taste, after all, was acquired; it could be had by anyone of common sense who took a serious interest. Creating it meant introducing first-rate pictures into the country and forming institutions such as the Royal Academy. Sometime before leaving England, he entered a resolution in his journal: “On returning to America, let my endeavor be to rouse the feeling for works of art.”

The speed of sailing ships in 1815 was about the same as it had been for the last century. Finley’s trip to England from New York had taken twenty-six days, and what with the piano playing, flying fish, and buffoonery of the British dramatist Minshull, had been a delight. “I am sometimes at a loss to understand,” he had written, “why so much is made of a voyage across the ocean.”

Now he found out.

Finley sailed from Liverpool in the Ceres, bound for Boston. The ship crashed through one howling storm after another. Its foremast almost toppled under winds so fierce they could not be faced. Sometimes the sea became a rocky precipice, with tangled black clouds overhead riven by lightning and rolling thunder. Other times the sea turned into a roaring foam-storm, the hurricane-churned white surge carried into the air like clouds. Ominously, wreckage of other storm-battered vessels drove past, in one case an entire ship, belly up. “Lord who can endure the terror of thy storm,” Finley prayed, “we are in the hands of a merciful God; in whom let us trust, and he will deliver us from all our fears!”

Night after night he went sleepless in his smelly cabin, tossed about in darkness, oppressed by the creaking bulkheads, dashing of glass bottles, and distressed cries of the sailors. “If we should arrive at length in our port,” he wrote in his journal, “what great reason shall I have for praise & thanksgiving.” One sunset he was on the cabin stairs when the heaving sea rose over the Ceres, drenching him as it flooded the stairwell. After something more than a month, provisions began running out. The surly captain rationed what potatoes and moldy bread remained. Soon the water supply ran short. The passengers, washed in seawater, looked solemn and barely spoke to each other.

But on October 18, a Wednesday, the Ceres came in sight of Cape Cod. And fifty-eight days—nearly two months—after leaving England, Finley returned to Charlestown, from an absence of four years. “Thanks to a kind Providence who has preserved me through all dangers,” he wrote from aboard ship, “I have at length arrived in my native land!”

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