by Frank Preston Stearns
Public Domain Books
Christopher Pearce Cranch was born March 9, 1813, at Alexandria, Virginia, and was the son of Judge William Cranch, of the United States Circuit Court. His father came originally from Weymouth, Massachusetts, and had been appointed to his position through the influence of John Quincy Adams. His mother, Anna Greenleaf, belonged to a well known Boston family. Pearce, as he was always called by his relatives, indicated a talent for the fine arts, as commonly happens, at an early age, and united with this a lively interest in music, singing and playing on the flute. These side issues may have prevented him from entering college so early as he might otherwise have done. He graduated at Columbia College, in 1832, after a three-year course. He wished to make a profession of painting, but Judge Cranch was aware how precarious this would be as a means of livelihood, and advised him to study for the ministry,for which his quiet ways and grave demeanor seemed to have adapted him. He accordingly entered the Harvard Divinity-School, and was ordained as a Unitarian clergyman.
For the next six years Cranch lived the life of an itinerant preacher. He preached all over New England, making friends everywhere, and receiving numerous calls without, however, settling down to a fixed habitation. This would seem to have been a peculiarity of his temperament; for in 1875 George William Curtis wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Cranch a letter which began with “O ye Bedouins"; and it is true that until that time he can hardly be said to have had a habitation of his own. He extended his migration as minister-at-large from Bangor, Maine, to Louisville, Kentucky. His varied accomplishments made him attractive to the younger members of the parishes for which he preached, but he never remained long enough in one place for their interest to take root.
The wave of German thought and literary interest was now sweeping over England and America. Repelled by doctors of divinity and the older class of scholars, it was seized upon with avidity by the more susceptible natures of the younger generation. Its influence was destined to be felt all through the coming period of American literature. C. P. Cranch was affected by it, as Emerson, Longfellow and even Hawthorne, were affected by it. This, however, did not take place at once, and when Emerson’s “Nature” was published, Cranch was at first repelled by the peculiarity of its style. At the house of Rev. James Freeman Clark, in Cincinnati, he drew some innocently satirical illustrations of it. One was of a man with an enormous eye under which he wrote: “I became one great transparent eye-ball"; and another was a pumpkin with a human face, beneath which was written: “We expand and grow in the sunshine.” In another sketch Emerson and Margaret Fuller were represented driving “over hill and dale” in a rockaway.
[Footnote: Sanborn’s Life of Alcott.]
He would make these humorous sketches to entertain his friends at any time, seizing on a half-sheet of paper, or whatever might be at hand; but he did not long continue to caricature Emerson. His first volume of poetry, published in 1844, was dedicated to Emerson, and in Dwight’s “Translations from Goethe and Schiller,” there are a number of short pieces by Cranch, almost perfect in their rendering from German to English. Among these the celebrated ballad of “The Fisher” is translated so beautifully as to be slightly, if at all, inferior to the original. The stanza,
“The water in dreamy motion kept, As he sat in a dreamy mood, A wave hove up, and a damsel stept All dripping from the flood,”
may have appealed strongly to Cranch at this time; for we find that in October, 1841, he was married at Fishkill-on-the-Hudson to a young lady of an old Knickerbocker family, Miss Elizabeth De Windt. If she did not come to him out of the Hudson, there can be no doubt that he courted her by the banks of the most beautiful river in North America.
Cranch had given up the clerical profession six months before this, and had adopted that of a landscape painter, for which he would seem to have studied with some artist in New York City,unknown to fame, and long since forgotten. He continued to sketch and paint, and write prose and verse on the Hudson until 1846, when he embarked with his wife on a sailing packet for Marseilles. He had the good fortune to find a fellow- passenger in George William Curtis, and during the voyage of seven weeks, a lifelong friendship grew up between these two highly gifted men.
The volume of poems which he published in 1844 is now exceedingly rare; yet many of the pieces belong to a high order of excellence. In ease and grace of versification they resemble Longfellow, but in thought they are more like Emerson or Goethe. Consider this opening from “The Riddle”:
“Ye bards, ye prophets, ye sages, Read to me, if ye can, That which hath been the riddle of ages, Read me the riddle of Man. Then came the bard with his lyre, And the sage with his pen and scroll, And the prophet with his eye of fire, To unriddle a human soul. But the soul stood up in its might; Its stature they could not scan; And it rayed out a dazzling mystic light, And shamed their wisest plan. Yet sweetly the bard did sing, And learnedly talked the sage, And the seer flashed by with his lightning wing, Soaring beyond his age.”
This is sonorous. It has a majesty of expression and a greatness of thought which makes Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” seem weak and even common-place. The whole poem is pitched in the same key, and Cranch never equalled it again, excepting once, and then in a very different manner. Rev. Gideon Arch, a Hungarian scholar, philologist, and exile of 1849, said of his “Endymion” that there were Endymions in all languages, but that Cranch’s was the best. To resuscitate it from the oblivion into which it has fallen, it is given entire:
“Yes, it is the queenly moon Walking through her starred saloon, Silvering all she looks upon: I am her Endymion; For by night she comes to me, O, I love her wondrously. She into my window looks, As I sit with lamp and books, And the night-breeze stirs the leaves, And the dew drips down the eaves; O’er my shoulder peepeth she, O, she loves me royally! Then she tells me many a tale, With her smile, so sheeny pale, Till my soul is overcast With such dream-light of the past, That I saddened needs must be, And I love her mournfully. Oft I gaze up in her eyes, Raying light through winter skies; Far away she saileth on; I am no Endymion; O, she is too bright for me, And I love her hopelessly! Now she comes to me again, And we mingle joy and pain, Now she walks no more afar, Regal with train-bearing star, But she bends and kisses me O, we love now mutually!”
This has the very sheen of moonlight upon it, and certainly is to be preferred to Dr. Johnson’s scholastic “Endymion”:
“Diana, huntress chaste and fair, Now thy hounds have gone to sleep,"
If Cranch had continued in this line, and perhaps have improved upon it, he would surely have become one of the foremost American poets, but a poet cannot live by verse alone, and after he began to be thoroughly in earnest with his painting, his rhythmic genius fell into the background. From Marseilles George W. Curtis proceeded to Egypt, where he wrote his well known book of Nile travels, while Cranch set out for Rome to perfect his art.
He studied there at a night-school, painting in water colors from nude models and arrangements of drapery, but not taking lessons from any regular instructor. He never applied himself much to figure-painting, however. He sold his paintings chiefly to American travellers, and when the Revolution broke out in 1848, he returned to Sorrento, where his second child, Mrs. Leonora Scott, was born. His first child was born the year previous, in Rome, but afterwards died. In 1851, he returned to New York and Fishkill, but not meeting with such good appreciation there as he had in Italy, he went to Europe again in the autumn of 1853, and resided in Paris. One cause of this may have been the unfriendliness of his brother-in-law, who was a leading art critic in New York City, and who disliked Cranch on account of his wife, and never neglected an opportunity of disparaging his work.
One of his early landscapes is now before me. I think it must have been painted anterior to his sojourn in Rome, owing to the coldness of the coloring. It represents a scene on the Hudson near Fishkill, with some cattle in the foreground, and a rather bold-looking mountain on the opposite side of the river. The clouds above the mountain are light and fleecy; the foliage soft and graceful; the cattle also are fine, but the effect is like a chilly spring day when one requires a winter overcoat. An allegorical piece, illustrating Heine’s fir-tree dreaming of the palm, has a much pleasanter effect, although it represents a wintry scene.
His art improved greatly in Paris, and he also wrote a number of short poems which his friend, James Russell Lowell, published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1856 George L. Stearns sent him an order for a painting, which Cranch executed the following year, and wrote Mr. Stearns this explanation concerning it, in a very interesting letter dated Paris, March 18, 1857:
“Your picture is done and is quite a favorite with those who have seen it. In fact, I think so well of it that I shall probably send it to the Exposition, which opens soon. After that it shall be sent to you. It is an oak and a sunseta warm and low-toned pictureand I am sure you will like it.”
This landscape represents two vigorous oak trees by the bank of a river, with a sunset seen through the branches, and reflected in the water. The scene is remarkably like a similar one on Concord River, about two hundred yards below the spot where Hawthorne and Channing discovered the body of the schoolmistress who drowned herself, as Hawthorne supposed, from lack of sympathy. It seems as if the original sketch must have been made at that point. It is of a deep rich coloring, smoothly and delicately finished,a painting that no one has yet been able to find fault with. Rev. Samuel Longfellow, who knew almost every picture in the galleries of Europe, considered it equal to a Ruysdael, and he liked it better than a Ruysdael.
In the letter above referred to Cranch also writes:
“Since your letter (a long time ago) I have written you a good many epistles (in a kind of invisible ink of my invention) which probably you have never received.
“The truth is, I am a distinguished case of total depravity in the matter of correspondence. Letters ought to flow from one as easily and spontaneously as spoken words. But then one must write all the time and report life continuously, as one does in speech. A letter does nothing but give some little detached morsel of one’s lifeand we say to ourselves what is the use of holding up to a friend three thousand miles off such unsatisfactory statements, such dribblings and droppings? ’Write what is uppermost,’ says one at your elbow. Ah, if we could only say what is uppermost; as I sit down for instance to write (say this letter) I am caught into a sort of whirl of thoughts, in which it is impossible to say exactly what is foremost and what is hindmost. Then if I only attempt to narrate events, where am I to beginso you see (I am theorizing about letters) a letter must be a sort of epitome of a friend’s being and life or else nothing. Applying the theory to myself, finding myself unable to shut my genie in a box and carry him on my shoulders, I simply go and state that there is such a box with a genie supposed to be in it, lying at the custom-house, and here is the roughest sort of sketch of it,” etc.
This is characteristic of the man. He lived largely in an atmosphere of poetic pleasantry, which served as an alleviation to his cares and as an attraction to his friends.
Cranch did not always succeed so well. He never became a mannerist, but there was too much similarity in his subjects, and the treatment too often bordered on the commonplace. Tintoretto said: “Colors can be bought at the paint-shop, but good designs are only obtained by sleepless nights and much reflection.” It is doubtful if Cranch ever laid awake over his work, either in poetry or painting. He had a dreamy, phlegmatic disposition, which seemed to carry him through life without much effort of the will. He once confessed that when he was a boy he would never fire a gun for fear it might kick him over, and when he was at Hampton beach in 1875 he was in the habit of going out to sketch at a certain hour with prosaic regularity. He did not seem to be on the watch, as an artist should, for rare effects of light and scenery, and he talked of art with very little enthusiasm. Yet he lived the true life of his profession, enjoying his work, contented with little praise, and without envy of those who were more fortunate. What is called odium artisticum was unknown to him.
He was an unpretending, courteous American gentleman. His disposition was perfect, and no one could remember having seen him out of temper. His pleasant flow of wit and humor, together with his varied accomplishments, made him a very brilliant man in society, and he counted among his friends the finest literati in Rome, London, and the United States. He knew Thackeray as he knew Curtis and Lowell, and was once dining with him in a London chop-house, when Thackeray said: “Have you read the last number of The Newcombs?if not, I will read it to you." Accordingly he gave the waiter a shilling to obtain the document, and read it aloud to Cranch and a friend who was with him.
[Footnote: Both mentioned in Hawthorne’s Notebook.]
Cranch could never understand this, for it was the last thing he would have done himself without an invitation; but he enjoyed the reading, and often referred to it.
When he returned to America in 1863 he went to live on Staten Island in order to be near George William Curtis, who cared for him as Damon did for Pythias, and who served to counteract the ill-omened influence of Cranch’s brother-in-law. The Century Club purchased one of his pictures, an allegorical subject, which I believe still hangs in their halls. From 1873 to 1877 Lowell would seem to have frequented Cranch’s house in preference to any other in Cambridge.
When Cranch first went to live there he occupied a small but sunny and otherwise desirable house on the westerly side of Appian Way,a name that amused him mightily,but in 1876 he purchased the house on the southwestern corner of Ellery and Harvard Streets. Having arranged his household goods there he sent one of his own paintings as a present to Emerson in order to renew their early acquaintance. Emerson responded to it by a characteristic note, in which he said that his son and daughter, who were both good artists, had expressed their approval of his present. He then referred to the danger which arises from a multiplicity of talents, and said: “I well recollect how you made the frogs vocal in the ponds back of Sleepy Hollow.”
Cranch did not feel that this was very complimentary, but a few days later there came an invitation for Mr. and Mrs. Cranch to spend the day at Concord. Emerson met them at the railway station with his carryall. He had on an old cylinder hat which had evidently seen good service, and yet became him remarkably. He was interested to hear what George William Curtis thought about politics, and to find that it agreed closely with the opinion of his friend, Judge Hoar. The Cranchs had a delightful visit.
Cranch’s baritone voice was like his poem, the “Riddle,” deep, rich and sonorous. He might have earned a larger income with it, perhaps, than he did by writing and painting. He sang comic songs in a manner peculiarly his own,as if the words were enclosed in a parenthesis,as much as to say, “I do not approve of this, but I sing it just the same,” and this made the performance all the more amusing. He sang Bret Harte’s “Jim” in a very effective manner, and he often sang the epitaph on Shakespeare’s tomb,
“Good friend, for Jesus sake forbeare,”
as a recitative, both in English and Italian,In questa tomba. He seemed to bring out a hidden force in his singing, which was not apparent on ordinary occasions. His reading of poetry was also fine, but he depended in it rather too much on his voice, too little on the meaning of the verse. It was not equal to Celia Thaxter’s reading.
The same types of physiognomy continually reappear among artists. William M. Hunt looked like Horace Vernet, and Cranch in his old age resembled the Louvre portrait of Tintoretto, although his features were not so strong. He used to say in jest that he was descended from Lucas Cranach, but that the second vowel had dropped out. He cared as little for the fashions as poets and artists commonly do, but there was no dandy in Boston who appeared so well in a full dress suit.
In 1873 the Velasquez method of painting was in full vogue at Boston. Cranch did not believe in imitations, or in adopting the latest style from Paris, and he set himself against the popular hue-and-cry somewhat to his personal disadvantage. Charles Perkins and the other art scholars who founded the Art Museum in Copley Square were all on Cranch’s side, but that did not seem to help him with the public. “They cannot bend the bow of Ulysses,” said Cranch in some disgust. He preferred Murillo to Velasquez, and once had quite an argument with William Hunt on the subject in Doll & Richards’s picture-store. Hunt asserted that there was no essential difference between a sketch and a finished picture,he might have said there was no difference between a boy and a man,that all the artist needed was to express himself, and that it was immaterial in what way he did so. Cranch thought afterwards, though unfortunately it did not occur to him at the moment, that the test of such a theory would be its application to sculpture. He wondered what Raphael would have thought of it.
It was quite a grief to Cranch that his own daughter, who inherited his talent, should have deserted him at this juncture, and gone over to the opposition. She filled his house with rough, heavily-shaded studies of still-life, flowers, and faces of her friends; but of all Hunt’s pupils, Miss Cranch, Miss Knowlton, and Miss Lamb were the only ones who achieved artistic distinction in their special work.
It was in order to withdraw her from this Walpurgis art-dance that Cranch undertook his last journey to Paris in his seventieth year. There the young lady quickly dropped her Boston method, and, acquiring a more conservative handling, became an excellent portrait painter; too soon, however, obliged to relinquish her art on account of ill-health.
Cranch’s landscapes now adorn the walls of private houses; very largely the houses of his numerous friends. He did not paint in the fashion of the time, but like Millet followed a fashion of his own; and I do not know of any of his pictures in public collections, although there are many that deserve the honor. The best landscape of his that I have seen was painted just before his last visit to Paris. It represents a low- toned sunset like the “Two Oaks"; an autumnal scene on a narrow river, with maples here and there upon its banks. The sky is covered by a dull gray cloud, but in the west the sun shines through a low opening and gives promise of a better day. The peculiar liquid effect of the setting sun is wonderfully rendered, and the rich browns and russets of the foliage lead up, as it were, like a flight of steps to this final glory, a restful and impressive scene. This landscape is not painted in the smooth manner of the “Two Oaks,” but with soft, flakelike touches which slightly remind one of Murillo. Its coloring has the peculiarity that artificial light wholly changes its character, whereas Cranch’s paintings, previous to 1875, appear much the same by electric light that they do in daytime. It is called the “Home of the Wood Duck.”
Between 1870 and 1880 he published a number of poems in the Atlantic Monthly as well as a longer piece called “Satan,” for which it was said by a certain wit that he received the devil’s pay. His two books for young folks, “The Last of the Huggermuggers” and “Kobboltozo,” ought not to be overlooked, for the illustrations in them are the only remains we have of his rare pencil drawings, as good, if not better, than Thackeray’s drawings.
It is likely that the parents read these stories with more pleasure than their children; for they not only contain a deal of fine wit, but there is a moral allegory running through them both. An American vessel is wrecked on a strange island, and the sailors who have escaped death are astonished at the gigantic proportions of the sand and the sea-shells, and of the bushes by the shore. Presently the Huggermuggers appear, and the American mariners in terror run to hide themselves; but they soon find that these giants are the kindliest of human beings. There are also dwarfs on the island, larger than ordinary men, but small compared with the Huggermuggers. They are disagreeable, envious creatures, who wish to ruin the giants in order to have the island more entirely to themselves. Having accomplished this in a somewhat mysterious manner, they attempted to improve their own stature by eating a certain shell-fish which had been the favorite food of the giants; but the shell-fish had also disappeared with the Huggermuggers, and after searching for it a long time they finally summoned the Mer-King, the genius of the sea, who raised his head above the water in a secluded cove and spoke these verses:
“Not in the Ocean deep and clear, Not on the Land so broad and fair, Not in the regions of boundless Air, Not in the Fire’s burning sphere ’Tis not here’tis not there: Ye may seek it everywhere. He that is a dwarf in spirit Never shall the isle inherit. Hearts that grow ’mid daily cares Come to greatness unawares; Noble souls alone may know How the giants live and grow.”
This is an allegory, but of very general application; and it has more especially a political application. Cranch may have intended it to illustrate the life of Alexander Hamilton.
Cranch was not a giant himself, but he knew how to distinguish true greatness from the spurious commodity. Emerson considered his varied accomplishments his worst enemy; but that depends on how you choose to look at it. It is probable enough that if Cranch had followed out a single pursuit to its perfection, and if he had not lived so many years in Europe, he would have been a more celebrated man; but Cranch did not care for celebrity. He was content to live and to let live. Men of great force, like Macaulay and Emerson, who impress their personality on the times in which they live, communicate evil as well as good; but Cranch had no desire to influence his fellow men, and for this reason his influence was of a purer quality. It was like the art of Albert Durer. No one could conceive of Cranch’s injuring anybody; and if all men were like him there would be no more wars, no need of revolutions. Force, however, is necessary to combat the evil that is already established.
He died at his house on Ellery Street January 20, 1890, as gently and peacefully as he had lived. There is an excellent portrait of him by Duveneck in the rooms of the University Club, at Boston; but the sketch of his life, by George William Curtis, was refused on the ground that he was an Emersonian. The same objection might have been raised against Lowell, or Curtis himself with equally good reason.