Allston's philosophy of art elevated the image of American artists from mere artisans to romantic idealists.
Poet, painter. Born on a rice plantation on the Waccamaw River close to Georgetown, South Carolina, Allston was the son of Rachel Moore Allston and Captain William Allston, an army officer who fought at the Battle of Cowpens. Washington Allston’s ancestors arrived in South Carolina around the year 1685. They founded a wealthy and influential plantation dynasty. Allston, a descendant of two of South Carolina’s colonial governors, John Yeamans (1672–1674) and James Moore (1719–1721), was one of the first noted individuals to be named after George Washington.
In 1781 Washington Allston’s father returned home from the Battle of Cowpens and died from what was thought to have been poisoning by a servant. Immediately prior to Captain Allston’s death, he requested that his son be brought to his bedside and is reported to have spoken the words, “He who lives to see this child grow up will see a great man.”
Rachel Moore, Washington Allston’s mother, later married Dr. Henry Collins Flagg, master of the property now known as Brookgreen Gardens. Allston’s education began at an early age, and at the request of Dr. Flagg, he was sent to study at Mrs. Colcott’s School in Charleston. He then departed Charleston for college preparation with Mr. Robert Rogers, of Newport, Rhode Island. Allston entered Harvard University in 1796 at the age of seventeen. According to personal letters, Allston was fond of reading and writing but wanted to concentrate more on painting. At Harvard, he was at first attracted to Della Cruscan poetry, then later abandoned it for “the manliness of [Charles] Churchill.” His poems occasionally appeared in a section entitled “Poet’s Corner” of the periodical Centinell. During his senior year at Harvard, he was appointed to deliver a poem at a fall exhibition. Because of the popular reception of that first effort, he was asked the next winter to deliver another poem on the solemn occasion of the death of George Washington.
Upon graduation from Harvard in 1800, Allston returned to South Carolina and later sailed to England where he studied at the Royal Academy for three years. He visited Paris and then lived in Rome for four years. During his time spent in Europe, he became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Washington Irving. In 1809 he returned to America and lived in Boston where he married the sister of the Reverend Dr. William E. Channing, a Unitarian clergyman. He returned to London in 1811; and in 1813, the same year his first wife died, he published The Sylphs of the Seasons, with other Poems.
This first of Allston’s significant published works consists of sixteen poems and tales, six of which were sonnets devoted to famous artists such as Michelangelo, Rafael, and Rembrandt. Allston’s last sonnet in the collection is dedicated to his friend, Benjamin West, who was president of the Royal Academy during the time of his studies. Reviews of his work, both visual and verbal, were mixed. In 1842 an anonymous reviewer in Graham’s Magazine described Allston as one of the American literati. On the subject of his paintings, the reviewer commented, “we have here nothing to say” and “the most noted of them are not to our taste.” Of the poems, the reviewer opined that they were “not all of a high order of merit; and, in truth the faults of his pencil and of his pen are identical.” That initial appraisal, however, was contradicted in 1856 when publisher Evert Duyckinck avowed, “[Allston’s] poems, though few in number, are exquisite in finish, and in the fancies and thoughts which they embody. They are delicate, subtle, and philosophical.”
In 1830 Allston married the sister of Richard N. Dana and resided in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, where his studio was often the focus of considerable interest to some of the leading figures of American Romanticism, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Sophia Peabody, who was later to marry Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In 1842 his Italian romance, Monaldi: a Tale, was published; however, it was reported to have been written as early as 1821. Duyckinck described Monaldi as an Italian story of “jealousy, murder, and madness. [The title character] Monaldi is suspicious of his wife, kills her in revenge, and becomes a maniac. The work is entirely of a subjective character, dealing with thought, emotion, and passion, with a concentration and energy for which we are accustomed to look only to the greatest dramatists.”
After Allston’s death, his theories on art and writing were published as Lectures on Art, and Poems (1850). Allston wrote detailed thoughts not only on his own work but also on art and poetry in general: “Thus the wildest visions of poetry, the unsubstantial forms of painting, and the mysterious harmonies of music, that seem to disembody the spirit, and make us creatures of the air,–even these, unreal as they are, may all have their foundation in immutable truth; and we may more- over know of this truth by its own evidence.”
Although he devoted his life to both the visual and literary arts, Allston was more recognized for his painting than his writing. His Moonlit Landscape, completed in 1819 and now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his Ship in a Squall, completed before 1837 and now part of the permanent collection of the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, are recognized as two of his finest works.
Duyckinck, E. A. “Washington Allston.” Cyclopedia of American Literature. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner, 1856.
Flagg, Jared B. Life and Letters of Washington Allston. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1892.
Gragg, Rod. Planters, Pirates & Patriots: Historical Tales from the South Carolina Grand Strand. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing, 2006.
Hubbel, Jay B. The South in American Literature: 1607–1900. Durham: Duke University Press, 1954.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “A Chapter on Autography [part III].” Graham’s Magazine 20 (January 1842):44–49.