Men I Have Painted/Bismarck

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 062f Bismarck.jpg


AMONG the visitors to London in the summer of the year when the butterfly fluttered to the shoulder of Onslow Ford, in the allée of the Champs Élysées—to presage the honour conferred by the French Government upon the small portrait of Gladstone—was Professor Anton von Werner of Berlin, the painter of the historical pictures illustrating the scenes of the great war of 1870, in which Bismarck figures so prominently.

Professor von Werner praised the "Gladstone," and said to me, "You should paint Bismarck. I will give you a letter to him, if you will come over to Berlin." This seemed naturally to follow out the idea I had imagined of doing portraits of great men; so I made ready for a visit to the Continent by letting Alpha House to Sarah Bernhardt, who was then commencing a series of representations at, I believe, the Lyceum Theatre.

Crossing to Boulogne, we passed a short distance up the coast to Wimereux, where Alfred Gilbert had taken a villa for the summer. Rooms were engaged in the hotel for Mrs. Hamilton, my mother, and George, and after a few days in their company by the sea, I started by the way of Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam for Berlin.

The galleries in Belgium and Holland are the richest in fine specimens of the Old Masters of any in Europe. Among the collections is the group of paintings by Franz Hals, at Haarlem. In these portraits Hals shows himself to be the master painter. Every excelling quality, even that of rich and superb colour, rivalling, if not surpassing, the Venetians, can be found in this dozen or more canvases.

The journey from Amsterdam to Berlin was monotonous and fatiguing. The fields were well cultivated, but there were no farm-houses, as in Holland; the dwellings seemed to be clustered in small, scattered villages.

The account of my journey is more clearly set forth in the following letters, chiefly to my wife, than any narrative from recollection of events that happened so long ago could possibly describe:—

Saturday Evening, July 17, 1892.

My dear Clara,

I have just had a note from Prince Bismarck's secretary inviting me, on the part of the Prince, to be his guest at breakfast to-morrow. I could not go to bed without writing you the good news. Even should I get no sittings, or fail with the portrait, the honour of having breakfast with the Prince will well repay me for my journey.


Sunday, 3.30 p.m..

I have breakfasted with the Prince and Princess Bismarck. We were seven: a Count and his Countess, a doctor from Heidelberg, the Prince's secretary Dr. Chrysander, and myself. A select company, renowned, but not fashionable. We ate scrambled eggs, omelettes, chicken, and brown and white bread; drank Bavarian beer, red wine, and rye whisky.

The Prince is a fine man, very tall and well proportioned, with a good-natured, frank, rosy face, and a head like a baby's, fringed with just a little soft, curly hair.

I was delighted with him. What an idiot I have been not to practise speaking German! I have lost so much of the conversation, and I have no doubt many interesting things were said. The Count talked politics; the Prince of drinking, smoking, and eating—this to me, and in good English; the Princess of pictures, and I gathered that she did not like the new open-air school. After breakfast the Prince smoked a long student's pipe, and told funny stories, the points of which I, of course, lost—but I could gaze at him and take in his colour, and that was all I wanted.


The following is a fragment of a letter, written to my niece, Norah King, the remainder of the letter (eight pages) being lost:—

". . . into the breakfast-room, where the Prince, himself, introduced me to his wife and his friends, and we sat down. I sat beside Bismarck, on his left, and facing the Countess, who was on his right. The breakfast was very plain, consisting chiefly of eggs in various forms, with one or two meats. We drank red wine and beer, and after breakfast a small glass of rye whisky, fifty years old, with our coffee.

"While the coffee was being served the head butler brought a long student's pipe, with a great china bowl well stuffed with tobacco, which, the Prince having adjusted it in his mouth, was lighted by the young Countess. For an hour he sat smoking, talking, jesting—now in English to me, again in German to his other guests, and all the while I envied you your German. When you meet Bismarck how pleased he will be to hear you speak his own beloved tongue.

"On taking leave, the doctor and the Count and Countess were warmly embraced and kissed on both cheeks, and as I stood looking on, I wondered whether the Prince would do the same to me, but he only shook my hand, and said I might come again.

"Two days after I went again, and this time prepared to make a drawing in pastel. Count Herbert Bismarck and his young wife had just arrived from Switzerland, where they had been spending their honeymoon. We sat down en famille. I was the only stranger. This time the conversation was almost all in English—save when private affairs were being discussed—Count Herbert and his wife being ready and fluent in the language.

"The little Princess looked very sweet and gentle, and wore a plain gray walking dress. Count Herbert is rough and ready, and although he was talkative and agreeable to me, I can easily imagine that his reputation for rudeness is well founded.

"Before breakfast I had asked the butler to have my pastels and paper all ready, and as soon as the pipe was lighted I drew back my chair and commenced the drawing. The Prince puffed his pipe, read the newspapers, made comments now and again to the Princess, and sometimes marked passages with an enormous lead pencil, which had been brought to him by one of the servants. I worked about an hour, when the Prince rose, asked to see the sketch, made a criticism or two, and then wished me good-bye. By this time you can imagine that I was in a great state of excitement, and trembling with nervousness. I was very pleased as well, for I had my sketch.

"The next morning, very early, I left Kissingen, rushed along the Rhine to Cologne, through Belgium to Bruxelles, and the day following arrived at Wimereux."

The foregoing letters, to my wife and my niece, Norah, do not contain any reference to an incident which occurred on the second day I visited the Prince, before we sat down to breakfast. Some of the letters may have disappeared; the first eight pages of the one written to Norah are gone. I may have felt some little delicacy in relating a scene which, at the time, may have been more or less wounding to my amour propre—a sentiment which weakens with age, and, in my own case, has almost entirely faded away. This incident, or really scene, remains almost undimmed in my memory. It was so unusual and so startling, that it has been deeply imprinted upon the tissue of my mind, and nothing will ever efface it.

When I arrived at the Schloss, I was shown up to the long, large salon, with great windows at each end—the one in front opening upon a balcony facing the street and court, the other overlooking a stretch of gardens and park, in the direction of the baths where the Prince was then taking the cure.

The door at which I entered led me into the front part of the room. At first no one seemed to be in the room; but on looking at the window, heavily shaded with curtains, at the far end, there appeared the dark contour of a slight and frail woman, motionless and expectant. I understood. It was the Princess, watching and waiting for the Prince, the great and powerful man who was stricken in spirit and in body.

All was deathly still. I stood riveted to the floor, lest I should disturb the watcher. It was pathetic to note the apprehension expressed in the bend of that frail figure as she strained her eyes for the first glimpse of the Prince's carriage leaving the gates of the Kursaal. Presently the horses appeared, glittering in the sunlight, and a distant sound of shouting came, like a sullen murmur, through the window, growing louder and louder as the carriage rapidly neared the castle, and ending in a tumult of deafening noise under the window as the Prince descended from the carriage and hurriedly entered the doorway.

He came at once to the salon to greet the Princess, who had come forward to meet him. On seeing me he drew himself up, frowning, and waited for me to speak. Stepping forward, I said I had come to pay my respects, and added that as he had been kind enough to invite me to come again, I had hoped he would be indulgent enough to grant my request for a sitting.

At this he thundered out, "It is true, I did ask you to come again, but not for a sitting. Is it not enough to be besieged by all these people outside, that you should also come to bother me? I have come here for quiet and rest, to take the cure. Listen to that shouting! They want me to speak to them." At this the Princess went to him and, laying her hand gently on his arm, said, "Only say one word to them, or even show yourself on the balcony, and then they will go away." The noise outside was deafening. Through the din I had heard his voice in stentorian tones, asking why I had come to bother him. His great form towered above me. Resentment had brought the blood to his face, that from pink had turned to red, and from red to purple. His eyes bulged from their sockets, round and blazing, and his contracted brows had thrown the long, stiff hairs of his eyebrows, bristling straight out, like quills.

At the touch of the Princess he relaxed and relented. Going slowly to the window, leaning heavily on his cane, he stepped to the balcony. The hochs poured into the window, louder and louder; bands played, trumpets blared, and in this pandemonium of sound I waited, wondering. I am not a hero-worshipper, and do not fear men. I admire great men. Under the frown of this giant I was perfectly calm. When he returned I bowed, and after expressing a sincere regret for being the cause of any additional pain or annoyance to him, turned and, bowing to the Princess, left the room and the castle. As I was hurrying through the doorway to the street, a voice calling me by name caused me to turn, and I saw, running behind me, Dr. Chrysander, who on joining me said, "Mr. Hamilton, you must come back; the Prince will be very angry if you leave the castle without first breakfasting." To this I replied, with indignation, for although I sympathized entirely with the Prince's outraged feelings, a rising sense of disappointment and displeasure had overcome me, "Breakfast! Why, I did not come all the way from London to breakfast with Prince Bismarck. I came to paint him." "That is all very well," returned the Doctor, "but the Prince will consider it a great breach of hospitality if you go away without breakfast—he will be very angry with me." "But," I interposed, "how can I sit down with the Prince after he has spoken to me as he has just done?" "Oh! that is nothing; but rules of hospitality are very important." So I was led back, and prepared to join the family at table.

The Prince then explained to me that he had given sittings for a portrait only once. At the time of the occupation of Paris by the German troops, the American ambassador, Mr. Washburne, had done some service to the Germans which required the recognition of the Emperor. Bismarck was instructed to offer a decoration to Mr. Washburne, but the ambassador told him that members of the American Diplomatic Corps were prohibited from accepting decorations from other governments. "But we must do something for you: what shall it be? What would you like?" "I should like better than anything else your portrait painted by my friend Mr. Healy," answered the ambassador.

"I was obliged to victimize myself, and sit to Mr. Healy," and continuing, he described his many visits to Lenbach, with whom he was on terms of intimate friendship, and said that he had never given Lenbach any sittings for the numerous portraits that had been made by that painter. It is possible that Lenbach may have sketched him frequently, but that was all.

When breakfast was finished, the Princess said quietly to me, "If it will be of any use to you, the Prince will read the newspaper while he smokes, and you may sketch him." I do not know if this had been prearranged between them, or whether it was not an impromptu expression of a gentle will whose veiled commands could not be disobeyed.

Bismarck was a fluent conversationalist. His English was pungent and forcible, and when speaking of his great boarhound he did not hesitate, even before the ladies, to use a language that was interlarded with the technical and realistic jargon of the kennels.

The doctors for the time being had restricted him to a diet of eggs, of which he partook in many styles—scrambled, fried, and in omelettes—consuming at breakfast a prodigious quantity, which measured in dozens might stagger belief. He talked of drinking, of cocktails, and of wines, and told me that his doctor had said that a man might drink, between the ages of twenty and seventy, fifty thousand bottles of champagne without offending the laws of health or the strict rules of temperance! "I may have exceeded that number perhaps, to say nothing of a few other liquors, such as beer and brandy," he confidentially informed me.

We discussed the social problems of England and America. He thought the negro question a very serious matter for America, and did not hesitate to say that the only solution to that would be the re-institution of slavery!