Men I Have Painted/Henry Thouron
SOON after the end of the Civil War in America my father sent me to the art school of George Holmes, in Philadelphia, where I met Henry Thouron. He was about two years my senior. He called me John, and placed his arm over my shoulder, half in affection and half, so it seemed to me, in protection. His strong arm, the symbol of his spiritual strength, has ever since been on my shoulder, and is still there, although he died in Rome four years ago.
My recollection of the work we did under the tuition of Mr. Holmes is very imperfect, but I suppose it consisted in imitating, in crayons, the lithographed drawings of casts from Greek and Roman busts and statues, a very roundabout way to arrive at proficiency in drawing, or in any sort of accuracy of observation. All the budding artists of Pennsylvania met in the studio of Mr. Holmes. From there they drifted to the schools of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then located in Chestnut Street, under the presidency of Richard Vaux, who, many years afterwards, while I was painting him, asked me why people were making so much fuss about Art then, because in the old days, when he was President of the Academy, no one ever gave it a thought, or even came to see the pictures.
About this time the Academy building was turned into a theatre. Benjamin West's great pictures of Death on the Pale Horse and Christ before Pilate and others were stored out of sight, and the plaster casts and the students removed to temporary quarters in various parts of the city, until the projected new Academy could be built on Broad Street, from the designs of Frank Furness.
Thouron and I moved with the casts, and placed ourselves under the guidance of Professor Schüssele, from Düsseldorf. It was here that Edwin Abbey pursued his studies, and I can remember a charcoal drawing, of Hamlet soliloquizing, that he submitted to the professor of composition. Henry Thouron gave his attention from the beginning to composition. The grouping of figures in masses and their relation to the surrounding architecture or landscape inspired him from the start, and after a long career as professor of composition, at the Academy, he finished it in Rome, by executing the second of two large decorative panels which he designed for the cathedral in Logan Square.
In Philadelphia we were in constant companionship, and I could not have failed to benefit by the example of a conduct so straightforward, so disinterested, and so ingenuous, or from the observation of a mind whose charity and goodwill were surpassed only by its purity and nobility.
In Europe we drifted apart, Thouron having selected Bonnat's studio, in Paris, as his workshop, while I, by adventure, or misadventure perhaps, wandered to the Flemish Academy of Antwerp. But we were in constant correspondence, and for a short period found ourselves again associated in Paris.
It was here that I was able to consider more closely the restraining influence of religious faith upon a nature that was in its undertones both ardent and passionate. To live in amity among the libres penseurs and the libertines who composed the classes of the atelier Bonnat proved the American student to be not only a man of the most virile character, but one who followed the Lord in the prayer, "Father forgive them; they know not what they do." I have had occasion myself to rebuke one of his classmates for ridiculing him at table on account of his faithful observance of a religious ceremony that has now almost entirely fallen into desuetude among all sects.
From Paris Thouron passed on through Italy to Rome, and there continued his studies for a number of years. It was here that he met with young Alfred Gilbert, that English genius whom England had not the patience to conquer, or the wit to understand. Gilbert was then casting, by the cire perdu process, his bronze figure of Icarus which now stands in the hall of Leighton House, a tribute to the discerning patronage of Lord Leighton, who was President of the Royal Academy when the modern Cellini arrived from Rome to astound the people of London by the fertility of his imagination and the dexterity of his execution. To such a man the presence of a kindly counsellor like Thouron might have meant salvation.
It is almost impossible to describe Henry Thouron. I knew him as intimately as he permitted anyone to know him, save his mother and his sister, to whom he was passionately devoted, and always closely associated. His nature was both simple and complex. His supersensitive and over-scrupulous temperament dictated actions that were frequently misunderstood. Men who pride themselves upon being men of the world live often in conventional and narrow limits beyond which, or above which, their savoir faire does not permit them to see. To such men Henry Thouron was an enigma. "We know," say they, "the altar and the hearth, the forum and the market-place. What lies beyond?" That which lies beyond they do not know, and it was in "the beyond" that Henry Thouron lived, thought, and worked.
Ruskin has said, in one of his lectures, that classicalism began wherever civilization began, with Pagan faith; mediævalism began and continued wherever civilization began, and continued, to confess Christ; and, lastly, modernism began and continues wherever civilization began, and continues, to deny Christ. Since Ruskin delivered this lecture, in Edinburgh in the year 1853, the denials of Christ are growing louder and louder, and the cocks are crowing lustily.
Ruskin has given away Thouron's secret—he was a mediævalist; he was born four centuries too late. He should have been a contemporary of Raphael. The dress of Giotto would have suited him. It was often my privilege to be admitted to his studio when he was working on the large decoration for the cathedral. Standing high on the scaffolding, with a gray linen blouse pulled over his modern clothes, he was transformed into a fresco painter of the fifteenth century. In physique, in bearing, in colour, and in physiognomy he was mediæval—his spirit haunted the aisles of the Gothic cathedrals. His sole ambition seemed to inspire him to make his own church, to confess Christ on every wall and in every aisle.
To this end he became a patron of Art as well as an artist, showing even here the religious spirit of the princes of the Church and the State, who, in those times, made it possible for the genius of a Michael Angelo or a Giotto to develop and flourish. Henry Thouron knew, as Ruskin knew, that "all ancient Art was religious and all modern art is profane," and he therefore worked zealously to restore Art to its sacred function. He stood among the few in his city as a generous and unselfish patron of Art, and he proved that patronage is not the privilege of the rich only, but of all who love beauty, and cultivate a taste for it; that men of modest means may possess gems of modern Art by ever-increasing care and discrimination in selecting them.
He devoted many years to the teaching of composition in the classrooms of the Pennsylvania Academy, where he came into close and friendly relations with all the students, from whom he received to the last the warmest tokens of regard and esteem, and from his colleagues a silent admiration evoked by the invariable gentleness of his disposition.
To me he was particularly sympathetic; and I remember how long I lingered over the little portrait painted in his studio, solely to enjoy the repose of mind his companionship gave me.
After he died, Harrison S. Morris, who, as managing director of the Academy, had been associated with him and his work, wrote:
"He gave so abundantly of all he had—his means, his strength—that I always felt about him as the friends of Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of their saint. He had realized sainthood in a time when even Saint Francis might have been appalled at the lack of beauty and sincerity, and at the noise and shock of life. He was an artist of the beautiful, if ever there was one. His taste was like the taste of Nature that never errs when not thwarted by man. . . . Indeed, his life was one long devotion, either to his faith, in which the old beauty appealed deeply to him, or to the service of those to whom he could, with his abundant talents, minister. I think he felt that a mediæval world of simple faith and the haunting mystery of loveliness was his real habitation, but that accident had translated him to our ugly and brazen days.
"Hardly in even many more lifetimes will so pure and clean a spirit visit the earth."