Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rubens, and the defects of great art

I don’t often call on Harriet Beecher Stowe for words of wisdom. She was so much part of her time, a period that frequently favored a cloying sentimentality and a triumphal romanticism that’s hard for more contemporary souls to take seriously. I’ve visited her homes in Maine and Connecticut and driven past another she built in Jacksonville, Florida. She came from one of the most famous and infamous families of the 19th century, one full of charming reverends and passionate activists. She was always part of the élite, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin made her wealthy. 

 

I would certainly not have consulted her about the paintings in the Louvre when, in 1853 she took the Grand Tour to get away from the paparazzi of her day after the publication of Uncle Tom. I mean her diaries from that journey were published under the title, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands! She looked for an overwhelming experience in that august European museum, and hoped for revelations  “great and glorious enough to seize and control my whole being, and answer at once the cravings of the poetic and artistic element.” 

It didn’t happen. 

Nevertheless, she did enjoy her visit. And much of what she learned is still instructive today.  She found Rembrandt to be like Nathaniel Hawthorne, because his use of light, shadow and color describe a mystery,

and this pleases us because our life really is a haunted one; the simplest thing in it is a mystery, the invisible world always lies around us like a shadow, and therefore this dreamy golden gleam of Rembrandt meets somewhat in our inner consciousness to which it corresponds. 

Rembrandt. Bathing woman. 1654.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rubens moved her most. Here were pictures full of the battle between good and evil, high-colored, dramatic. She wrote: 

But Rubens, the great, joyous, full-souled, all-powerful Rubens! There he was, full as ever of triumphant, abounding life — disgusting and pleasing, making me laugh and making me angry, defying me to dislike him, dragging me at his chariot wheels, and in spite of my protests forcing me to confess that there was no other but he.

Peter Paul Rubens. Massacre of the Innocents. 1611-12.

  
I should compare Rubens to Shakespeare, for the wonderful variety and vital force of his artistic power. Like Shakespeare, he forces you to accept and to forgive a thousand excesses and uses his own faults as musicians use discords, only to enhance the perfection of harmony. There certainly is some use even in defects. A faultless style sends you to sleep. Defects rouse and excite the sensibility to seek and appreciate excellences. Some of Shakespeare’s finest passages explode all grammar and rhetoric like skyrockets.

Peter Paul Rubens. Hippopotamus Hunt. 1616.

  
I remember asking my niece, Jessica, a very accomplished violist, whether there ever came a time when a musician played a whole piece without a single mistake. “No,” she said. When I was browsing through Great Pianists Speak for Themselves for my last post, I was pleased by Vladimir Horowitz’s declaration:
 
A few wrong notes are not a crime. As Toscanini once said, “For false notes, no one was ever put in jail.” Horowitz cared most about “projecting the spirit of the music.”
 

  But here comes Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victorian, proper to a fault despite her progressive credentials, making the farther claim that defects can inform, improve and even take a piece of art to another, grander level. Of course, she meant that some can, and not most. My mistakes on the piano will always mar every piece of music I play. The defects in my writing have not yet made it better. 

Nonetheless, I think there may be something worth pondering in  Rubens’ “excesses” and Shakespeare’s “defects.” I may have something to learn from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appreciation of fine art. 

 
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One thought on “Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rubens, and the defects of great art

  1. Artists are humans with very strong spiritual yearnings, which drive them to search for answers, and share their discoveries in any way that they can. Their greatness is in their spirituality; their defects come from their humanity.

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