James E. Freeman and the painting of sentiment

Editorial Staff Art

November 2009 | Thoughout his half-century-long artistic career in the United States and Italy, James E. Freeman (Fig. 2) specialized in creating paintings of sentiment that sought to cross the boundaries dividing different cultures and social classes by engaging emotions, encouraging empathy, and ultimately prompting benefi­cence.1 Sentimentalism flourished in the antebellum period as a sort of bridge between the overt moralizing that earlier had characterized neo­classicism and the predominantly subjective content of later romantic art. Like many of his peers based in New York, including Charles Cromwell Ingham, Henry Inman, William Sidney Mount, and Thomas Le Clear, Freeman chose to paint subjects of sentiment in an effort to join—or, as some critical historians have argued, direct—the national discourse.2

Freeman’s work usually assumed the format of the fancy picture, a branch of figure painting practiced in eighteenth-century England by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), among others. Fancy pictures were similar in appearance to commissioned portraits (and the distinction between them can be ambiguous), except that they often depicted hired models as various types of city and country characters who usually went unnoticed in daily life, such as peddlers, market girls, laborers, vagrants, urchins, and beggars. By isolating and presenting his subjects in a serious and dignified manner-an ennobled Mohawk maiden for a western frontier audience, a frostbitten immigrant “b’hoy” for the elite New York establishment, or a smiling Roman tatterdemalion for wealthy Americans on the grand tour—Freeman’s sentimental fancy pictures aimed to demystify these figures, promote understanding, and foster a stronger social fabric.

In addition to fancy pictures in the English tradition, Freeman occasionally painted monumentally sized, multifigured paintings of sentiment that reflected contemporary European standards of painterly facture, composition, and anecdotal storytelling that sought to diminish the traditional hierarchical separation between the lofty pedagogy of history painting and the easy legibility of genre scenes. Three pic­tures of Italian life made by Freeman following his expatriation in 1841, when he was appointed a United States consul to the Papal States, and spanning the middle decades of the nineteenth century demonstrate his commitment to the painting of sentiment. Nonreligious in content, didactic in intent, and democratic in appeal, the painting of sentiment was the ideal vehicle through which he could communicate ideas to patrons from his homeland—a young, rapidly expanding nation that possessed little common heritage and a varied value system-as well as patrons in Europe, where revolution, secularization, industrialization, and increased class mobility were transforming the traditional social order.

A painter who was also a diplomat, a bohemian of humble origin who moved in refined international society, and an ardent republican who lived under the pope’s temporal rule in Rome, Freeman was a man at home with seeming contradictions. His lushly rendered compositions of Italian rustics and waifs—picturesque in their poverty, graceful in their humility, artless in their beauty—were no exception. His Italian Beggars (Fig. 4), portraying a ragged and barefooted boy languidly standing over his sleeping sister and beseeching alms, epitomizes this dual nature of his art. Mendicancy was a topical and contentious issue for any visitor to Italy in the nineteenth century. There exist myriad diary entries and published reports about the constant solicitations for a baiocco, or penny, from a weary tourist. Whether annoyed or amused at their persistence, most Americans could not resist the beggar children and eventually relented out of mercy, a sense of duty, or utter defeat.

Although Italian Beggars was os­tensibly a modern-day scene, the children’s partial nudity, the quotation from the ancient Roman bronze statue known as the Idolino (c. first century bc, Museo Archeologico, Florence) for the boy’s pose, and the classical ruins in the background all connote a timelessness and solemnity usually reserved for history paintings. Created three years after Freeman had moved to Italy, the picture earned him unprecedented praise and caused a sensation when he sent it to the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1845, where it was reported to be “more admired than any other picture in the gallery.”3

Knowledgeable contemporary viewers would have immediately appreciated Italian Beggars as an homage to the images of young street urchins by the mid-seventeenth-century Spanish master Bartolomé Estebán Murillo, whose large canvases, virtuosic foreshortening, and nuanced modeling of flesh elevated them above most genre scenes and approached history painting (see Fig. 3). Murillo’s secular pictures became extraordinarily popular with both the art-going public and connoisseurs in the first half of the nineteenth century and proved influential to generations of fancy picture and genre painters, such as the Scotsman David Wilkie (1785-1841), who admired their broad appeal across class and cultural lines.4

Neither Freeman’s nor Murillo’s paintings were considered disturbing or exploitative, a charge some modern commentators have leveled against alluring depictions of poverty. On the contrary they were valued for facilitating sensibility, piquing emotions, and arousing feelings of compassion. Indeed, Italian Beggars proved insufficiently pathetic for some, including one critic who mocked: “There is no sentiment of indigence in it; one might look at it forever without putting his hand in his pocket to feel for money.”5 While yet another opined: “Pity, that is passed to them through a New York barometer, however, is more than half wasted, for their sorrows are steeped in an opiate of air. Short of absolute starving, a beggar in Italy finds the world more comfortable than it is found by speculators in Wall Street.”6

Artistically Freeman reached the pin­­­­­­­nacle of his career by mid-century. In his 1847 Artist-Life, the leading American art critic of the time, Henry T. Tuckerman, declared Italian Beggars “worthy of a master,” writing that “the attitudes, the atmosphere, the execution, the finish, and, above all, the expression, are in the highest degree artistic and suggestive.”7 However, very few large-scale, multifigured pictures are documented in Freeman’s oeuvre from the 1850s, in part because he was a notoriously slow painter, precise in his draftsmanship and methodical in his glazing of colors.

One example that has surfaced from this decade is Costume Picture (Fig. 1), a rather generic title for what is surely a masterpiece of the genre of pictures-immensely fashionable in the nineteenth century—that represented painters, sculptors, and architects at work. At the center of the foreground Freeman depicted an art­­­­ist (interestingly not a self-portrait) making an impromptu oil sketch of a beautiful peasant girl amid the quotidian comings and goings of Italian village life. Along the far left edge of the composition he included portraits of two Düsseldorf-trained American landscapists then resident in Rome: William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900), shown in profile wearing a straw hat; and Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), with his distinctive long beard, and carrying a knapsack with gear for open-air landscape painting on his back.

Freeman’s romantic vision of the street scene is also suffused with recollections of great art from the past that inspired his own creativity and made Cos­tume Picture an elaborate allegory of the history of art. The grouping of maidens on the right mimics depictions of the Three Graces from the antique, and the fruit basket that one of them carries is reminiscent of the bountiful still lifes of Caravaggio (1571-1610). The hunched-over crone in the doorway alludes to the Cumaean Sybil of 1508 to 1512 by Michelangelo (1475-1564) in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, while the pious beauty of the young mother and child on the steps invokes the devotional  madonna and child images by Raphael (1483-1520). The brooding contadino on the left recalls similar types in the oeuvre of Louis Léopold Robert (1794-1835), and the laundress finds her antecedent in A Girl at a Window of 1645 by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Freeman wrote in the first volume of his memoirs, Gatherings from an Artist’s Portfolio, that Costume Picture simply captured a vignette of real life that he chanced upon one summer day in Ariccia, a hill town southeast of Rome.8 However, the monumental size of the canvas, the complex arrangement of multiple figures moving both vertically and horizontally through the composition, and the high level of finish indicate the deliberateness of the achievement and belie his account. As the art historian Michael Levey observed, pictures of artists in the act of creating were designed—wittingly or not—to elicit the audience’s sympathy and understanding by privileging them with an intimate look at the creative process. Paintings that showed living artists specifically—not deceased old masters—at work, such as those made by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), as well as Freeman, appeared relatively late, in the second half of the nineteenth century. For Levey these latter incarnations transcended genre painting to become, in effect, history paintings, faithfully recording people, places, and events, and arguing for the modern artist’s status as a vital and viable member of civilized society.9

The outbreak of the Civil War in the United States in 1861 drastically reduced the number of Americans visiting the Eternal City and commissioning original artwork. Perhaps as a result, Freeman made an extended trip to England in 1862, where he already had an established patron base conversant with the didactic and aesthetic aims of the painting of sentiment. While there he conceived the idea of painting a common sight in the Victorian metropolis: an itinerant Italian street musician. In The Savoyard Boy in London (Fig. 5), a hurdy-gurdy player from the Savoy region in the western Alps naps on the stoop of a brick building while his cohort, a monkey chained to him and wearing a red tunic, remains animated. To the right a blonde Irish beggar girl gazes upon the slumbering youth with a look suggesting empathy for a fellow immigrant as well as curiosity for one so different looking from herself.

The full magnitude of the painting’s complicated iconography warrants further consideration. The boy’s liminal state, asleep but on the verge of being roused by the monkey, carries political overtones. If we consider him as a veiled representation of the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878) of the royal house of Savoy, then the monkey clearly symbolizes General Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), who famously wore a red shirt. While the Savoyard sleeps, content to bide his time until he can again attract an audience, the alert monkey reaches for the crank of the droning musical instrument to play it himself. This alludes to Victor Emmanuel’s ongoing reluctance to take Rome—the final holdout in forging a unified Italian peninsula—by force; whereas Garibaldi, always a man of action, organized a group of volunteers and marched on the city in August 1862. But just as the boy ultimately controls the chained monkey, the king, alerted to his rogue general’s movements, sent troops to stop him en route to Rome. At the ensuing Battle of Aspromonte, Garibaldi refused to fight his fellow Italians and surrendered peacefully, only to be accidentally wounded and detained.

On the wall behind the boy advertisements for theater and minstrel shows compete for space with the tattered remnants of a political broadside for one of the pro-Garibaldi rallies convened throughout Great Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Aspromonte. The legible fragments of words in the upper left corner include “[GA]RIBALDI,” “ASPROMONTE,” “wounded,” “OPERATIVE,” “LANGUISH,” “DYING,” and “government.” The word “LANCASHIRE” and the bright orange color of the paper indicate that it probably announced one of the so-called sympathy-with-Gari­baldi meetings held in the northwestern part of England in the fall of 1862. By deliberately using orange, a color closely identified with Protestantism in Ireland, local organizers were openly connecting their support for the would-be liberator of Rome with their attendant anti-Catholic positions.

The placard below the broadside, dated 1865, heralds the resolution of the “[CIVIL] WAR IN AMERICA” after a “[FATE]FUL BATTLE,” which resulted in the “[COMP]LETE DEFEAT OF [THE] REB[EL]” Confederate forces and the “FREEDON OF [THE] SLAVES.” This timely news obviously held great meaning for the artist, who painted it next to the pro-Garibaldi sign. Clearly Freeman intended to equate the importance of Italy’s ongoing internal struggle to end the pope’s temporal reign and achieve unity as a country with the United States’s own bloody civil war to abolish slavery and preserve the Union. In The Savoyard Boy in London Freeman challenged American and European audiences to confront some of the difficult social and political issues of the first half of the 1860s, in what certainly stands as the culminating triumph of his belief in the rhetorical power of anecdotal narrative painting.

James E. Freeman 1808-1884: An American Painter in Italy is on view at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art in Utica, New York, through January 17, 2010. Mary K. and John F. McGuigan Jr., the guest curators, wrote the accompanying catalogue.

1 As the aesthetic corollary to the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility’s doctrine that receptivity to the pathetic in life could improve one’s moral character, the painting of sentiment aimed to elicit in the beholder a profound emotional reaction to scenes of human misery, hopelessness, and alienation, and thereby induce charitableness.  2 For a discussion of artist-advocates in the mid-nineteenth century, see Neil Harris, The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 1790-1860 (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966); and Lillian B. Miller, Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, 1790-1860 (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966).  3 “The National Academy,” Broadway Journal, vol. 1, no. 20 (May 10, 1845), p. 306.  4 See, for instance, Wilkie’s The Guerilla’s Departure of 1828 (Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).  5 “The National Academy,” p. 306.  6 “Exhibition at the Academy,” New-York Mirror, May 3, 1845.  7 Henry T. Tuckerman, Artist-Life: or, Sketches of American Painters (New York, 1847), pp. 167-168.  8 James E. Freeman, Gatherings from an Artist’s Portfolio, vol. 1 (New York, 1877), pp. 261-262.  9 Michael Levey, The Painter Depicted: Painters as a Subject in Painting (Thames and Hudson, New York, 1982).

MARY K. McGUIGAN and JOHN F. McGUIGAN JR. are independent art historians and authorities on American artists in nineteenth-century Italy. In addition to their work on Freeman, they are co-authors, with William L. Vance, of the catalogue for the exhibition America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900, on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, until December 31.