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Allston, Elijah in the Desert

Washington Allston, Elijah in the Desert, 1818, oil on canvas, 125.09 x 184.78 cm / 49 1/4 x 72 3/4 inches (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) >> Dr. Steven Zucker: One of the most interesting paintings by an American artist early in the nation's history is Washington Allston's "Elijah in the Desert." It's dark, it's brooding, it's melancholic, and it seems to emphasize the supernatural. These are all traits that are so at odds with most of the American painting that we know of from this period. >> Dr. Beth Harris: That's true, but they were things that especially interested Washington Allston. He was very much a romantic. He was interested in the Gothic and the supernatural and the creepy in all of its forms. >> Dr. Zucker: This is really creepy (laughs). >> Dr. Harris: It is. Like so many American artists at the end of the 18th and early 19th century, he went to London. He learned the European methods. In fact, he exhibited at the Paris Salon. >> Dr. Zucker: He actually went to Rome and spent a good deal of time with Coleridge, spent time with John Vanderlyn, another American artist, but importantly focused on the ruins in ancient Rome. >> Dr. Harris: Right. You can imagine him strolling through the ruins of Rome in the moonlight. That activity suited his romantic sensibility. >> Dr. Zucker: We know that he was interested in the supernatural. Just take a look at this painting. Most prominent is this wonderful gnarl tree. It looks like it has lived an enormously long life and suffered and has finally, perhaps by lightning, been blasted and is now dead. As if that wasn't enough, there is this raven in its bow and then another down close to the figure of Elijah himself, and of course, this is central to the story of Elijah. >> Dr. Harris: Right, where Elijah is sent into the wilderness by God but cared for by God there by ravens who feed the prophet. This is from the Bible, from the Book of Kings. Allston was interested in these biblical subjects and using landscape as a means to convey these biblical stories, so this is as much a landscape or more a landscape than it is the biblical story. >> Dr. Zucker: It anticipates some of the ideas that developed back in the United States. That is, this notion that the landscape in America could convey ideas of redemption, could convey ideas of the ancient, could convey spiritual themes. >> Dr. Harris: Right. We didn't have cathedrals and palaces, but we had our untouched landscape. We had landscape which could be interpreted in these emotional and moral ways. One way of also elevating landscape to a higher position in the subject matter of art is to place something significant happening within that landscape, like a biblical story or something heroic. Otherwise, landscapes were actually the lowest kind of art, according to the Academy. Allston is really making a very serious landscape painting. This isn't simply a view of a landscape. >> Dr. Zucker: But it's not just a serious landscape subject. It's also a serious attempt to elevate painting from the United States. This is critical because if you think back to the kinds of paintings that were being done either during the Colonial period or soon thereafter in the Federalist period, you have painting that is generally portraiture. But here is an attempt to create a real narrative, something that's serious but also informed by the European tradition quite strongly. >> Dr. Harris: And you can see that, I think, in the color and the way that Allston's painted this. He learned a glazing technique while in London, a way of applying paint in thin layers that really makes the color rich. >> Dr. Zucker: He was also especially in love with the work of Veronese and of Titian, and you can see the influence of the Venetians in this painting. The color really is much more subtle than what we see in most American painting of this time. >> Dr. Harris: We can see that really in the clouds, in the mountains in the distance, in the highlights of the sun on that blasted tree in the foreground. So I think you're right. This moral, serious, biblical subject in this wild imaginative landscape is something a little bit at odds with American culture, its emphasis on the practical and the material. I think for a lot of artists in America in the early 19th century and also in the late 18th century, there was this conflict between wanting to create something very serious and meaningful and in a European tradition but also the needs of a more practical American culture. >> Dr. Zucker: Maybe that's one of the reasons that this painting remained unsold for so long. >> Dr. Harris: Perhaps. (piano music)