A Memoir of James DeVeaux...


 Artist of Charleston.

When I first picked up a copy of the 1846 edition of this book in a bookstore I had no idea who James DeVeaux was.

He has been largely forgotten. He died before his artistic career was really underway, although he did complete a number of portraits which doubtless now hang in homes up and down the East coast of the United States.

I remember first sitting down one evening to read this book and becoming completely engrossed in it. It was published two years after DeVeaux's death, and was made up of selections from his diary and letters he wrote to friends. He was an expressive writer and keen observer, with a love of life and his art which jumps off the page. He was also almost certainly a manic depressive, and the pain and anguish he sometimes felt are vividly described.

Before I was halfway through the book I knew I wanted to reprint it. It was the memoir of an artist in America and Europe at a time when many American artists were going to Europe but few were writing of their experiences with this much skill and detail; it was also a moving story, a joyful and ultimately tragic story...

I still read it from time to time. DeVeaux's enthusiasm is quite infectious.

James DeVeaux was a gifted artist from Charleston, South Carolina. He began his career painting portraits up and down the East coast of the United States, before traveling to Europe to study. After making many of the stops in Europe which were obligatory for a young American artist, he finally settled down in Italy, and spent several happy years painting and observing the sights before dying tragically there in 1844. This memoir quotes extensively from his letters and journals, and it affords a revealing look at the life of a struggling young American artist in the 1830s and 40s. DeVeaux was a keen observer and a witty and skillful writer, and his biography should find a welcome place in many art libraries. Here are a few selected quotes from his diary which reveal the tenor of his writings and observations, and also chronicle his life and death.

May 21st, 1837. "Arrived in Antwerp. Cathedral. Citadel. St. Jacques. Ruben's tomb, prepared by himself fifteen years before his death -a picture placed over it by him two years before he died -pictures by Van Dyke in the same place. Cathedral five hundred English feet in height, went to the top, the most gorgeous steeple in the world, saw Ireland in the distance."

Paris, November 15th, 1841. "Paris is just where it was, and is as much loved as ever; it is the place for a Painter after all, and if, during my stay abroad, I have an offer or proposals of any sort that will facilitate my success, I will most assuredly remain here. There is a luxury in associating with the young and talented enthusiasts of this country, that makes one young again, and chimes more with my temperament than the cold calculating grey looking spirits of our northern cities -and unfortunately those are the only points in our country where a Painter can live."

Florence, December 24th, 1841. "The difficulties here are very great. In Paris, as many as can get around a picture are permitted to copy, and one permit serves for a year, besides which you may be engaged on fifty pictures at the same time, but here, one at a time, unless you cheat (which I am doing now, having two heads in progress) a separate permit for each picture is needed. Only a certain number of painters is allowed in each room, and often you are obliged to wait six months for your turn. The Madonna and Fornarina of Raphael are engaged for at least two years. Copies of them are made from copies, and so on to the fortieth generation, and palmed off on very shrewed purchasers for copies of the originals."

Florence, July 10th, 1842. "Give me Paris with my pockets filled and Horace Vernet for my master -but Florence as things are. Models for pictures are the heaviest item of expense here, -since I have been engaged on my angels, I have had models enough for inspection to people a small village, -angels, Italian angels! From three years up to thirty; women and children, male and female. I wish you could see me hauling up one little fellow with a belly-band and rope and tackle, and when I get him in the air and say "fly sir!", he curls all his limbs into a heap and falls to crying!"

Florence, August 10th, 1842. "There are American painters and sculptors here of all sorts. I find nothing in their society to please me, and so keep to myself. Strange that so much venom should exist among professors of a liberal art -but the truth is, that envy and jealousy are our (painters) besetting sins, and the first thing I heard of here was a flare up at Rome 'mongst the American artists, and now they are all in Florence for the summer, so I keep housed. Except the religious sects, I think we are the warmest and best haters, and the most malignant devils the sun ever deigned to shine upon."

Rome, December 2nd, 1842. "Whilst looking down from the steeple of the Campodoglio upon Rome, my companion warmed into a classic fit, and bringing up from the bottom of his pockets notes and memoranda of history gathered from Goldsmith and others, he would glance from one scene to another, till I was deluged in declamation, -flinging his arms into the air and stretching himself so far over the railing, as to induce me to wrap the skirt of his coat around my hands to ensure his safety, -he pointed to the spot where "Ceasar's body lay", -passed to Lucrezia the chaste, and Virginia the innocent, -Camillus pausing to look back upon the city, from whence he was issuing a banished man; and had got as far into his story as to be busily engaged with the Goths and Vandals in sacking Rome over again, when the old attendant cut short the oration by declaring that the "Signore" had detained him too long, as his wife waited his presence for dinner."

Rome, December 21st, 1842. "After three weeks of vexatious disappointment, I commenced work today in the Colonna Palace; two notes I have had the Consul write, but nothing except money will open doors that servants are masters of; if I had found out that secret sooner, I would have saved much time. The master will send you a written permission, but leaves the rest to his domestic, and he never has the place unoccupied, till he has felt the weight of two or three dollars. The extreme modesty of these creatures prevents their telling you this, and you may go back and forward, from time to the end of time, unless you chance to learn from some other source the existence of this hateful custom."

Rome, February 12th, 1843. "Mr. Crawford of N. York, a sculptor, who for eight years has been drinking at the fountain of inspiration, and has become bloated with habitual intemperance, -he is full of art and genius and application, -his great fault is his impatience of finish, and this renders the complaint generally made against the hands and feet of his works just and true; -but for the poetic conception of his subjects and ability to work out his imagining, he stands among the first in Rome, and is the lion of American sculpture at home and abroad."

Rome, June 30th, 1843. "Arranged my passport, -six pauls to the police, and two dollars to the American consul; -went to Borghese villa and saw Canova's Pauline. This statue is very much draped, and I see nothing surprising in a French woman having served as a model."

Venice, July 28th, 1843. "The church is opened for our accommodation at six o'clock, and kept open until five, thus giving us eleven hours; these Catholics are certainly very amiable towards us painters. The only interruption to our labor is one minute during the daily service of mass, when the bell tinkles in indication of the holy presence, -we withhold our hand from the canvas, and bow our heads, -even this is not expected from us, but we have adopted it as something that would please the congregation."

Venice, August 20th, 1843.
"Last night the Piazza St. Marco was for the first time illuminated with gas, -it was a brilliant display, the whole populace crowded to witness something new in this old world. The Arch Duke Charles with a numerous cortege of gentlemen and ladies, promenaded for an hour; -three bands of music kept the echos awake for three successive hours. These Venetian girls seen by gas light outshine all creation."

Venice, August 25th, 1843. "A lady seated herself at my side, and began drawing a small statue. I offered her some attentions, etc., in Italian, but as she spoke French to her maid, I gave her a French dash, -after a while she talked in English for practice, and I was regularly installed as teacher of drawing and English, and have heard since that she is a Russian princess."

Rome, November, 1843.
"I left Parma for Bologna. Arrived within fifteen miles of Bologna, my passport was carefully examined and found to be wanting the signature of the Pope's representative at Venice. I was suspected of being some wild Republican spirit, hastening to join the revolutionists, and was not only not allowed to proceed, but was not permitted to remain at the point I had already reached. I was then but one day's journey from my destination, Florence; by this sad misfortune I was obliged to take a one horse conveyance, and to avoid the Pope's possessions, was forced to cross one of the worst ranges of the Appennines, at this season a terrible undertaking, and for four days amidst rain, wind, snow and hail I plied my way. It lost me many precious days and the exposure has fixed a cold upon my lungs, which I fear will cost me more."

Rome, February, 1844. "To-day is the sixty-fourth day of my confinement to my chamber, -the weather has for one month been rainy and windy and cold, and there are no signs of breaking. I am promised a ride the first fine day, and shall rejoice to see St. Peter's Dome again."

Here Robert Gibbes takes over the story-

Rome, April 28th, 1844. "As the day was dawning he desired the woman to open the blinds and admit more light; after asking for his friends he became quiet, murmuring to himself from time to time. It was near day-break when the silver cord was broken, and the early light was stealing as a precursor of the sun. And with a murmuring prayer to the Great Author of light his freed spirit sped its way from a frail perishing tenement into the glory surrounding Jehovah's throne."

"It was on Monday, April the 29th, that his friends and all the Americans at Rome assembled to pay last tribute of regard to all that this world claimed of poor De Veaux. Towards the close of the afternoon the hearse, followed by a line of carriages, took its mournful course through the crowded streets to the Protestant burial ground. The genial temperature of early spring was awakening in the trees, herbage and flowers a renewed existence, and after the solemn service had been read over his remains we consigned them to their narrow house, as the sun was sinking below the Mediterranean horizon."

Gibbes, Robert W. A Memoir of James DeVeaux, Artist of Charleston, South Carolina 1812-1844. Concord; Joslin Hall:1991. Limited to 250 copies. A facsimile reprint of the original, very scarce, 1846 edition. 6"x9", 258 pages, portrait frontispiece, cloth binding, printed on acid-free paper, dust jacket. $35.00

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