Many Gothic novels inspired paintings, many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy during 1790&150;1810. The most famous painting of this sort, though not exhibited at the RA, was by the American painter Washington Allston (17791843), who 'exulted in the works of Mrs Radcliffe'. He grew up on a plantation in Charleston in the 1780s, where he loved the ghost stories told to him by the black slaves. He said that 'my favorite subjects were banditti. . . . I did not get rid of this banditti mania until I had been over a year in England.' He embarked for England in 1801, where he sought out Fuseli, whose Ghost Scene from Hamlet had deeply affected him, and by the time he returned to Charleston in 1809 he had painted not only A Rocky Coast with Banditti and Sea Coast with Banditti (both exhibited at the RA in 1802) but also several scenes from The Mysteries of Udolpho, now lost. His most famous work was the scene from The Italian: Spalatro's Vision of the Bloody Hand, which he painted in South Carolina during 18301 (from a design sketched out during his European trip). The scene represents Schedoni with his hired assassin Spalatro advancing through a corridor to murder Ellena when they are suddenly confronted by the apparition of a beckoning bloody hand. Allston was said to have painted this scene with rapt attention, frequently stepping back to assume the attitude of the figure he was painting. Though measuring only two and a half feet by one and a half feet, it was capable of producing powerful emotions, and Allston considered it one of his best works. In the September 1842 issue of the Charleston literary magazine Magnolia, on the occasion of an exhibition of the work in order to raise some money for the artist in the year before his death, it was praised very highly by Allston's friend Charles Fraser, who said of the painting, 'Once seen, it can never be forgotten'. It had been commissioned by a wealthy South Carolina landowner, and for a time hanged in a mansion in Boston, but was destroyed in 1873 when the Hudson River mansion where it then hanged burned to the ground.
A scene from Mrs. Radcliffe's 'Italian,' by W. Allston.
We have heard this (save the mark!) called a 'pretty picture.' We do not think it is so, and we are sure that the unsuspecting artist never dreamed that it would be so considered. If high-wrought delineation of character; if the personification of the vilest impulses that agitate the heart and distort the features; if depravity stamped by nature on every trait, and nurtured in deeds of violence and bloodshed; if the contortions produced by a terror-stricken conscience, in every limb and joint and sinew and extremity, from the crown of the head to the very toenail, as seen in the faltering figure of 'Spalatro'; if the stern unpitying fixedness of the man who grasps the dagger, and points the way to his sleeping victim; if the midnight gloom of a dungeon, made visible by the glimmering of a little lamp, with its associations of hopeless suffering; if all these brought together with the matchless skill of the artist, and embodying to the eye what had been before only unveiled to the imagination, if these constitute mere beauty, then indeed might we pronounce this a 'pretty picture.'
But we apprehend there is something more than beauty in it; a charm in which art itself is hidden, and which makes us forget the pencil in its creations. No painter could have produced such a picture without a profound knowledge of human nature, without being able to trace to their deepest recesses the springs of conduct, and without a philosophical knowledge of their influence on the actions of men. In a word, we know of no picture ever painted in this country that has concentrated in a greater degree the delight and admiration of the intelligent. Its execution is in Mr. Allston's peculiar style of high finish; his maxim is, that as nature is nowhere found slovenly and negligent, the art that professes to imitate her should be elaborate in its process, and never fall short of its object from want of care. We never see, therefore, what is technically called handling in his pictures, but his effect (and in this he never fails) is made out by study and diligence. One remark more, and that is the magic effect of the lamp, which seems to flicker before the eye. The lights on the figures and surrounding objects neither take from its brilliance nor lose any of their own distinctness.
[SOURCE: Jared B. Flagg, The Life and Letters of Washington Allston (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893), pp. 3201]
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