[Author Unknown]

[Published in The Broadway Journal, February 22, 1845 (1:8)]

[Edited and Annotated by Stephanie Choi for the University of Arizona Antebellum Magazine Edition Project, February 26, 2015.]

[Editor's Note]

Considering that this institution has only been in operation thirty-nine years, it has succeeded in accumulating an amount of bad pictures that would seem almost incredible, were it not that sincere conviction may be purchased for a quarter of a dollar. There seems to have existed a kind of chemical affinity, by which all the worst specimens of Art which came within the sphere of its attraction were drawn irresistibly toward it. If this hypothesis be a correct one, we can only wish that its power of enticement had extended to some more northerly cities. Institutions of this kind seem to be the threads around which all the bad taste hithero held in solution in general society hastens to crystallize itself. They are the ravens sent by Providence to supply mediocrity with bread in the shape of patronage.

We hardly know where to begin noticing some few of the many atrocities perpetrated here in the holy name of Art; but perhaps the fairest way of settling the precedence will be the amount of canvass which each artist has expended. Perhaps, were we to take the aggregate amount of Mr. Sully’s canvasses1, we should find that he had displayed more of this liberal enthusiasm than any other gentleman whose “works” are here exhibited, but we doubt not but he will be willing to yield the foremost place to Mr. West2, both because he (Mr. W) was president of the Royal Academy3, and because he has sacrificed by far the largest single canvass upon the altar of professional ambition. West’s celebrated picture of DEATH ON THE PALE HORSE4, as it is styled in the panegyrical catalogue, is painted upon a canvass in twenty-five feet long by fourteen and a half feet wide, being almost as large as the foresail of a pilot boat, and if in such matters, badness may be estimated by the acre, we should not hesitate to pronounce it the worst picture in the world. It would be hard to say whether it be more wanting in the imaginative or the mechanical qualities of a true painting. In both these respects it is below criticism, and it were only a waste of time to point out its most striking absurdities. We cannot help noticing, however, the originality displayed both in the conception and execution of the flash of lightning in the left of the picture. The impression conveyed by such electric displays to the mind of ordinary mortals, is that of extreme swiftness, but precisely the reverse effect seems to have been produced upon the President of a Royal Academy. The lightning in the present case wanders deliberately down and ends in a viscid drop, so that its general appearance is like what would be produced by the melting and running down of a ball of molasses candy which had been reduced to that extremity upon a street-stall by a sudden change of weather. We cannot help imagining the exaltation which must have been felt in England when this monstrosity was fairly rolled up and shipped to this country. It might almost seem that its being sent hither was the result of a plot to give British tourists an additional subject of merriment. Yet this trumpery has been carted about the vances of those who should have known better, as a miracle of Art. Editors of newspapers, who are supposed ex officio to know every thing, pay for their tickets to such sickening shows with half a column of flummery, and the mass of the people forever after use this picture as a standard in measuring other pictures which have no President’s name attached to them. In this way incalculable injury is done to the cause of true Art.

Allston’s “Dead man stored to life,”5 we have never been able to admire. It displays none of that artist’s fine qualities. The coloring is hard and niggardly, the grouping inefficient, and the whole looks more like an attempt to paint a large picture than a great one. Haydon’s picture of “Christ’s entry into Jerusalem,”6 which hangs on another side of the room, is more in Allston’s style of coloring than his own picture. It is chiefly interesting for the portraits it contains. We confess that we think a great crow of people to be hardly a fir as to preclude any attempt at individualizing particular heads. If the Artist paints all the heads with equal care it will either seem unnatural, because the eye could not take them all in at one moment, as in this picture, or it will deprive the figures of all motion and life. In Haydon’s pictures all the heads in the foreground look too large.

Among many pictures which are disgraceful as works of Art, there is one which is positively disgusting. We allude to No. 48 in the “North Gallery”. The subject is stated in the catalogue as “Time flogging Cupid.” It is, of course, by a French Artist, and, as we turned away from it, we could not help wishing most fervently that the mythology of the Greeks had made Cupis a church, and thus precluded him from becoming the subject of such an exposure.

One of the worst pictures is the exhibition is by Opie, R.A.7 The subject is from Gil Blas. If pictures may be estimated in the name way that puns were by Lamb, who considered that badness was one of the postulates for excellence, this may be ranked as facile princeps in Art. If there can be anything worse, it must be Mr. Sully’s copy of the name painting. We can conceive of no object which Mr. S. could have had in selecting this for imitation, unless it might have been a desire to excuse is some measure the outrages of American daubers by multiplying the specimens of one perpetrated by an Englishman.

The Directors of the Academy have learned one artifice form the picture dealers, and have given to the most flagrant violations of artistic proprieties the names of the different Great Masters, selected apparently at random. They seem to have entertained a peculiar spite against Salvator Rona, the greater number being ascribed to him. Time would fail us to enumerate particularly all the wretched spoiled canvasses which the “Academy”8 have sanctioned either by their purchases or acceptance. The are a few good pictures here, chiefly by Flemish artists, but a foreign visitor would be led to imagine that there were but two or three American painters, of the works of some of whom the Academy had succeeded in making almost complete collections, and who compared very favorably with the great foreign masters, specimens of whose productions may be found hung side by side with theirs. We think that Mr. Peale9 showed a truly patriotic forbearance in placing his works in a Museum of his own, where may be seen some ten score of portraits all with a dab of light like a sprinkling of flour on the apex of their heads. When a visitor pays his money at the door of that institution, he knows what he has to expect. If he does not like the pictures he may look at the mastodon. At the Academy, if the paintings are not to his taste, he may look at—at—at—Mr. Petrrick’s statue of Goethe’s Mephistophiles!

We have confined ourselves is this notice chiefly to the bad pictures in this exhibition, partly because they form by far the largest proportion, and partly because we think that most of them disgrace the walls where they hang. We are indignant that the public taste should continue any longer to be miseducated by such examples. If we are to have Academies of Art, let them be useful in one of two ways. Either let them quicken the artistic perceptions of the mass of people by collecting good foreign pictures, or good copies of them: or let them (and this better) encourage American Art by purchasing and paying liberally for good pictures by native artists, especially if the Artists be unknown. Such institutions should lead the public taste in some measure, and the purchase of a picture by them should precede the verdict of popular taste, and now follow it. America can now point to Artists of whom Italy or Greece in their best days might have been proud. Why need make a collection of tasteless failures with foreign names attached to them, while we might give employment and perhaps bread to such men as Page and Powers10!

The collection of pictures we have been noticing is the disgraceful to Philadelphia, because there is a great deal of refined taste and judgment there, as well as liberal and judicious patronage. The piece of statuary by Powers and the picture by Leutze which we mentioned in our last, are both for a gentleman of Philadelphia whose private collection in as honorable to his taste as to his munificence.


Editor's Note

The preceding article reviews the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was only about 40 years old at the time. The author of this negative review is unknown, which eliminates the possibility of understanding the piece in context of who the author was. The tone of the language in this article, and the themes in the specific art pieces it reviews, reveal a kind of need and argument for creating a more solid American identity. In this sense, the article seems to be advocating for American nationalism through art, and subsequently rejecting any affiliation or inspiration from English art.

While the negativity language in the article hints at these sentiments through its tone, the specific art pieces carry are linked by a theme that may further support the American nationalism of the piece. The artists reviewed in the piece all share an interesting connection to the Royal Academy of London, which is also mentioned. Specifically, Benjamin West is at the root of the connection to the Royal Academy, London, and all of other artists. West was an American who traveled to Europe to study art, and eventually made connections with King George III. This led to his appointment at the Royal Academy and establishing his London studio, where visiting American artists would come to stay. This connection to and influence of European art on American artists gives a strong context to the tone behind the language of the reviews. The end of the article, where the author advocates for museums that support “American Art by purchasing and paying liberally for good pictures by native artists, especially if the Artists be unknown”, seems to reveal the most blatant support for this theory. 



[1] Mr. Sully refers to the artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Born in England, Sully immigrated to Richman, Virginia with his parents and eight siblings. Sully became a well-known and sought-after portrait painter in America. He was specifically praised for his portraits of ladies; in 1844, Godey’s lady book proclaimed, “Sully, as all the world knows, paints exquisitely beautiful portraits of ladies. His praise is in all the parlours." He had an over seventy-year career, and painted over 2,000 portraits. He originally opened up a studio in New York, but left for Philadelphia when the Embargo act was enacted. Philadelphia remained his home until his death, although he traveled extensively. Early in his career, he studied in London under Benjamin West’s studio--which is alluded to in the next sentence (“Early American Paintings”).

[2] Benjamin West (1738-1820), was a Pennsylvania-born artist who is credited with having a profound influence on the course of American painting. West was a portrait painter and the first American artist to study in Italy. West traveled around Europe and was chartered as a member of the Royal Academy (see note 3) by King George the III in 1768. He later became the President of the Academy. West’s studio in London became a hub for young American artists who were traveling abroad. The who’s who of America painting flowed in and out of West’s studio, including a few mentioned later in this article--Charles Willson Peale, Washington Allston, Thomas Sully ("Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History”).

[3] A reference to the Royal Academy of Art in London, which was established in 1768. Benjamin West served as a chartered member, and later President of the Academy. The Academy is still open today (“Royal Academy of Arts”).

[4] The allusion to the enormity of the painting refers to its twenty-five by fourteen feet six inches canvas size. West painted the piece when he was seventy-nine, and sent it from London to the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, which still owns it today. The piece is inspired by Revelations 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth”.

[5] This work depicts an episode from II Kings 13:21 in which accidental contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha resurrects a dead Israelite. Painted by Washington Allston (1179-1843), the painting was highly regarded by the directors of the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, who mortgaged the building to pay for its purchase. Allston is considered the first American romantic paint, and was a poet as well. He studied at the Royal Academy in the early 1800s as well, under Mr West ("PAFA - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts”). 

[6] Benjamin Haydon (1786-1846), an English historical painter and writer, was compelled by his strong personal faith to paint un-commissioned, large canvasses of biblical scenes. The painting mentioned in particular produced varied reactions to the depiction of Christ, and debate on faith. Haydon attended the Royal Academy, but his financial incompetence ultimately led to his ruin. His most enduring work seems to be his autobiography, which includes selections from his journals ("Benjamin Robert Haydon | Biography - English Painter and Writer”). 

[7] The picture referred to as the “worst picture” depicts Gil Blas binding Dame Leonarda with cords in the cavern of the banditti, which also serves as the title of the painting. The painter, John Opie (1761-1806), was a popular English portrait painter. He became a member of the Royal Academy--which is denoted by the R.A. after his name--in 1787 and a professor in 1805 ("Gil Blas Binding Dame Leonarda with Cords in the Cavern of the Banditti by John Opie | Blouin Art Sales Index”). 

[8] See note 3

[9] The Mr. Peale alluded to in the text is Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1826), founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Peale was an American painter, and best remembered for his portraits depicted American Revolution leaders. He studied with Benjamin West (see note 2) in London for three years. He painted over 1000 portraits over his career, and his sitters included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Peale’s brother, James, was also a painter ("Charles Willson Peale | Biography - American Painter”).

[10] The men referred to are Asahel Powers and William Page. Powers (1813-1843) was a Vermont-born portrait painter, who traveled through Vermont and New York to paint his portraits ("Springfield Art and Historical Society"). William Page (1811-1892) was an American portrait painter. He traveled through Europe in the mid 1800s looking for commissions, and found popularity around Rome. He returned to America in 1860 ("William Page and Page Family Papers, 1815-1947, Bulk 1843-1892").


Works Cited

"Benjamin Robert Haydon | Biography - English Painter and Writer." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

"Benjamin West: DEATH ON THE PALE HORSE” — The Detroit Institute of Arts. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <>.

"Charles Willson Peale | Biography - American Painter." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

“Death on the Pale Horse.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>

"Early American Paintings." Early American Paintings. Worcester Art. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <

"Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Students of Benjamin West (1738–1820). Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

"Gil Blas Binding Dame Leonarda with Cords in the Cavern of the Banditti by John Opie | Blouin Art Sales Index."Gil Blas Binding Dame Leonarda with Cords in the Cavern of the Banditti by John Opie | Blouin Art Sales Index. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

"John Opie | Biography - British Painter." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

"PAFA - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts." Dead Man Restored to Life by Touching the Bones of the Prophet Elisha. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <

"Royal Academy of Arts." Royal Academy of Arts. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <>.

"Springfield Art and Historical Society." : Asahel Lynde Powers. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <

"William Page and Page Family Papers, 1815-1947, Bulk 1843-1892." Detailed Description of the. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <

The Broadway Journal


  • Feb 22 1845; Vol. 1 (8)