Men I Have Painted/The Portrait I did not Paint
ONE summer as I was on the point of sailing for America I received, by cablegram, a commission to paint, for the Catholics of Philadelphia, a portrait of the Pope. As to the character of the portrait I was given carte blanche.
Here was an opportunity that I had not even imagined—to paint the most spiritual in appearance and ethereal personage of his day, or perhaps of any day. The Pope had often been described to me, when borne aloft in procession through St. Peter's on great festival occasions, as appearing to be unreal, immaterial, so pale and transparent and pure was his countenance, opalescent in its radiance, and illumined by a slight smile in the corners of a mouth whose firm lines betrayed the inner consciousness of a great responsibility. A fondness for the pearly gray tints of life, for the pastel-like quality of surfaces, led me to look upon this commission as the culminating episode of a fortunate career, and that if only a mere suggestion of the spiritual beauty of the pontiff could be attained I might consider that I had not painted in vain. Many of my friends congratulated me on my good fortune in being asked to paint a subject so completely in sympathy with my favourite scheme of colour, and I was happy in the thought that the portrait was destined for my native city, where I was already represented by one of Mr. Gladstone. But l'homme propose et Dieu dispose. No amount of free will on my part could shake the inevitable rock of predestination, and the picture still remains in my imagination, a much more beautiful thing than it could have been on canvas.
No effort had been made to obtain sittings for me; that was left entirely to my own initiative. I expected there would be difficulties to overcome, but with such a goal for ambition, hope easily overcame them in advance. Several good people suggested good advice, but no one was willing to risk his amour propre, and when Onslow Ford, who was doing the portrait of the Duke of Norfolk, an amiable man of great goodwill, received a courteous note from His Grace to say that he could not interfere in so delicate a matter, I was aroused to the serious nature of the obstacles I should have to overcome. As much time had already been wasted in correspondence and interviews, I decided to go to Rome and take the bull by the horns.
Starting off with my wife, we first lingered in the inspiring atmosphere of Paris, and then hastened to Florence, where we greeted many old friends, and thence to Rome. It had been suggested that the head of the American College in Rome could assist me. Not wishing to waste any more time, I applied to the College, and while waiting for the reply from its Rector, went to the British Embassy and saw Sir Clare Ford, who greeted me with "Why do you come to me? You should go to the American Minister. So you want to paint the Pope, do you? Well, I'll bet you three hundred dollars you won't." I replied that I had come to him because he could help me, or suggest something, and that as I was an old resident of London and a ratepayer in two counties in England, I thought I could claim his aid and indulgence. This seemed to have some effect upon him, and being an offhand sort of man, and not standing too strictly on the dignity of his high office, he sat down cosily beside me and continued, "You will not be received at the Vatican for any such purpose; the Pope is old and ill, and any time he has to spare has to be given to his ecclesiastical duties. You can obtain an audience as other strangers do, but as for anything else, make up your mind now that all your efforts will be futile. Why, they will treat you just like a carpenter or any other workman. Artists are nothing to them. Life is a serious matter to the Church."
"They must be very different from the old popes, then," I replied, "for they loved to honour and to patronize artists and Art. Have they changed so much as that? "I don't know if they have changed," Sir Clare began, but I interrupted him, for I was beginning to be nettled, by warmly saying, "I have no doubt that Michael Angelo was a very good carpenter, as well as architect and sculptor and poet, and that Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci and Cellini were all good workmen, as well as great geniuses. Where would the Church be now if it had not been for these men who have given it substantial and material evidence of greatness? Is not St. Peter's the glory of the Church, and did not Michael Angelo design it? Is not the Vatican, with all its treasures, the work of artists, and is it not the home of the popes?" "Oh! tut, tut!" broke in the Ambassador, "the Pope would be just as great and just as much sought after and worshipped if he lived under a tent in the desert." Then changing the subject, as he thought, he asked me how long I had been in Rome and if I were alone. On telling him I had brought my wife, he said, "You should take her about, especially if she has not been here before. This is an interesting place; there is much to be seen in ancient as well as modern monuments. People flock here to see the remains of the great Roman builders, like the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Forum, and other architectural remains, all constituting the chief glory of the Roman emperors, and, of course, the later period, when the Church was aiming at supremacy over the civil power, and at the height of its glory and splendour devoted its great wealth and influence to the creation of the Vatican, St. Peter's, and the many other churches."
Listening until he had finished, I rose, thanked him for his kind reception and courtesy, and departed, wondering.Finding no encouragement here, I attacked the Vatican, and wasted days in marching up and down its marble stairs, until the guards and huissiers must have wondered what I was so persistent in seeking. At last one of the ecclesiastics to whom I had been directed, who held some official position in the offices of the Vatican, and whose name I now forget, awakened in me such a sense of indignation that I expostulated with him in tones that brought him to a more obliging disposition of mind, and he advised me to see Cardinal Rampollo, who was in a position to grant or refuse my request at once. He could have told me this before. After he had listened to my criticisms of the Church's attitude in living upon the past and doing nothing for the present or the future of Art, and was convinced that Rome had passed through three successive periods—of greatness, under the Cæsars, of mediocrity, under the popes, and of decadence, under the modern kings—by referring him to the architecture of each period to corroborate rate my statements, he changed his manner of indifference to one of attention and became, in the end, polite.
I obtained the promise of a reception by Cardinal Rampollo. On the day appointed I mounted a long flight of steps to the top of the Vatican and was ushered into a room richly furnished in gold and brocade. In a few minutes the Cardinal entered. He greeted me simply and kindly, and pointing to one corner of a high-backed gilt sofa, in the rococo style, he seated himself close to me in the other. We might have known each other all our lives. His easy and restful poise, his affable speech, led me to suppose that he was prepared for a friendly talk of any length and that affairs of State could wait.
"I am sorry that His Holiness cannot be approached upon the subject of having his portrait painted," was his ultimatum. "He is not well, is, as you know, old and weak; besides, he does not give sittings for the portraits that are painted of him." I reminded him that two French painters, Benjamin Constant and Chartran, had painted large portraits of the Pope that had been exhibited in the Salon and elsewhere, and that newspapers had printed long accounts of their interviews with the Pope and the sittings that had been accorded by him. Leaning forward towards me, and contracting his dark brows over his piercing coal-black eyes, he said earnestly, "Do you suppose that an artist, with his easel, his palette and brushes, and all his paraphernalia, could come here and enter the presence of the Holy Father without my knowledge? I am near him every moment, night and day, and no one approaches him but through me."
"You must believe me or the newspapers," continued the Cardinal, and added, "I think you should know that the Pope has sat for his portrait but once. At the earnest request of a member of the Pecci family, and in the interest of a young man, intimately known to the family, the Pope was persuaded to grant him a few sittings. All the other portraits have been painted from sketches, made, perhaps, during public audiences, from memory, or from photographs."
While His Eminence was talking the thought entered my head to ask him for a sitting. He was princely in appearance, of a dark, strong, southern type, with well-developed features. The long, black frock, touched here and there with purple and gold, the black hair and biretta against the background of gold and damask, made an imposing picture. Had there been a mirror on the other side of the room, reflecting him and me, I should have been shocked at the contrast between our two personalities—one belonging to all time, tall and attired with dignity that welcomes respect, the other clad in jacket and trousers that belong to no time and repel every æsthetic sense, as well as respect.
My disappointment was mollified by what had been recounted to me by this courteous and kindly Prince of the Church, and, saying good-bye, I slowly descended the marble steps, sad but not angry. The dream had vanished. Rome had no further interest for me.
Some time after this, when I visited the International Exhibition in Chicago, I saw in one of the picture galleries the portrait of Leo XIII by the young friend of the Pecci family. It bore upon its face the proof of Cardinal Rampollo's statement that it had been painted from nature.
Printed in Great Britain by
UNWIN BROTHERS, LIMITED, THE GRESHAM PRESS, WOKING AND LONDON