Friday, September 21, 2012

The Suicide of Thomas Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856)

 This my favorite Pre-Raphaelite painting. "The high hopes of the sanguine boy had begun to fade. He had not yet completed his second month in London, and already failure and starvation stared him in the face. Mr. Cross, a neighboring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper; but he refused. His landlady also, suspecting his necessity, pressed him to share her dinner, but in vain. "She knew", as she afterwards said, "that he had not eaten anything for two or three days." But he was offended at her urgency, and assured her that he was not hungry. The note of his actual receipts, found in his pocket-book after his death, shows that Hamilton, Fell and other editors who had been so liberal in flattery, had paid him at the rate of a shilling for an article, and somewhat less than eightpence each for his songs; while much which had been accepted was held in reserve, and still unpaid for. The beginning of a new month revealed to him the indefinite postponement of the publication and payment of his work. He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; in his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon's assistant on board an African trader. He appealed also to Mr. Catcott to forward his plan, but in vain. On the 24th of August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand."  Of course, the very next day, a patron arrives to financially assist him.

John Ruskin's notes from The Royal Academy pamphlet: "Faultless and wonderful: a most noble example of the great school. Examine it well inch by inch: it is one of the pictures which intend, and accomplish, the entire placing before your eyes of an actual fact ―and that a solemn one. Give it much time."
That's Victorian London in the window and the intensity of color in Chatterton's Irish-red hair is unbelievable.Chatterton lived by forging pseudo-medieval poetry.


  1. Replies
    1. "Wyeth’s father was the only teacher that he had. Due to being schooled at home, he led both a sheltered life and one that was “obsessively focussed”. Wyeth recalled of that time: “Pa kept me almost in a jail, just kept me to himself in my own world, and he wouldn’t let anyone in on it. I was almost made to stay in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest with Maid Marion and the rebels.”

  2. A visit to the Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington) then to the Brandywine Museum (just north) is enough to demonstrate the absolute aesthetic continuity from the PRB thru Howard Pyle to all 3 generations of Wyeths.

    1. But the resemblance between the two? A nod to the Wallis painting, specifically.

  3. "Forge" of course has two meanings, as in Stephen Dedalus's resolve to "forge the uncreated conscience of [his] race." Chatterton's forgeries/forgings are of course central to the self-imaginining of the Romantics (see Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence"), & are indeed an early version of the Romantic medievalism of Keats, Tennyson, Carlyle, Ruskin & the PRB. What's of interest is not the "authenticity" achieved -- of course it's fake -- but the roots of the impulse.

  4. Although one of the Rowley poems was published in Town and Country Magazine in May, 1769--making it the only Rowley poetry published during Chatterton's lifetime. After his rebuke by Walpole, Chatterton turned his pen to political satire and other writing he could sell to periodicals, usually writing under pseudonyms. Chatterton achieved moderate success through his writing, and developed a reputation of some note in literary circles. Despite his achievements, however, Chatterton led the life of a pauper. He became severely depressed and experienced other health and financial problems which he could not overcome. In August 1770, Chatterton committed suicide by swallowing poison and was dead by the age of seventeen.

    The first published collection of the Rowley poems appeared in 1777, seven years after Chatterton's death. It was greeted with both enthusiasm and skepticism. The poet Thomas Warton, in particular, questioned the authenticity of the Rowley poems and pronounced them forgeries in his History of English Poetry (1778). Chatterton had his supporters, however, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the controversy over Chatterton ended and there was general acceptance that he was the true author of the Rowley poems and the fifteenth-century Bristol monk was merely his invention.

    Throughout the controversy, Chatterton's harshest critics and strongest doubters nearly all held the opinion that he was a poet of great talent. He became an icon to the Romantic poets. Keats dedicated "Endymion" to Chatterton's memory and Wordsworth dubbed him "the marvelous boy."

  5. This painting brings immediately to mind so many other portraits of unecessary suicide. In literature one can find such instances easily enough, especially in the form of tragic plays (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, Middleton, and so forth.) With regard to previous artistic compositions one may easily reference "The Death of Socrates" painted by Jaques-Louis David or "The Death of Marat" created by the same artist - (?) - just speaking / writing /typing offhand.... The important point here being that all of the protagonists depicted in these similarly dramatic and engaging artworks died for love of their art; in an attitude of general disapproval for that which they attempted not only share, but in fact attempted in vain to offer the world as they understood it - and often rightly; with an insightful observation of the contemporary in which they made an attempt to live and enjoy, or seek for and find destruction of self within. More, in an expanse of thought which brought them not so much to give up on, but to make the conscientious choice of leaving by way of personal choice, this same unabiding humanity which (that) had denied what they had openly offered - because humanity denied them not only the opportunity, but more importantly (I beleieve) the understanding of what it was they were in fact hoping to offer to their fellows in conjunction of their own contemporary common social and political insights and arguments, they chose the unknowable Hell over the offered but never-found gracious eternity. They chose to live in earnest: And what is so wrong with thaT? And so it goes... any insight? - I thought and brought my own learned perspectives to the mix for discussion, I hope. (I did make warning, right?) Looking forward to observations and commentary, I'm curious for sure. Looking for something to have to think about further - something that is going to make me re-question myself, to the end of more insight.

  6. OK - you caught me, Erick. Please allow me a moment to re-assess why I said in the moment whnce I was thinking what I did: Yes, the "Death of Marat" was not a suicide: I mis-spoke. However, I will answer your question in reference to whether or not Marat chose to die by saying that he allowed an unknown into the realm of his home during a highly inderminable revolution. Thus he provided an opening which it seems to me he must have been awaree of.

    Perhaps it is difficult to extend a forthright personification of who was right and who was wrong by way of their thinking and actions during the French Revolution - especially because the movement experienced so many changes and re-arrangments - but, yes, it seems to me that Marat chose his death by way of announcing his openness to those of his fellow humanitarians who sought, through themselves personally, or through a messenger (whom I believe was a common way of correspondence within Morat's contemporary,) to engage in his beliefs - or not.

    Perhaps Morat died in essence because of his carelessness, but I myself choose to believe he chose to die (or at least in death knew he chose his fate) for the open and revolutionary manner in which he expressed himself and his beliefs. Perhaps he could even be viewed as a martyr.

    His death was not chosen, true - and that is where I made point of expressing that I was "speaking / writing / typing offhand" - and I appreciate your correction. My belief remains the same all in all. While Marat died by way of an act of revenge, his murder still was not an act that was then or can now be viewed as unexpected - even by Marat himself. (And here, again, there may be argument.)

    In the early French Revolution - perhaps before it was even called a revolution - Marat was writing subversive materials. It could even be argued that his murder provided the reasoning for the French Revolution to gain a name, in fact to recognize itself as a real and true mode of attempted interference. So, while Marat does not necessarily choose his own death, he does necessarily die for the progeneration of his desires and views - and to this extent I can say in reflection of my original erroneous statement that I do belief his death was not a verified and actual suicide, but a death brought about by the same human passions and evocation's of decision nontheless.