I don’t often call on Harriet Beecher Stowe for words of wisdom. She was so much part of her time, a period that frequently favored a cloying sentimentality and a triumphal romanticism that’s hard for more contemporary souls to take seriously. I’ve visited her homes in Maine and Connecticut and driven past another she built in Jacksonville, Florida. She came from one of the most famous and infamous families of the 19th century, one full of charming reverends and passionate activists. She was always part of the élite, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin made her wealthy.
I would certainly not have consulted her about the paintings in the Louvre when, in 1853 she took the Grand Tour to get away from the paparazzi of her day after the publication of Uncle Tom. I mean her diaries from that journey were published under the title, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands! She looked for an overwhelming experience in that august European museum, and hoped for revelations “great and glorious enough to seize and control my whole being, and answer at once the cravings of the poetic and artistic element.”
It didn’t happen.
Nevertheless, she did enjoy her visit. And much of what she learned is still instructive today. She found Rembrandt to be like Nathaniel Hawthorne, because his use of light, shadow and color describe a mystery,
and this pleases us because our life really is a haunted one; the simplest thing in it is a mystery, the invisible world always lies around us like a shadow, and therefore this dreamy golden gleam of Rembrandt meets somewhat in our inner consciousness to which it corresponds.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rubens moved her most. Here were pictures full of the battle between good and evil, high-colored, dramatic. She wrote:
But here comes Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victorian, proper to a fault despite her progressive credentials, making the farther claim that defects can inform, improve and even take a piece of art to another, grander level. Of course, she meant that some can, and not most. My mistakes on the piano will always mar every piece of music I play. The defects in my writing have not yet made it better.
Nonetheless, I think there may be something worth pondering in Rubens’ “excesses” and Shakespeare’s “defects.” I may have something to learn from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appreciation of fine art.