Skip to main content

Polishing the "Common People"

image 1image 2image 3image 4cropped image 1

Polishing the "Common People."

It is a frequent remark that we Americans do not give enough encouragement to the fine arts. Perhaps this is unavoidable; for in the course of our national existence—the subduing of wild territories—the prosecution of two heavy wars, and the general turmoil incident to the first fifty years in the life of a great empire, we have had little time to attend to the finer and more polished enjoyments of existence. Such luxuries do not come, by any means, the first in the course of a people's efforts, either.—They are the fruit of time—long in ripening.

Yet we could wish the spreading of a sort of democratical artistic atmosphere, among the inhabitants of our republic, even now. This may be helped onward cheaply and conveniently in many ways. It is well known what a refining effect the cultivation of music has on the masses. Much good might also be done by the more frequent diffusion of tasty prints,1 cheap casts of statuary,2 and so on. The influence of flowers, too, is not beneath the attention of those who would have elegance of manners a frequent thing among the people. Who is so poor that he or she cannot possess a few flower pots, and pretty shrubs? Small as some may imagine such business to be, it is potent for good and deserves commendation. And as to prints, there are innumerable ones that can be purchased for a small sum, good enough for any man's parlor. What influence would Dick's engraving of the "Last Supper," alone, produce, if hung up in the daily presence of the families of our land?3 With the divine face and expression of the Guileless Man beaming down upon them, who could let meanness, selfishness, and passion, get such frequent mastery of reason? With the accursed token of Judas, (the master part of the artist, in our opinion) and the pure gentleness of St John, placed side by side, what beneficial preference might result from the contrast?4 Such results, we know, escape the minds of men who judge hastily and superficially; but we are assured the invisible sway of even a picture, has sometimes controlling influence over a man's character and future life.

We love all that ameliorates or softens the feelings and customs. We have often thought, and indeed it is undeniable, that the great difference in the impressions which various communities make on foreigners travelling among them, is altogether caused by the possession or deficiency of these little graces of action and appearance. It must be confessed that we in America, among the general population, have very, very few of these graces. Yet the average intellect and education of the American people is ahead of all other parts of the world. We suggest whether we are not much in fault for entertaining such a contempt toward these "little things," as many will call them.

Let every family have some flowers, some choice prints, and some sculpture casts. And as it is the peculiar province of woman to achieve these graceful and polished adornments of life, we submit our remarks and suggestions especially to them.


1. Whitman's commitment to the spread of a "democratical artistic atmosphere" coincided with and was greatly facilitated by developments in new image technologies and mass-production processes. One of the most important of these was chromolithography. Lithographs are images drawn on finely polished limestone that were then run through special printing presses. The first color lithographs (chromos) in America were printed in Boston in 1840. Chromolithographs, art historian Peter Marzio writes, served the "democratization of culture" by making possible the distribution of inexpensive fine-art imagery to the burgeoning middle class (Peter C. Marzio, The Democratic Art: Pictures for a 19th-Century America: Chromolithography 1840–1900 [Boston: David R. Godine; Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1979], 1–22). [back]

2. Inexpensive casts of statuary, made of bronze, zinc, or plaster, facilitated the distribution of small, domestic-scale works of art. The works were generally sold through auction houses, fancy goods stores, or distributed by image peddlers. See especially Michele Bogart, "The Development of a Popular Market for Sculpture in America: 1850–1880," Journal of American Culture 4, no. 1 (1981): 3–27. [back]

3. Alexander L. Dick (1805–1865) was a Scottish-born engraver who arrived in New York in 1833. His 1846 engraving of The Last Supper was a copy of the 1800 engraving by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen (1758–1833) after the mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci housed in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns an impression of Dick's engraving (accession no. 24.631856). [back]

4. In the image, Judas Iscariot (died c. 30–c.33 AD), one of the original twelve Apostles, sits in shadow, leaning away from the central figure of Christ. St. John (c. 6–c. 100 AD), the youngest Apostle, also known as St. John the Evangelist, sits next to Judas and immediately to Christ's right. [back]

Back to top