When you graduate from a University that counts dozens of U.S. presidents and Supreme Court justices — and hundreds of distinguished scholars, scientists, and Nobel Prize winners — among its alumni, it is easy, even for the most accomplished and talented, to slip through the cracks into obscurity. One such alumnus whose reputation has fallen victim to time and fashion is the painter Washington Allston, perhaps the most famous Harvard graduate you’ve never heard of.
Allston was born in South Carolina in November 1779. As a young man he moved north to attend Harvard, graduating in 1800. During his years at Harvard, he was known for his talents as a poet as well as an artist, and he served as vice president and poet of the Hasty Pudding Club. Shortly after graduation, he relocated to England to study art under Benjamin West at the Royal Academy.
Allston spent the better part of the next two decades in Europe, returning only once in 1808 to marry Ann Channing, sister of fellow Harvard alumnus and prominent Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing.
It was during those years in Europe that Allston refined his artistic skills and made his reputation as “the first genius produced by the Western world,” according to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A large portrait of Coleridge, painted by Allston, is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Allston’s voluminous work included portraits, scenes from Bible stories, and, especially toward the end of his career, landscapes. Among his numerous American admirers were luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In 1818, Allston returned to Boston and set up a studio in Cambridgeport, where he would spend the rest of his life working reclusively, the majority of his most accomplished work already behind him. In 1830, 15 years after the death of his first wife, he married Martha Dana, a member of a prominent Cambridge family.
Allston died in July of 1843 and is buried in the Dana family plot in the “old burying ground” in Harvard Square.
Although interest in Allston’s work waned in the years following his death, a resurgence of attention developed in the 1940s, culminating in a major exhibition in 1947 at the Detroit Institute of Arts organized by E.P. Richardson. A second major exhibition was held at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston in 1979 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Allston’s birth.
The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard has an extensive collection of Allston’s work consisting of 11 paintings and more than 250 drawings. Currently there is only one Allston piece on display at the Fogg, the chalk sketch, “Ship in a Squall.”
Allston’s legacy lives on at the Fogg, the MFA, and the neighborhood named for him. Few people realize that Boston’s Allston neighborhood is the famed artist’s namesake.
Allston-Brighton author and historian William Marchione suggests that the Allston neighborhood is the only community in the United States named after an artist.
Allston’s life and works will be discussed on Wednesday (Nov. 7) at the Honan-Allston Branch Library. Marchione, who is president of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, and Judith Murray of the Harvard University Art Museums will present an interactive slide lecture on the artist at 6:30 p.m. in the library auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.
Historian and author Bill Marchione and Judith Murray of the Harvard University Art Museums will discuss the life and works of Washington Allston on Wednesday (Nov. 7) at 6:30 p.m., Honan-Allston Branch Library auditorium, 300 North Harvard St., Allston. The event is free and open to the public.