A Coming Storm

In April of 1865, New York City was awaiting the opening of a brand new palace for the visual arts, the National Academy of Design. The cornerstone of this new building to art and sculpture had been laid in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Despite the difficulties in sourcing materials and labor for the institution, work had managed to continue on the edifice. The design of the building was unique in Manhattan, taking inspiration from the Venetian Gothic style in order to create a truly eye catching spectacle. The interior of the structure contained galleries, a library, and a grand staircase supported by beautiful marble columns. The total cost to build this palace to the arts during wartime was $220,000. Among the subscribers to the Academy’s fellowship fund was Edwin Booth, who donated $100.

Even as the building was being completed, arrangements were made regarding the first exhibition to grace the new gallery’s walls. Paintings were requested from notable artists and collectors for the grand opening exhibition. This was meant to be an exhibit of contemporary art showing the works of current and up-and-coming artists. By early April, the edifice and exhibition were ready to go and it was announced that the National Academy of Design was to open on Monday, April 17.

On Friday, April 14, three days before the art gallery was to open in New York, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth. This tragic event, coming just days after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, plunged the entire country into deep despair. On April 15, the governing council of the National Academy of Design voted to postpone the building’s opening in light of the national calamity that had occurred, and, like many other organizations, published the record of their grief in the newspaper.

“Resolved, That the council of the National Academy of Design hear with profound grief of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the late beloved President of the United States.

Resolved, That we cherish a deep reverence for his great character and inestimable services to our country and the cause of freedom throughout the world.

Resolved, That we devoutly pray Almighty God to save out country from disaster while suffering from the affliction of this base and cowardly murder, the natural fruit of treason and slavery.

Resolved, That, in respect for the memory of our late honored chief magistrate, the ceremony of the inauguration of the academy building, and the opening of the exhibition, be postponed.

Published by order, T. Addison Richards Con. Sec., N.A.”

Like countless other buildings across the country, the Academy building was draped in black mourning bunting. In addition, a red, white, and blue shield was covered in crape and hung over the doorway of the building.

On April 24, Lincoln’s remains arrived in New York City as part of his nationwide funeral train procession. No doubt members of the National Academy of Design were among the around 120,000 people who gazed upon the face of the President as he lay in state at the city hall. The only known photograph of Lincoln in death was taken during this stop:

The Lincoln funeral train departed New York City on the morning of April 25, en route to Albany and then points west, on its long journey home to Springfield, IL.

Two days later, on April 27, The National Academy of Design, feeling that it was in bad taste to have a big grand opening celebration, opted instead for a soft launch of sorts. The invited guests for the debut were a large, but select group who became the first to tour the new palace to the arts and enjoy the inaugural exhibition. The opening was done so quickly, and so closely to the President’s funeral in the city, that some members of the press didn’t have time to write up their reviews for lack of space. Interestingly, the weekly New York Atlas newspaper briefly discussed the opening of the National Academy of Design while, in the same story, lamenting the seizure of photographs from the Lincoln funeral by the War Department.

Despite the reporter’s hope to see photographer Gurney’s “completed pictures” of the Lincoln funeral, the one picture of Lincoln lying in state shown above would not be publicly seen until 1952. After hearing that a photograph had been taken of Lincoln’s body, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton order the glass plate negative destroyed. This was done, but not before a single print was made and sent to Stanton. This print was later found after Stanton’s death by his son Lewis. Lewis Stanton sent the print to John Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s personal secretaries who was working on a series of biographies about Lincoln with fellow secretary John Hay. Nicolay and Hay never used the photograph in their books. In 1952, the photograph was rediscovered by 14 year-old Ron Rietveld who was looking through a collection of Nicolay-Hay papers donated to the Illinois State Historical Library. It was quite the discovery.

But back to National Academy of Design.

The debut exhibition was a great success and first the next few months visitors continued to visit and remark about the impressive contemporary paintings. Some of the paintings on display were:

North and South by Constant Mayer

The Hill of Alhambra, Granada by Samuel Colman

Christmas-Time by Eastman Johnson

A Picnic on the Hudson by Thomas Rossiter

Looking Down the Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt

The Antiquary by Charles Coleman

There was even a painting of Edwin Booth in the exhibition. It was painted by John Pope in celebration of Booth’s 100 nights of Hamlet which he had just completed in New York City on March 22. Below is an engraving of the painting.

Even the painting of Edwin could draw in an audience. In one reporter’s visit to the Academy he noted that, “Here a lady with deep Italian eyes forgets herself to the marble before Pope’s portrait of ‘Edwin Booth as Hamlet,’ fascinated by the memory of his magnetic beauty…”

Among the patrons of the Academy’s first few week of operation was the noted novelist, Herman Melville.

The author of Moby Dick lived not far from the newly erected Academy and while visiting the new exhibition, he found himself transfixed by a particular painting. It was an 1863 piece by Sanford Gifford called A Coming Storm.

A Coming Storm by Sanford Gifford (click to enlarge)

The painting shows a forested lake in the Catskill mountains on an autumn day. A group of Native Americans sit, almost camouflaged, with their teepees near a large rock on one side of the lake. On the other side, a black thunder cloud is breaking over a mountain though it has not yet has not yet blotted out the sun. Melville was not the only one impressed by Gifford’s painting. According to one reporter, “As a landscape there is nothing finer in the exhibition.”

Yet, it was more than artistic beauty that drew Melville’s eye. The exhibition’s catalog noted that while Sanford Gifford was the painter, he had not loaned the piece to the Academy himself. Gifford had already sold the painting to a friend of his who allowed it to be borrowed for the exhibit. That friend was Edwin Booth.

Edwin had been introduced to Sanford in 1862 by their shared acquaintances Richard and Elizabeth Stoddard. Richard was a literary reviewer while his wife Elizabeth was a novelist and poet. The Stoddards were the center of an artistic circle in New York City which included artists of all type. Edwin Booth’s talents on the stage were acknowledged and celebrated in this group of writers, poets, painters, and sculptors. Edwin gained many friends in this group and, in his later years, Edwin attempted to recreate this shared comradery with the creation of The Players Club. It was in this way that Edwin had come to meet Sanford Gifford and subsequently purchase his beautiful painting, A Coming Storm.

Herman Melville found himself struck by the symbolism and irony of it all. The left side of the painting, filled with its gorgeous golden colors, symbolized the light that had emerged with the end of the Civil War while the dark cloud creeping over the mountain about to blot out the sun represented the murder of Lincoln so shortly thereafter. It was a coming storm of darkness that enveloped the whole country in a massive downpour of tumult and grief. But more than the storm itself, Melville was fascinated that Edwin Booth, of all people, had been moved by this painting enough to purchase it. Edwin had somehow felt his own fate in this painting long before the storm that now drenched them all was on the horizon. To Melville, the only explanation of how Edwin Booth could have reconciled himself to an unknown storm and was, at that moment, weathering it despite unbearable personal agony, was due to his complete devotion to Shakespeare and his tragedies. John Pope’s painting hanging nearby was a testament that Edwin Booth was Hamlet and knew the deepest and darkest of grief. This training was the only thing that could give Edwin the strength to survive the storm that currently ravaged his heart.

Melville, who had spent the last few years composing poetry rather than writing novels, found himself compelled to write the following poem about his experience with Edwin Booth’s Coming Storm:

“The Coming Storm:”

A Picture by S. R. Gifford, and owned by E.B. Included in the N. A. Exhibition, April 1865.

All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim-
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinated here.

A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild
As thus urned lake, the home of shades.
But Shakspeare’s pensive child

Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
Such hearts can antedate.

No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there-
Man’s final lore.

Melville published “The Coming Storm” in 1866 in his collection of Civil War related poetry called, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Reviews of Melville’s foray into poetry were mixed. Richard Stoddard, Edwin’s friend, was one of the kinder reviewers but still wrote that, “The collection of battle-pieces exemplifies the fact that the poetic nature and the technical faculty of poetry writing are not identical.” Stoddard enjoyed the poetic nature of Melville’s collection, but found his rhythm and rhyming to be lacking. The book sold poorly with less than 500 copies being sold within two years.

A century later, however, Melville’s collection found greater appreciation as an example of Civil War poetry. The poem that just precedes “The Coming Storm” in the book is called “The Martyr” and, rather than focusing on the grief of Lincoln’s death as so many other period poems did, Melville, instead expresses the anger of the people.

The Martyr

Indicative of the passion of the people on the 15th of April, 1865

Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
When with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood—
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver—
The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
Who in righteousness shall do
What heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
For they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness.
And his blood is on their hand.

There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.

From a lyrical standpoint, The Martyr reads a bit better than “The Coming Storm”. Yet the two still contrast each other nicely. The Martyr is overt in its anger while “The Coming Storm” is perplexing in its acceptance of fate. The poems, next to each other in the volume, provide strikingly different interpretations of the same tragic event. The Martyr is the voice of the public at large while “The Coming Storm” considers the personal torment of the Booth family.

After the National Academy of Design’s debut exhibition closed in 1866, A Coming Storm was returned to Edwin Booth. The actor held onto it as he spent a fortune in the creation of his own theater in New York City. Construction on Booth’s Theatre started in 1868 and the first performance in his state of the art theater occurred on February 3, 1869.

Edwin had spared no expense on his dream playhouse and for the first few years he found success. Soon however a Coming Storm of a different nature appeared on the horizon. A severe financial panic swept the nation in 1873, decreasing the number of patrons visiting theaters and plunging Edwin severely into debt. With the mortgage on his beautiful theater due and the banks unwilling to negotiate, Edwin was forced to sell all interests in his namesake theater and declared bankruptcy. To help pay some of his creditors, much of Edwin’s personal theatrical wardrobe, props, library, and paintings were seized for auction. It was during this time that A Coming Storm left Booth’s possession as it was necessarily auctioned off.

In 1876, the then owner of A Coming Storm once again exhibited it in a public gallery. This time it was displayed by the Brooklyn Art Association where it was noted as being one of “the most effective” landscapes in the exhibition. In 1880, Sanford Gifford, the artist of the piece, bought his own painting back and did a little retouching on it. He also re-dated it from 1863 to 1880. Sanford Gifford died in 1881 and the painting went back into private hands. Eventually it was loaned to, and then purchased by, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Today the 28 x 42 inch painting formerly belonging to Edwin Booth is on display in the museum’s American Gallery, continuing to impress and inspire others to ponder the coming storm in their own lives.

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Post navigation

4 thoughts on “A Coming Storm

  1. chiefden34gmailcom

    Fascinating story. So does the building still stand?

  2. chiefden34gmailcom

    Very interesting article about the building. Thanks for sending. The repurposing of parts of the structure to build Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Harlem was a fascinating part of the article. I’ve since found pictures of the church and the repurposing is readily apparent. The church is still in use today, so the legacy of the building lives on.

  3. Katy Berman

    Thank-you. A great article with wonderful art and architiecture. I have long been interested in Edwin Booth, and the agony he must have felt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: