Washington Allston (American, 1779–1843)
63.82 x 90.8 cm (25 1/8 x 35 3/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Out on Loan
On display at Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Japan, February 18, 2018 – July 1, 2018
Allston never tired of creating variations of the classical landscape type developed by artists who worked in Rome in the seventeenth century, such as Claude Lorrain [44.72]. After returning permanently to the United States in 1818, Allston regularly painted such landscapes, which usually feature figures in the foreground, water in the middle ground, and a mountain in the distance. All of Allston’s scenes were imaginary views and most were suggestive of Italy, which he identified as a place for poetry, music, or meditation. Moonlight was one of the first works Allston painted upon his return and it remains one of his most subjective and enigmatic renditions of Italianate landscape. That Allston intended his landscape to recall Italy is indicated by the painting it most resembles, mid-seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Asselijn’s View of the Tiber (Tropeau traversant une riviere, 1646 or 1647, Musée du Louvre, Paris), which had been one of the highlights of the Louvre in Napoleon’s time and a copy of which Allston may have owned as an engraving.
Allston altered the landscape to suit his own purposes. In the distance he created a hazy string of crowded buildings combining domes, towers, and low, tightly massed masonry structures, some on flat land, some on hills. Some have a seemingly recognizable character, all drawn from Rome or its surrounding towns: a dome to the right could be the Pantheon; the long, low building at the center might be a cloister, perhaps the monastery at nearby Subiaco; the bridged ravine to the left suggests the Roman country retreat at Tivoli; the hill town at the far left could be Olevano, some twenty miles to the east of the city. In the background Allston suggests the Roman Campagna and the Alban Hills. He obviously intended these landscape elements to be barely discernible to the viewer. In the shifting, cloud-covered moonlight, the terrain bespeaks transience as well as eternity.
Moonlight has long been thought to be self-referential. The picture seems to deal with a voyage taken, or, rather, two voyages: one by sea just finished (indicated by the beached boat in the foreground) and one on land just begun (indicated by the horse and rider). Perhaps not coincidentally, Allston’s own return to Boston in October 1818 occurred by moonlight on a calm sea. Yet boat, horse and rider, and moonlight also carry allegorical meaning, judging by Allston’s use of these motifs in his own poetry. In “Sylphs of the Seasons” he equates the rider on horseback with the poet; in his “Sonnet to Coleridge” the sailboat represents the soul and night travel is meant to evoke the search for truth.
Allston’s painting also inspired poetry in others. Henry Pickering of Salem, who bought Moonlight, wrote three poems about it. A few lines from Pickering’s “Moonlight: An Italian Scene,” of 1828:
Tis night; yet O, how beautiful the night!
So beautiful, I would not wish it day;
But rather night forever, if the nights
Were all like this. How calm, how still the air!
How soft the moonlight! How serene the heavens!
How clear the watery mirror spread beneath!
This text was adapted from Diana Strazdes’s entry in The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760–1914, by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., et al., exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1992).
1819, Henry Pickering (1781-1838), Salem. By 1829, possibly John Doggett (1780-1857), Boston. By 1839, Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818-1890), Boston; by 1881, by descent to his mother, Mary Scollay (Mrs. Jacob) Bigelow 1793-1882), Boston; 1882, by descent to her grandson, WIlliam Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926), Boston; 1921, gift of WIlliam Sturgis Bigelow to the MFA. (Accession Date: July 7, 1921)
William Sturgis Bigelow Collection