Boston’s Allston section is said to be the only community in the United States named for an artist—the great Romantic painter Washington Allston (1779-1843). This is of course is no small distinction.
Allston “Self-Portrait, completed in 1805. By the 1820s this European trained painter was regarded as the greatest artist America had yet produced, having risen to the top of the profession as a painter of large-scale historical and literary works in London, one of Europe’s premier artistic capitals.
But who was Washington Allston, and how did his name come to be applied to this Boston suburb? And why was the painter Allston so honored rather than some other Boston-area artist of arguably equal distinction such as Copley, Stuart, or Trumbull?
The choice of the name Allston is especially surprising when one considers that this painter was not a native of New England. Allston was born in distant South Carolina into a wealthy family of slave-owning rice planters. Though he came to New England at a fairly young age to attend Harvard College, much of his life was spent (his most productive period artistically) in Europe. By the time he settled permanently in Boston in 1818, the painter was already forty years of age, and most of his significant work lay behind him.
Allston’s “The Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea” (1804), his best known seascape or marine painting.
Another factor that renders the choice somewhat surprising, perhaps even inappropriate, was the scant interest Allston paid American subject matter. Apart from a few portraits of family members and friends, Allston painted almost nothing on American themes. Not one of his brilliant marine paintings, or stunningly iridescent landscapes, or elaborately executed history paintings celebrates the American experience.
While Copley and Stuart have left us a wonderful record in portraiture of early American history; while John Trumbull created giant history canvasses celebrating our Revolutionary and early national history; while Thomas Cole and his Hudson River school associates captured the wilder image of our primeval landscape on their canvasses, Allston preferred dealing with neoclassical and religious subject matter, considering American themes somehow inferior. While he painted brilliantly in a broad range of genres, as evidenced by such stunning canvasses as The Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea (1804), Moonlit Landscape (1819), and Elijah in the Desert (1818), in no real sense—apart from his birth and periods of residence here—can he be classified as an American painter.
Allston’s “Moonlit Landscape” (1819), perhaps his single best known work depicts not a specific locale, but a “landscape of the imagination.”.
So how did Allston’s name come to be applied to the eastern half of the Town of Brighton?
The name Allston was chosen as an address for a new post office that the federal government had decided to open in the eastern section of the Town of Brighton, Massachusetts (now part of the City of Boston). On February 11, 1868 local residents gathered in the Boston & Worcester railroad depot at Cambridge Crossing, as this section of Brighton was then known. After prolonged and indecisive discussion the participants adopted a suggestion of the leading local minister, the Reverend Frederic Augustus Whitney that the name Allston be adopted as the new postal address.
Reverend Whitney, who was the minister of Brighton’s First Parish Church, a distinguished Unitarian clergyman, member of the Board of Trustees of Harvard College, and himself a resident the eastern section of the town, recommended the name because the painter had once lived across the Charles River in nearby Cambridgeport, and also because Brighton had, before 1807, formed a part of Cambridge.
It is quite possible (even probable) that Whitney knew Allston personally, for the future minister had attended Harvard College and the Harvard Theological Seminary in the early 1830s during the period when Allston lived in Cambridgeport. Harvard students often visited the painter’s studio near Central Square to examine the giant canvases and other works of art that the celebrated painter had on display there.
How appropriate then was the choice of the name Allston for the Boston suburb that bears its name? While it may not have been the very best choice in historic terms, it was in many ways an understandable choice.
Though Allston settled in the Boston area at a late stage of his life, he had long considered himself a New Englander. His association with the region dated back to 1787 when his parents sent the then eight year old boy to live with a maternal uncle in Newport, Rhode Island, in order, it was said, that his “nervous…organization might be recruited by a more bracing air,” and also, so that he might be adequately prepared for admission to Harvard College.
Allston’s portrait of his brother-in-law “William Ellery Channing” (1809-1811). During Allston’s college preparatory years, while living with an uncle in Newport, he became acquainted with the prominent Channing family.
From 1796 to 1800 the handsome southerner formed lifelong friendships at Harvard with members of Boston’s social elite. He would eventually marry into two leading Boston-area families: the Channings and the Danas.
His native South, by contrast, held little appeal for him. He returned there only once, to collect his inheritance.
Upon graduation from Harvard in 1800, Allston left immediately for Europe, the center of the artistic world of his day, remaining there for most of the next two decades. He returned to Boston in 1808, married Ann Channing, younger sister of the noted Boston clergyman the Reverend William Ellery Channing, but was back in London by 1811.
Allston’s “The Valentine,” (1809-1811) said to be an idealized portrait of his first wife, Ann Channing Allston, and one of a series of painting dubbed by art historians as “Allston’s dreamy women. Sadly Ann died in England in 1815.
Once Allston returned to America permanently in 1818, he chose to live in Boston. During the last quarter century of his life (1818 to 1843) the painter resided first in the city itself (off of Federal Street), and then in the nearby suburb of Cambridgeport.
Had Allston not settled in Cambridgeport in 1830, it is unlikely that his name would have been applied to eastern part of Brighton. His second marriage to Martha Remington Dana prompted his removal from Boston to the developing suburb on the banks of the Charles directly across the river from present-day Allston. The Danas were a leading Cambridge family. Martha’s grandfather, Francis Dana, Congressman and first American Minister to Russia, had been the principal developer of Cambridgeport. Allston’s father-in-law, Richard Henry Dana, Sr. was a well-known poet and author who taught at Harvard, and was Allston’s closest friend.
An engraving of Allston at his easel by David Claypoole Johnston (1799-1865), a Boston illustrator and cartoonist.
In Cambridgeport the Allstons first lived in a house situated about a third of a mile south of Central Square, with an excellent view of the Charles River marshes. In 1831 the painter built a studio at the corner of present-day Magazine and Auburn Streets, which he designed himself. Shaped like a Greek temple, this edifice was about 20 by 40 feet long, large enough to house the giant paintings that were his stock in trade. Later the couple moved to a house at 172 Auburn Street, much closer to his “painting room,” as he called his studio. The leading literary and artistic figures of the day—in the era when Boston was ”The Athens of America”—visited Allston in his Cambridgeport studio: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Sully, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Margaret Fuller, William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, just to name a few.
How well-named is the Boston suburb from an artistic standpoint? When Allston died in 1843, he was at the zenith of his reputation and was considered the foremost American artist of the day. He was especially highly regarded in Boston. When plans to establish the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were being formulated in 1870, Allston’s painting Elijah in the Desert was the very first work purchased for inclusion. It was even suggested by one important donor that the museum be named in his honor, as the one great artist in America. There was dissent, certainly, coming from those who regarded Allston, with his European frame of reference, as irrelevant to America’s efforts to establish a national artistic identity, one of these being the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Allston’s “Elijah in the Desert,” one of his many works based on the Bible, was acquired in 1870 by the newly established Boston Museum of Fine Arts even before the museum had a building. It is thus listed as acquisition number 1 in the MFA catalog.
With the passage of time, this perception of Allston as an anachronism grew. By the early 20th century his reputation had receded to the point that he was often ignored altogether or dismissed as a minor figure.
A new appreciation of the importance and uniqueness of Allston’s work came in the 1940s, however, in response chiefly to the writings of E. P. Richardson of the Detroit Institute of Art, the painter’s principal biographer. Slowly Allston’s reputation revived. A landmark exhibit of his works at the MFA in 1979, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth entitled A Man of Genius, signaled Allston’s full rehabilitation. The catalog of that exhibit described the namesake of Boston’s Allston district as a sensitive portraitist, the first major American landscape painter, perhaps the country’s most important historical painter, and the most versatile draftsman of his time.
Here we see the catalog of a 1979 Boston Museum of Fine Arts Exhibit entitled ”A Man of Genius: The Art of Washington Allston,” the largest cllection of the works of Allston ever exhibited. It came at a fortuitous time for this writer, for I was then preparing a lecture on Allston’s life and works for presentation to the Brighton-Allston Historical, a lecture I gave on February 13th, 1980 and repeated with modifications several times thereafter, the last two occasions at the Cambridgeport branch of the Cambridge Public Library and as a joint lecture with Judith Murray of Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.