Anecdotes of Painters, Engravers, Sculptors and Architects, and Curiosities of Art (1853)

Before Wikipedia cornered the market on capsule biographies, there was no shortage of books about the lives of the eminent and famous. These books were not limited to a single subject or a small group of subjects, as in most modern biographies, but ran the gamut from encyclopedia-like volumes with thousands of entries arranged in alphabetical order to more disorderly assemblages of arcana and anecdotes.

This three-volume collection by the excellently named Shearjashub Spooner falls unquestionably into the latter category. Spooner (1809–1859) was an American writer, art enthusiast, physician, and dentist. (His other books include Guide to Sound Teeth, Art of Manufacturing Mineral Teeth, and Treatise on Surgical and Mechanical Dentistry.) The publication of these three volumes — as well as other art-related books, such as Boydell’s Illustrations of Shakespeare, were a “labor of love” for the overworked Dr Spooner. In his introduction to volume one of his Anecdotes, he understandably complains (in third person, following the editorial conventions of the day) that “in order to find time for these enterprises, and still attend to the calls of his profession”, he had been “obliged to deprive himself of repose and relaxation” on every day except the Sabbath.

The contents of Spooner’s Anecdotes are organized in an idiosyncratic way, freely mixing the American and the ancient Greek. Chapter headings range from “Painting from Nature” and “Advantages of the Cultivation of the Fine Arts to a Country” to the more specific headings you might expect in such a book (“Michael Angelo and Julius II”, “Rubens’ Visit to Italy”).

Give over to the idiosyncrasy, however, and you’ll soon discover all sorts of amusing and amazing stories, such as this one, entitled “A Painter’s Retort Courteous”:

Jean Ranc, an eminent French portrait painter, was sometimes annoyed by impertinent and vexatious criticism. Having exhausted all his talent upon a particular portrait, the friends of the sitter himself refused to be pleased, although the sitter himself appears to have been well satisfied. In concert with the latter, Ranc concerted a plan for a practical retort. After privately painting a copy of the picture, he cut the head out of the canvas, and placed it in such a position that the original could supply the opening with his own veritable face, undetected. After all was ready, the cavilers were invited to view the performance, but they were no better pleased. Falling completely into the snare, the would-be critics were going on to condemn the likeness, when the relaxing features and hearty laughter of the supposed portrait, speedily and sufficiently avenged the painter of their fastidiousness.

There are several excellent stories about the eccentric English painter George Morland (1763–1804), including the artist John Hassell’s account of how he first met him:

“As I was walking…towards Paddington on a summer morning…I saw a man posting on before me with a sucking-pig, which he carried in his arms like a child. The piteous squeaks of the little animal, and the singular mode of conveyance, drew spectators to door and window; the person however who carried it minded no one, but to every dog that barked — and there were not a few — he sat down the pig, and pitted him against the dog, and then followed the chase which was sure to ensue. In this manner he went through several streets in Mary-le-bone, and at last, stopping at the door of one of my friends, was instantly admitted. I also knocked and entered, but my surprise was great on finding this original sitting with the pig still under his arm, and still greater when I was introduced to Morland the painter.”

One of the inspirations for Spooner’s Anecdotes is doubtless Giorgio Vasari’s sixteenth-century Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects — a foundational work of art history that presents short gossipy biographies of such people as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Paolo Uccello (biographies from which Spooner quotes at length). In terms of form, however, Spooner’s Anecdotes much more resemble John Aubrey’s seventeenth-century Brief Lives — a heterogeneous work in which Aubrey gathered together stray facts about everyone from the famous (John Milton, Thomas Hobbes) to the obscure (Elizabeth Broughton, a gentlewoman who ran away from home and became a sex worker in London).

If there is nothing quite this risqué in Spooner’s Anecdotes, there is much to enlighten and entertain. It’s interesting to know that the American portrait artist Gilbert Stuart “maintained that a likeness depended more on the nose…than any other feature”; but it’s downright delightful to picture him — as Spooner describes — putting “his thumb under his own large and flexible proboscis, and turning it up”, exclaiming: “who would know my portrait with such a nose as this?”

Shearjashub Spooner, Anecdotes of Painters, Engravers, Sculptors and Architects, and Curiosities of Art Volume 2 (New York, G.P. Putnam & Co., 1853)

Shearjashub Spooner, Anecdotes of Painters, Engravers, Sculptors and Architects, and Curiosities of Art Volume 3 (New York, G.P. Putnam & Co., 1853)

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