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    The Artist and his Wife, by James Huneker

    The Artist and his Wife

    [From James Huneker, The Pathos of Distance: A Book of a Thousand and One Moments (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1913), pages 245 to 263. James Gibbons Huneker (1857 – 1921) was a versatile writer and art critic who was hugely influential in the American artistic scene during his lifetime. George Jean Nathan opined that he did more “to free America from its slavery than any Lincoln.” Huneker’s good friend H.L. Mencken wrote in his obituary of Huneker that he had “never encountered a man who was further removed from dullness”. In the same essay, however, he added that his main books were filled with articles published in the most “respected” intellectual magazines of his day. As a result, these articles of his were “full of a conscious striving to qualify for respectable company.” That attempt can be traced in this essay. Huneker was clearly somewhat opposed to the idea of marriage, having left his first wife and being now married to a woman whom he appeared not to love, cheating on her regularly (without attempting to hide it much). In this essay he works hard to actively hide his apathy to marriage; but it is clear that he believes very differently. Additionally, he used the excuse of an essay on the “artistic temperament” to hide his true intentions of writing about marriage. I have deleted a part of the essay which is not relevant to his discussion of marriage. Joseph Conrad, in a letter to Huneker discussing The Pathos of Distance, said that he always appreciated “the lightness” of Huneker’s “surface touch playing over the deeper meaning of your criticism”. Keep it in mind while reading the essay – which does not condemn marriage as much as Huneker evidently wanted to.

    Yet he already discussed several things which have become more and more threatening today – including financially hopeless women intending to marry a good provider: a “solid, sensible business or professional man” who “pays the bills” and “admires her”. Even more astute is his fear of female suffrage: “Female suffrage may make such conditions impossible in the future by forbidding men the ballot.”

    For more on James Huneker, see Arnold T. Schwab: James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts (Stanford University Press, 1963), the only biography of the man.]


    When Théophile Gautier, young, strong, and bubbling over with genius, asked the great Balzac whether artists should marry, he was sternly advised to avoid women altogether.

    "But, how about correspondence?" hazarded the timid youth.

    Balzac reflected: "Perhaps; that forms one's style."

    Naturally, Gautier did not take the advice seriously. He knew, as the world knew later, that the preacher did not practise. The private life of the master of French fiction is, thanks to Lovenjoul, no longer the sentimental legend his sentimental biographers made of it. A Grand Celibate, notwithstanding his brief, unlucky marriage, Balzac had the bachelor-temperament, and he had, too, many feminine-irons in the fire. He was as reckless as Liszt, and much more imprudent than his breeched, feminine contemporary, George Sand.

    But was his advice to Gautier impearled wisdom? Should the artist marry? And if he does marry, what kind of woman should he take to wife? Why does the artist at least in the popular belief, make such a mess of matrimony? Are unions contracted between artist-men and women unhappy ones? Isn't there, after all, an immense exaggeration in the assumption that they are? Let us reconnoitre this battle-field, over which are strewn so many gaunt, bleaching bones, so many wrecked lives — according to fact and fiction — and ask: What in the name of all that is holy and hellish is the "artistic temperament"?

    One question at a time. Is the artist always unhappy in his marriage?

    You may survey the field from Socrates to Robert and Clara Schumann and find that the scales balance about evenly. Socrates had his Xantippe — the shrew is an historical event long before the spouse of Athens's wise man (a shrew is usually a woman who objects to being ill-treated, just as a cynic is a man who sees the truth and says it more clearly than his fellowmen). Doubtless, Socrates, friend of Plato, often envied the celibacy of his pupil. Philosophers should never marry. Thus Schopenhauer: "When wives come in at the door, wisdom escapes by the window." It sounds pretty, this proverb, but again history disproves it. The Grand Celibates do indeed form a mighty phalanx. In later days the list embraces the names of Balzac — his marriage was the one mistake of a bachelor-existence; Lamb, Pascal, De Musset, Keats, Stendhal, Merimee, Flaubert, Beethoven, Swinburne, Pater, Turgenief, Nietzsche, not to drag in Michaelangelo, Raphael, Franz Liszt, or Walt Whitman. Bachelorhood makes strange bedfellows!

    We are by no means certain that these famous men were happy because of their unmarried state; some we know were excessively unhappy; most of them were embroiled with women, and several went mad. Any sleek statistician will assure you that married life is conducive to longevity. And often the mother of children, forgetting for the moment her strenuous days, speaks slightingly of the monastic vocation. Nor is the time passed from the memory of the living, when a bachelor who refused to give up his liberty was socially looked at askance. He bore a doubtful reputation: A merry blade given to midnight wassail! Since emancipated spinsterhood has discovered that it is not necessary to marry to be happy, or to escape the stigma of old-maidishness, the bachelor appears in another light. Perhaps, who knows, he was not wrong?

    To sound the roll-call of the happy and unhappy artist-folk, whose works in colour and clay, tone, and words, have aroused the world to keener visions of beauty, is not my intention; but a few names may be reeled off. Do you remember Alphonse Daudet's charming yet depressing book of tales about the wives of geniuses: Daudet enjoyed a singularly happy existence, being wedded to a woman, an artist herself, who aided him in a hundred ways. It was his whimsical revenge, in a too successful career, to write such misleading stories. Thousands have read them, as millions read the newspapers. If one half-baked fellow with a spongy, viscous soul, whose conceit has made rotten his nerves, treats his wife badly, or one feather-headed female, who has a singing voice, elopes with the coachman, the world shakes its head and waggishly smiles. Ah, this "artistic temperament"! Just as all the crimes of the decalogue are committed, according to the shallow agitator, by the wealthy and only the poor are virtuous, so the artist is regarded as a natural-born malefactor. It is a survival of the suspicious feeling against strolling players, painters, fiddlers, and such vagabonds of yore.

    Yet what an array of evidence may be adduced in favour of the opposite view. When two poets like Robert and Clara Schumann, or two scientists like the Curies, have lived happily, doesn't this fact, even if exceptional, prove the rule? If the fixed stars of the artist-firmament revolve harmoniously one around the other, what of the lesser planets? Unluckily there are more comets and shooting-stars among the mediocre artists. The Carlyles were not happy — not every day. Better, however, their caustic differences than the glitter of a foolish paradise.

    Life is not all beer and skittles even for the favoured artist-soul, nor is Art a voluptuous hothouse. Byron raised a hell wherever he passed. He had a wife who was, to put it mildly, hardly suited to him. After only one suicide in the family, Shelley settled down, if that ethereal spirit ever could settle on anything earthly, with the original suffragist, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Hazlitt philandered with women and was not content in double harness. Nor was much-married John Milton, nor Dante, nor Shakespeare, says legend. Coleridge took opium, became a flabby genius, and daily forgot his duties. De Quincey followed suit at a long distance, though gossip avers that he was a mild and loving husband1. William Blake, the poet and illustrator, was ecstatically happy during his married life. Whether his wife was, when he proposed to add another lady to the household, we much doubt. Wordsworth cultivated the domestic virtues2. Bulwer did not. Thackeray was a model husband and suffered stoically the misfortune of his wife's madness. Dickens didn't draw happiness in his lottery. Disraeli did, also Tennyson. Thomas Hardy is happily mated3. George Moore is a bachelor — and writes like one4. Jane Austen would not have been the "divine Jane" if she had married. George Eliot, of whom it was said that she was a "George Sand plus science and minus sex," shocked the British public, yet remained ever eminently British herself, conventional to the last. Ruskin tried matrimony and handed his wife over to Millais, the artist. It was a good transaction for all three. Emerson was married. Hawthorne and Longfellow were married. Poe adored Virginia, his child-wife.

    Across seas the plot thickens. There are as many happy households in France as anywhere. But it is hard to convince English-speaking people of this very potent fact. The Parisian bohemians have set a pace that makes Puritans giddy. George Sand, a contemporary of George Eliot, is a mystery. She left a brutal husband, met a mob of lovers in her journey through life, and ended in a glow of respectable old age. She had not one, but a dozen happy and unhappy love-lives. And she loved to tell the world all about her lovers in her books. Admirable and truthful artist! Rabelais was a Grand Celibate. Montaigne was a happy husband. Chateaubriand posed all his life as the misunderstood genius. He had his consolations and Madame Récamier. There is Madame de Staël, a feminine genius, but she bored Napoleon and got on Goethe's nerves. Goethe! He married, though not before he had burned tapers of adoration before a half-hundred feminine shrines. He is the perfect type of the inconstant lover who in middle life marries some one to look after his material comfort: a Don Juan on the retired list. Fate played him a trick, for he was forced to nurse himself. Lamartine had his Elvira, and Europe wept over the Elegies. Victor Hugo boasted his Juliette, and no one sympathised with him except his dearest enemy, Sainte-Beuve, who promptly consoled Madame Hugo. Alfred de Musset's career was notorious. Absinthe and not George Sand sent him to the grave.

    Alfred de Vigny, a greater poet, though not so well known, cursed women in his verse because of Marie Dorval, his faithless love. His marriage to an Englishwoman, Lydia Bunbury, was a failure. And the elder Dumas carried off La Dorval. Baudelaire never married. Would that he had. Verlaine married and his wife divorced him. Dumas was a veritable pasha. His son was a model. Mérimée, for a week George Sand's lover, later broke a woman's heart, and the account thereof is good reading for both cynics and sentimentalists. Flaubert loved his mother too much to marry, but for years was entangled by the wily Louise Colet. The Goncourt brothers were born old bachelors, and if, as Bernard Shaw asserts, the romantic temperament is the old-maid's temperament, then these two were spinsters. They abused women on every page of their diary, but spent their days in agonised and acid-etching of her traits for their novels. Zola was a bourgeois husband. Maupassant committed suicide, spiritually and physically — work, women, and drugs. Gautier, impeccable artist, laboured in the unthankful galleys of journalism. He was adored by his wife and children. He was a lovable, good man. Ernest Renan was possibly a celibate by temperament, but his married life was none the less peaceful. Huysmans was an embittered bachelor. Anatole France is a man of the domestic sort, like many scholars.

    The musicians are not as a rule considered safe guardians of the hearth. Some, however, were and are happily married. Haydn had a scolding wife, but he was always merry. Handel had a habit of throwing ladies out of doors. He was much admired by the sex. Mozart, it is said, was fonder of his sister-in-law than of his wife. Who knows? Mendelssohn and his wife were turtle-doves. Chopin died a bachelor; he had loved George Sand in vain, but his affair with her did him no good. Liszt — oh, Liszt! He ran the gamut of love as he played scales: with velocity and brilliancy. He raised a family though he never married the Countess d'Agoult; she returned to her husband later on and Liszt was exculpated. "He behaved like a man of honour," was the verdict of the family council — meaning, of course, what a surprise to find an artist not a blackleg! Beethoven loved. He had his intimate tragedy. Brahms was also a bachelor. Is it necessary to come down to our days? We see a wedded Paderewski attracting large audiences. Marriage, therefore, is no bar to an artist's popularity.

    Painters and actors could furnish plenty of examples did we care to linger in the historical meadows. That Angelo and Raphael did not marry is no argument against matrimony. Andrea del Sarto, as readers of Browning know, had a minx for a wife. Rubens and Van Dyck spent sunny married lives. Rembrandt loved his wife, Saskia; also his later wife, Hendricka Stoffels. Impressionist Claude Monet is married, while Degas has cultivated privacy. Whistler was a contented married man, and so Rodin. Monticelli did not marry. He drank himself to death. Ibsen was a paragon of a family man. Tolstoy abused matrimonial chains, possibly for the same reason that prompted Daudet to write his stories of genius. (But were Daudet's men of genius real? We doubt it. They seem to parade a lot of used-up, second-rate talents, not of the true genius variety.) The Russian writer's home life is trumpeted to the four corners of the globe by his disciples. Is that why he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata? On Patti and her marital adventures, it is not in our scheme of argument to dwell. Nor on Marcella Sembrich — whose serene married life is an object-lesson for young singers about to commit divorce. Rachel — thanks to Alfred de Musset and others, was usually an unhappy creature. Bernhardt and Duse have traversed soul-scarifying experiences; but each had the courage of her genius. At a time when there are no masculine counterparts in the theatre, wheresoever, of these two extraordinary women, it is not tactful for men to crow over their superiority in the art mimetic. What D'Annunzio did to Eleanora Duse was the accustomed act of artist-egotism: he utilised the experience for his books. He is a poet and a man of versatile genius. What Duse did was perhaps not so conscious, yet, nevertheless, the result was the same; her art reflected in richer tones her soul's attrition by sorrow. It is a sweet idea this: That one may gather emotional shells on the sandy beach of disillusionment and decorate with them one's art, later to be sold to publishers, picture-dealers, or sung and played in concert-rooms. Hail the mystery of these artistic transmutations! These transfusions from the veins of love, of the fluid that is to prove the elixir of your art!

    Glance backward at the list. The scales tip evenly5. Remember, too, that of artists' histories the top, only, is skimmed. Hundreds of cases could be dug up. Genius is hard to live with, even in the casual ways of life. Genius under the same roof with genius (and of the two sexes) is a stirring opportunity for a psychologist. The wonder is that the number of happily married great artists — not the quotidian fry — is so large. The divorce calendar of butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers bulks in proportion quite as effectively. But the doubting male Thomases may, at this juncture, quote Goncourt: "There are no women of genius; the only women of genius are men!"

    And that brings us to the crux of the situation. What is the artistic temperament?


    We have now seen that artists, like the lion and the lamb, can marry or mix without fear of sudden death, cross words, bad cookery, or loss of artist-power. Why then does the rule work for one and not the other? Go ask the stars.

    Where are the love-birds of yester-year? Why doesn't Mr. Worldly Wiseman get along with his stout spouse? Why does the iceman in the alley beat his wife? Or, why does a woman, who has never heard of Nora Helmer, leave her home, her husband, her children, for the love, not of a cheap histrion, but because she thinks she can achieve fame as an actress? It is the call of the far-away, the exotic, the unfamiliar. Its echoes are heard in the houses of bankers, tailors, police-men, and politicians, as well as in the studios of the great artists. [...] Whether artists should marry is an eternally discussed question. It is so largely a personal one that advice is surely impertinent. George Moore, above all other Victorian novelists, has described the true artist-life — do you recall his Mildred Lawson? Mr. Shaw, in his Love Among the Artists, shows us other sides. St. Bernard holds no brief for the artist; Shaw is more of a Puritan than his critics realise. Certainly an artist is risking much in marrying, for the artist is both selfish and sensitive. He has precedents for and against the act, and probably he thinks that whether he does or does not, he will regret it.

    A rainbow mirage, this of two congenial temperaments entering wedlock! When He exclaims — it is June and the moon rides in the tender blue — "It is just as easy for two to live as one on twenty-five dollars a week!" the recording angel smiles and weeps. Nor has the young adventurer "spiders on his ceiling," as they say in Russia. He dares to be a fool, and that is the first step in the direction of wisdom. But She? Oh, She is enraptured. Naturally they will economise — occasional descents into fifty-cent bohemias: sawdust, pink wine, and wit. But no new gowns. No balls. No theatres. No operas. No society. It is to be Art! Art! Art!

    So they bundle their temperaments before an official and are made one. She plays the piano. He paints. A wonderful vista, hazy with dreams, spreads out before them. She will teach a few pupils, keep up her practising, and put aside enough to go, some day, to Vienna, there to study with a pupil of Leschetizky. He will man-fully paint — yes, only a few portraits; but land-scape will be the object of his ambition.

    A year passes. What a difference! Gone are the dreams. There are now many spiders on the ceiling. To pay for the food they eat, or to own the roof over their heads is their ultimate desire. She looks paler. He may or may not drink, it makes little difference. There are no portraits painted — an artist must be a half society man nowadays to capture such commissions. She would accept pupils, but their home engrosses every hour of her day. Artists usually demand too much of a woman. She must be a social success, a maternal nurse, a cook, and concubine combined. Women are versatile. They are born actresses. But on ten dollars a week they can't run a household, watch the baby — oh, thrice wretched intruder! — play like a second Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler, and look like an houri. To be a steam-heated American beauty, your father must be a millionaire.

    The artist-woman is a finely attuned fiddle. You may mend a fiddle, but not a bell, says Ibsen. Yes, but if you smash a fiddle, the music is mute. And every day of discontent snaps a string. How long does the beauty last? Then begin mutual misunderstandings. Pity, the most subtly cruel of the virtues, stalks the studio. Secretly she pities him; secretly he pities her. This pity breeds hatred. At breakfast, the most trying time of the day — even when you haven't anything to eat — he pities her flushed face as she runs in from the kitchen with the eggs and coffee. In his eyes she is no longer a sylph. (The twenty-five dollars a week are shrunk.) She pities him because he is flushed from his night's outing. His appetite, like his temper, is capricious. In her eyes, he is simply the ordinary male brute, which is true enough. Then he is imprudent and flings Schopenhauer at her.

    Have you noticed how often well-bred, bookish, and artist men quote Schopenhauer at their wives? The bow-legged, long-haired sex — eh! Aha! He rubs his hands. Women are, all said and done, the inferior sex! What did Iago remark — but he doesn't like to quote that speech of the Ancient's with its chronicling of small beer for fear his wife may turn quietly upon him with the monosyllable — "Beer!" He hates to be twitted about his faults, so he takes up Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and reads: "That because of woman's cookery, the development of mankind has been longest retarded." Or, "Woman—the Eternally Tedious!" Or, "Woman has hitherto been most despised by Woman!" It is not in good taste, all this.

    But she has no time to quote Ibsen and Shaw for his discomfiture. The milkman is keeping her busy by asking for the amount of his bill. As baby must have pure milk, she compromises by smiling at her foolish young man and teases him for the money. He dives into empty pockets and looks blankly at her. Sometimes this goes on for years; often in reckless despair he throws his lamp over the moon and she her bonnet over the wind-mill. Female suffrage may make such conditions impossible in the future by forbidding men the ballot.

    Yet, how many happy artist households there are! Sometimes the couple paint a quatre mains, as Manet puts it; sometimes the wife is simply a woman and not an artist. Nor dare we claim that this latter species of union is always the happier. It may not be. She may be a nightmare to him, a millstone around his neck, through sheer stupidity or lack of sympathy. Men, ordinary males, like to be coddled; artist-men, in whom there is often a thin streak of feminine vanity, must be subtly flattered. The nerves lie near the surface in artist people. Idealists, they paint with their imagination everything in too bright hues. Labour, really, puts them out. It is the same young man and the same young woman who, under pine-blossoms, swore undying love — the same, except that a year or several have passed.

    As is always the case, the rather despised Womanly-Woman — the woman of the featherbed temperament, who is neither dove nor devil — gathers the honours. She knows that the artist-man, that hopeless hybrid, so admirably apostrophised by Shaw in the first act of Man or Superman, must be humoured. (Feed the brute!) He is the spoilt child of Fate. If he goes too far from his mamma's apron-strings, he gets into trouble, falls into the mud-puddle of life, and is sure to drag some silly girl with him. So she, being wise with the instinctive wisdom of her sex — the Womanly-Woman, I mean — I have seldom encountered a Womanly- Woman who was also an artist — plays him to the end of the rope, and then he is back at her knees. Such marriages are successful for the reason that the artist-husband doesn't have time to be unhappy. It is when the lean years are upon the artist, the years of thin thought and bleak regrets, that he will miss a loving wife. Then he will cry in the stillness of his heart: O Time, eternal shearer of souls, spare me thy slow clippings! Shear me in haste, shear me close and swiftly! He is the literary artist, and even in the face of death he wears the shop-mask. His "affinity," whom he has never encountered at the epoch of their earthly pilgrimage, congratulates herself that the latter lonesome years will not be burdened by the whims and ills of an old man. She may possess the artist temperament and be a spinster. Often she escapes that fate by early marriage to a solid, sensible business or professional man, who pays the bills and admires her pasty painting, her facile, empty music-making, her unplayed plays, unread novels, and verse — that are privately printed. Sensible old Nature, as ever, thus hits the happy mean.

    It is not necessary to draw any particular inference from the foregoing, save to add that the "artistic temperament" is not what the newspapers represent it to be; that when it exists in association with high ideals and natural gifts, the result is sincere art; that it is hardly a quality making for happiness; that men and women, whether artists or mediocrities, must fight the inevitable duel of the sexes until death do them part; and finally, that the breakfast-room episode referred to is a comedy played daily all over the globe, and the hero need not be a painter — for a rising young plumber can assume the role with equal success. A sense of the humorous would save half the family jars in households, artistic and inartistic. The spectacle of two bipeds strutting and fuming beneath the glimpses of the sun, while over yonder the vast cosmic spaces are undergoing the birth of new constellations — surely the very angels in heaven must sit in reserved stalls, ironically spying upon humanity's antics. After all, an artist is a human being; this fact is too often forgotten by writers who see in the man of talent, or genius, a mixture of gorilla, god, or madman.

    To the young artist who has mustered his material the spectacle of the world is an alluring one. He stands on the brink and the great stream of life flows by bearing upon its bosom gaily decorated barges, glittering with lights, flowers, with beauty. He is tempted. It is so easy to step on board and be carried away on this intoxicating current. Besides, it means success. He may be a lover of beautiful things. He may even be domestic and desire a home, a family. And the latter reef is often as dangerous to his art as the rocks on the coast of Bohemia. But whatever he does he must make the choice — there is no middle way. All or nothing. The world or art. Paul Gauguin has said that all artists are either revolutionists or reactionists. The former state may mean glory without bread; the latter always means bread. And if our young artist can live on bread alone let him say to his ideals: "Get thee behind me." But if he is true to his temperament then will his motto be — plain living and high painting. All the rest is vanity and varnish.

    Transcriber's note: the original (and often archaic) punctuation and words have been left intact, but obvious typographical errors in the original printing have been removed. It was transcribed from here. The notes on the text are mine.


    1: Thomas De quincey married a young girl of modest roots. She was a farmer's girl and even worked as his housekeeper before marrying him.
    2: Unbeknowst to Huneker (it not yet being public knowledge at the time) Wordsworth actually left a Parisian woman and the child she bore him behind due to financial difficulties. Like De Quincey, he married a modest and faithful girl.
    3: Thomas Hardy's first marriage may have been happy initially, but it soon became tense; the couple ultimately became estranged. Hardy's second marriage was no success.
    4: Huneker's reference to Moore's writing style here is telling: Moore was Huneker's favorite contemporary novelist.
    5: Notice how the scales as matter of fact do not tip evenly -- especially not with the new information available to us.
    And when her lips so sweetly move
    The soul such height attain,
    You're free, yet would no longer rove
    But lay you down in chains.

  2. #2
    Junior Member magx01's Avatar
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    Sep 2014

    Re: The Artist and his Wife, by James Huneker

    He may even be domestic and desire a home, a family. And the latter reef is often as dangerous to his art as the rocks on the coast of Bohemia. But whatever he does he must make the choice — there is no middle way. All or nothing. The world or art.
    I think that was pretty overtly anti marriage

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