Some of the U.S.’s greatest secular sages also happen to be some of its greatest cranks, contrarians, and critics. I refer to a category that includes Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and Hunter S. Thompson. The many differences between these characters don’t eclipse a fundamental similarity: not a one embraced any of the usual pieties about the inherent, infallible greatness of Western Civilization, though each one in his own way made a significant contribution to the Western canon. We would be greatly remiss if we did not include among them perhaps the greatest American satirist of all, Mark Twain.
Twain skewered all comers, usually with such wit and invention that we smile and nod even when we feel the sting ourselves. Such was his talent, to deflate puffery in Western literature, politics, religion, and… as we will see, in art. “Throughout his career”—writes UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library—”Twain expressed his strong reactions to Western painting and sculpture, particularly the Old Masters, both in his published works and in private.” He offered up some hilariously irreverent takes on some of the most revered works of art in history: “his opinions are often passionate, sometimes eccentric, and always lively.” Take for example Twain’s tepid assessment of that most recognizable of Renaissance masterpieces, the Mona Lisa. In an unpublished draft called “The Innocents Adrift,” an account of an 1891 boat trip down the Rhone River, Twain “admitted to being puzzled by the adulation accorded” the painting.
To Twain, the Mona Lisa seemed “merely a good representation of a serene & subdued face… The complexion was bad; in fact it was not even human; there are no people of that color.” The painting’s greenish hue prompted one of Twain’s companions, possibly an invention of the author’s, to exclaim in response, “that smoked haddock!” “After some discussion,” write the UC Berkeley librarians, “the travelers concede that it requires a ‘trained eye’ to appreciate certain aspects of art.” Such training in art appreciation seemed to Twain as much genuine education as instruction in studied, insincere poses.
The author took his first “grand tour” in 1867—travelling through Europe and the Levant on the cruise ship Quaker City in the company of many “prosperous—and very proper—passengers.” Unlike these bourgeois travelling companions’ “conventional appreciation for all that they saw,” Twain—writing as a correspondent for the San Francisco Alta California—confessed himself underwhelmed. In particular, he described another Da Vinci, The Last Supper—”the most celebrated painting in the world”—as a “mournful wreck.” (The work was then unrestored; see it above as it looked 100 years later in the 1970s.) Twain later revised his observations for his first full-length book, 1869’s Innocents Abroad, a caricature of ugly American tourists filled with what William Dean Howells called “delicious impudence.” While the others marveled at Da Vinci’s crumbling fresco, Twain, in the current parlance, expressed a great big “meh.”
The world seems to have become settled in the belief, long ago, that it is not possible for human genius to outdo this creation of Da Vinci’s. . . . The colors are dimmed with age; the countenances are scaled and marred, and nearly all expression is gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon the wall, and there is no life in the eyes. . . . I am satisfied that the Last Supper was a very miracle of art once. But it was three hundred years ago.
Twain and the professional critics did not always disagree. Take J.M.W. Turner’s famously riotous canvas Slave Ship (or Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On), above. John Ruskin may have praised the work as the “noblest sea… ever painted by man” and it has come down to us as a violent representation of the horrors of the slave trade, occasioned in part, writes Stephen J. May, by Turner’s sense of “shared guilt about his own role and England’s role in condoning and perpetuating slavery’s malevolent legacy.” The anti-slavery, anti-imperialist Twain would surely have appreciated the sentiment; the painting, however, not so much. Other critics felt similarly, one calling Slave Ship a “gross outrage on nature.” Twain’s summation in an 1878 notebook is much more colorful, a piece of vintage Samuel Clemens undercutting: “Slave Ship—Cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.”
For all his snide portraits of conventional middle-class attitudes toward art, Twain could also be a bit of a prig, as we see in his response to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. In this, he was not so far removed from our own cultural attitudes (or Facebook and Google’s attitudes) about nudity. The censored version of the painting above (see the original here) comes to us via Buzzfeed, who write “Remember kids, blood and gore are fine but boobs will make you blind.” Twain seemed to have unironically agreed, railing in his 1880 travel book A Tramp Abroad against the “indecent license” afforded artists and calling Titian’s suggestive reclining nude “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” (Ah, if only he had lived to see the internet’s foulest depths.)
Twain’s own meager contributions to the visual arts—consisting of a dozen sketches, like that above, made for A Tramp Abroad—fall somewhat short of the standards he set for other artists. Nevertheless, he recalled in The Innocents Abroad his dismay at the “acres of very bad drawing, very bad perspective, and very incorrect proportions” in the museums and churches across Europe. What, we might wonder, could possibly move such a harsh, unsparing critic? In art, it seems, Twain valued “strict realism, grandeur of theme and scale, and propriety”—all on display in abundance in American artist Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes, below.
After viewing this idealized South American landscape in St. Louis, Twain called the enormous (over five feet high by ten feet wide) canvas a “most wonderfully beautiful painting.” “We took the opera glasses,” he wrote to his brother, “and examined its beauties minutely…. There is no slurring of perspective about it.” He recommended multiple viewings: “Your third visit will find your brain gasping and straining with futile efforts to take all the wonder in… and understand how such a miracle could have been conceived and executed by human brain and human hands.”
Twain, won over by this sublime spectacle, seems to have temporarily surrendered his critical faculties. In reading his response, I found myself wanting to egg him on: C’mon, what about this soft, gauzy lighting, those lumpy mountains, and the kitschy, overly-sentimental look of the whole thing? But there was room enough in Twain’s critical arsenal for genuine awe as for amused contempt at what he saw as phony expressions of the same. And that breadth of character is what made Mark Twain, well, Mark Twain.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness