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An essay by George William Curtis

Family Portraits

Title:     Family Portraits
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

"Look here upon this picture, and on this."

We have no family pictures, Prue and I, only a portrait of my grandmother hangs upon our parlor wall. It was taken at least a century ago, and represents the venerable lady, whom I remember in my childhood in spectacles and comely cap, as a young and blooming girl.

She is sitting upon an old-fashioned sofa, by the side of a prim aunt of hers, and with her back to the open window. Her costume is quaint, but handsome. It consists of a cream-colored dress made high in the throat, ruffled around the neck, and over the bosom and the shoulders. The waist is just under her shoulders, and the sleeves are tight, tighter than any of our coat sleeves, and also ruffled at the wrist. Around the plump and rosy neck, which I remember as shrivelled and sallow, and hidden under a decent lace handkerchief, hangs, in the picture, a necklace of large ebony beads. There are two curls upon the forehead, and the rest of the hair flows away in ringlets down the neck.

The hands hold an open book: the eyes look up from it with tranquil sweetness, and, through the open window behind, you see a quiet landscape--a hill, a tree, the glimpse of a river, and a few peaceful summer clouds.

Often in my younger days, when my grandmother sat by the fire, after dinner, lost in thought--perhaps remembering the time when the picture was really a portrait--I have curiously compared her wasted face with the blooming beauty of the girl, and tried to detect the likeness. It was strange how the resemblance would sometimes start out: how, as I gazed and gazed upon her old face, age disappeared before my eager glance, as snow melts in the sunshine, revealing the flowers of a forgotten spring.

It was touching, to see my grandmother steal quietly up to her portrait, on still summer mornings when every one had left the house,--and I, the only child, played, disregarded,--and look at it wistfully and long.

She held her hand over her eyes to shade them from the light that streamed in at the window, and I have seen her stand at least a quarter of an hour gazing steadfastly at the picture. She said nothing, she made no motion, she shed no tear, but when she turned away there was always a pensive sweetness in her face that made it not less lovely than the face of her youth.

I have learned since, what her thoughts must have been--how that long, wistful glance annihilated time and space, how forms and faces unknown to any other, rose in sudden resurrection around her--how she loved, suffered, struggled and conquered again; how many a jest that I shall never hear, how many a game that I shall never play, how many a song that I shall never sing, were all renewed and remembered as my grandmother contemplated her picture.

I often stand, as she stood, gazing earnestly at the picture, so long and so silently, that Prue looks up from her work and says she shall be jealous of that beautiful belle, my grandmother, who yet makes her think more kindly of those remote old times. "Yes, Prue, and that is the charm of a family portrait."

"Yes, again; but," says Titbottom when he hears the remark, "how, if one's grandmother were a shrew, a termagant, a virago?"

"Ah! in that case--" I am compelled to say, while Prue looks up again, half archly, and I add gravely--"you, for instance, Prue."

Then Titbottom smiles one of his sad smiles, and we change the subject.

Yet, I am always glad when Minim Sculpin, our neighbor, who knows that my opportunities are few, comes to ask me to step round and see the family portraits.

The Sculpins, I think, are a very old family. Titbottom says they date from the deluge. But I thought people of English descent preferred to stop with William the Conqueror, who came from France.

Before going with Minim, I always fortify myself with a glance at the great family Bible, in which Adam, Eve, and the patriarchs, are indifferently well represented.

"Those are the ancestors of the Howards, the Plantagenets, and the Montmorencis," says Prue, surprising me with her erudition. "Have you any remoter ancestry, Mr. Sculpin?" she asks Minim, who only smiles compassionately upon the dear woman, while I am buttoning my coat.

Then we step along the street, and I am conscious of trembling a little, for I feel as if I were going to court. Suddenly we are standing before the range of portraits.

"This," says Minim, with unction, "is Sir Solomon Sculpin, the founder of the family."

"Famous for what?" I ask, respectfully.

"For founding the family," replies Minim gravely, and I have sometimes thought a little severely.

"This," he says, pointing to a dame in hoops and diamond stomacher, "this is Lady Sheba Sculpin."

"Ah! yes. Famous for what?" I inquire.

"For being the wife of Sir Solomon."

Then, in order, comes a gentleman in a huge, curling wig, looking indifferently like James the Second, or Louis the Fourteenth, and holding a scroll in his hand.

"The Right Honorable Haddock Sculpin, Lord Privy Seal, etc., etc."

A delicate beauty hangs between, a face fair, and loved, and lost, centuries ago--a song to the eye--a poem to the heart--the Aurelia of that old society.

"Lady Dorothea Sculpin, who married young Lord Pop and Cock, and died prematurely in Italy."

Poor Lady Dorothea! whose great grandchild, in the tenth remove, died last week, an old man of eighty!

Next the gentle lady hangs a fierce figure, flourishing a sword, with an anchor embroidered on his coat-collar, and thunder and lightning, sinking ships flames and tornadoes in the background.

"Rear Admiral Sir Shark Sculpin, who fell in the great action off Madagascar."

So Minim goes on through the series, brandishing his ancestors about my head, and incontinently knocking me into admiration.

And when we reach the last portrait and our own times, what is the natural emotion? Is it not to put Minim against the wall, draw off at him with my eyes and mind, scan him, and consider his life, and determine how much of the Eight Honorable Haddock's integrity, and the Lady Dorothy's loveliness, and the Admiral Shark's valor, reappears in the modern man? After all this proving and refining, ought not the last child of a famous race to be its flower and epitome? Or, in the case that he does not chance to be so, is it not better to conceal the family name?

I am told, however, that in the higher circles of society, it is better not to conceal the name, however unworthy the man or woman may be who bears it. Prue once remonstrated with a lady about the marriage of a lovely young girl with a cousin of Minim's; but the only answer she received was, "Well, he may not be a perfect man, but then he is a Sculpin," which consideration apparently gave great comfort to the lady's mind.

But even Prue grants that Minim has some reason for his pride. Sir Solomon was a respectable man, and Sir Shark a brave one; and the Right Honorable Haddock a learned one; the Lady Sheba was grave and gracious in her way; and the smile of the fair Dorothea lights with soft sunlight those long-gone summers. The filial blood rushes more gladly from Minim's heart as he gazes; and admiration for the virtues of his kindred inspires and sweetly mingles with good resolutions of his own.

Time has its share, too, in the ministry, and the influence. The hills beyond the river lay yesterday, at sunset, lost in purple gloom; they receded into airy distances of dreams and faery; they sank softly into night, the peaks of the delectable mountains. But I knew, as I gazed enchanted, that the hills, so purple-soft of seeming, were hard, and gray, and barren in the wintry twilight; and that in the distance was the magic that made them fair.

So, beyond the river of time that flows between, walk the brave men and the beautiful women of our ancestry, grouped in twilight upon the shore. Distance smooths away defects, and, with gentle darkness, rounds every form into grace. It steals the harshness from their speech, and every word becomes a song. Far across the gulf that ever widens, they look upon us with eyes whose glance is tender, and which light us to success. We acknowledge our inheritance; we accept our birthright; we own that their careers have pledged us to noble action. Every great life is an incentive to all other lives; but when the brave heart, that beats for the world, loves us with the warmth of private affection, then the example of heroism is more persuasive, because more personal.

This is the true pride of ancestry. It is founded in the tenderness with which the child regards the father, and in the romance that time sheds upon history.

"Where be all the bad people buried?" asks every man, with Charles Lamb, as he strolls among the rank grave-yard grass, and brushes it aside to read of the faithful husband, and the loving wife, and the dutiful child.

He finds only praise in the epitaphs, because the human heart is kind; because it yearns with wistful tenderness after all its brethren who have passed into the cloud, and will only speak well of the departed. No offence is longer an offence when the grass is green over the offender. Even faults then seem characteristic and individual. Even Justice is appeased when the drop falls. How the old stories and plays teem with the incident of the duel in which one gentleman falls, and, in dying, forgives and is forgiven. We turn the page with a tear. How much better had there been no offence, but how well that death wipes it out.

It is not observed in history that families improve with time. It is rather discovered that the whole matter is like a comet, of which the brightest part, is the head; and the tail, although long and luminous, is gradually shaded into obscurity.

Yet, by a singular compensation, the pride of ancestry increases in the ratio of distance. Adam was valiant, and did so well at Poictiers that he was knighted--a hearty, homely country gentleman, who lived humbly to the end. But young Lucifer, his representative in the twentieth remove, has a tinder-like conceit because old Sir Adam was so brave and humble. Sir Adam's sword is hung up at home, and Lucifer has a box at the opera. On a thin finger he has a ring, cut with a match fizzling, the crest of the Lucifers. But if he should be at a Poictiers, he would run away. Then history would be sorry--not only for his cowardice, but for the shame it brings upon old Adam's name.

So, if Minim Sculpin is a bad young man, he not only shames himself, but he disgraces that illustrious line of ancestors, whose characters are known. His neighbor, Mudge, has no pedigree of this kind, and when he reels homeward, we do not suffer the sorrow of any fair Lady Dorothy in such a descendant--we pity him for himself alone. But genius and power are so imperial and universal, that when Minim Sculpin falls, we are grieved not only for him, but for that eternal truth and beauty which appeared in the valor of Sir Shark, and the loveliness of Lady Dorothy. His neighbor Mudge's grandfather may have been quite as valorous and virtuous as Sculpin's; but we know of the one, and we do not know of the other.

Therefore, Prue, I say to my wife, who has, by this time, fallen as soundly asleep as if I had been preaching a real sermon, do not let Mrs. Mudge feel hurt, because I gaze so long and earnestly upon the portrait of the fair Lady Sculpin, and, lost in dreams, mingle in a society which distance and poetry immortalize.

But let the love of the family portraits belong to poetry and not to politics. It is good in the one way, and bad in the other.

The sentiment of ancestral pride is an integral part of human nature. Its organization in institutions is the real object of enmity to all sensible men, because it is a direct preference of derived to original power, implying a doubt that the world at every period is able to take care of itself.

The family portraits have a poetic significance; but he is a brave child of the family who dares to show them. They all sit in passionless and austere judgment upon himself. Let him not invite us to see them, until he has considered whether they are honored or disgraced by his own career--until he has looked in the glass of his own thought and scanned his own proportions.

The family portraits are like a woman's diamonds; they may flash finely enough before the world, but she herself trembles lest their lustre eclipse her eyes. It is difficult to resist the tendency to depend upon those portraits, and to enjoy vicariously through them a high consideration. But, after all, what girl is complimented when you curiously regard her because her mother was beautiful? What attenuated consumptive, in whom self-respect is yet unconsumed, delights in your respect for him, founded in honor for his stalwart ancestor?

No man worthy the name rejoices in any homage which his own effort and character have not deserved. You intrinsically insult him when you make him the scapegoat of your admiration for his ancestor. But when his ancestor is his accessory, then your homage would flatter Jupiter. All that Minim Sculpin does by his own talent is the more radiantly set and ornamented by the family fame. The imagination is pleased when Lord John Russell is Premier of England and a whig, because the great Lord William Russell, his ancestor, died in England for liberty.

In the same way Minim's sister Sara adds to her own grace the sweet memory of the Lady Dorothy. When she glides, a sunbeam, through that quiet house, and in winter makes summer by her presence; when she sits at the piano, singing in the twilight, or stands leaning against the Venus in the corner of the room--herself more graceful--then, in glancing from her to the portrait of the gentle Dorothy, you feel that the long years between them have been lighted by the same sparkling grace, and shadowed by the same pensive smile--for this is but one Sara and one Dorothy, out of all that there are in the world.

As we look at these two, we must own that noblesse oblige in a sense sweeter than we knew, and be glad when young Sculpin invites us to see the family portraits. Could a man be named Sidney, and not be a better man, or Milton, and be a churl?

But it is apart from any historical association that I like to look at the family portraits. The Sculpins were very distinguished heroes, and judges, and founders of families; but I chiefly linger upon their pictures, because they were men and women. Their portraits remove the vagueness from history, and give it reality. Ancient valor and beauty cease to be names and poetic myths, and become facts. I feel that they lived, and loved, and suffered in those old days. The story of their lives is instantly full of human sympathy in my mind, and I judge them more gently, more generously.

Then I look at those of us who are the spectators of the portraits. I know that we are made of the same flesh and blood, that time is preparing us to be placed in his cabinet and upon canvass, to be curiously studied by the grandchildren of unborn Prues. I put out my hands to grasp those of my fellows around the pictures. "Ah! friends, we live not only for ourselves. Those whom we shall never see, will look to us as models, as counsellors. We shall be speechless then. We shall only look at them from the canvass, and cheer or discourage them by their idea of our lives and ourselves. Let us so look in the portrait, that they shall love our memories--that they shall say, in turn, 'they were kind and thoughtful, those queer old ancestors of ours; let us not disgrace them.'"

If they only recognize us as men and women like themselves, they will be the better for it, and the family portraits will be family blessings.

This is what my grandmother did. She looked at her own portrait, at the portrait of her youth, with much the same feeling that I remember Prue as she was when I first saw her, with much the same feeling that I hope our grandchildren will remember us.

Upon those still summer mornings, though she stood withered and wan in a plain black silk gown, a close cap, and spectacles, and held her shrunken and blue-veined hand to shield her eyes, yet, as she gazed with that long and longing glance, upon the blooming beauty that had faded from her form forever, she recognized under that flowing hair and that rosy cheek--the immortal fashions of youth and health--and beneath those many ruffles and that quaint high waist, the fashions of the day--the same true and loving woman. If her face was pensive as she turned away, it was because truth and love are, in their essence, forever young; and it is the hard condition of nature that they cannot always appear so.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Family Portraits