The Mark Twain Papers & Project - Exhibit - Mark Twain Takes on Art - The Art Student


The Art Student

Mark Twain made the most extensive use of his own drawings in his 1880 travel book, A Tramp Abroad, whose title page listed several illustrators and "also three or four pictures made by the author of this book, without outside help." In fact, he made a dozen sketches for the book, whose premise was a pedestrian tour combined with art study in Europe. He devoted most of chapters 48 and 50 to the Old Masters, recalling how he reacted to them during his 1867 trip abroad (described in The Innocents Abroad) and finding himself still inclined to be irreverent and unappreciative, still cranky about the "acres of very bad drawing, very bad perspective, and very incorrect proportions" that he found in all the museums and churches. He couldn't resist lampooning the inflated language of art criticism, and he continued to wonder what determined artistic merit. He tended to value strict realism, grandeur of theme and scale, and propriety. In the closing pages of A Tramp Abroad, he was vehement in denouncing what he felt was the "indecent license" allowed to art but denied to contemporary literature:

Fielding and Smollett could portray the beastliness of their day in the beastliest language; we have plenty of foul subjects to deal with in our day, but we are not allowed to approach them very near, even with nice and guarded forms of speech. But not so with Art. The brush may still deal freely with any subject, however revolting or indelicate.
Horse & buggy
One of Mark Twain's illustrations for A Tramp Abroad (1880).
MT's notebook
Mark Twain collaborated on this drawing with
Walter Brown, the illustrator of A Tramp Abroad.

To illustrate his point, he cited Titian's Venus of Urbino, in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, as "the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses."

Titian's Venus
Titian, Venus of Urbino. 1538. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Scan by Mark Harden.

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