The Pencil of Rosa

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Grotto with Cascades (1639-40)

Oil painting by Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673)

Romantic painting of a natural rock arch

Pitti Gallery, Florence, Italy

Original: 19.3 in (49 cm) by 25.6 in (65 cm)

The sublime in nature

The first adjective that sprang to Lewis's mind when he beheld the Great Falls of the Missouri was . . . sublime. He "hurryed down the hill . . . to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle." Sublimity was not a quality that inhered in the scene before him, but was the experience of his mind, a self-conscious awareness of the wildness surrounding him, arousing awe and wonder, and inspiring intense feelings of self-realization. It was inevitable that he should proceed to summarize his feelings by invoking a name that by the middle of the eighteenth century had become a synonym for the sublime, Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673).1

Rosa was an Italian artist whose landscapes and seascapes made him famous during his lifetime. His etchings—or those by imitators and counterfeitors—reproduced in magazines, newspapers and books throughout Europe and civilized North America, held his name and his works in popular admiration long after his death.2 At the mere mention of Rosa's name, Lewis's readers, from Jefferson on down, could have summoned before their minds' eyes their own perfect pictures of the Great Falls of the Missouri River.

Rosa's Grotto with Cascades (above) is a fictitious scene embodying some of the elements of sublimity. It can serve us as a catalog of the basic elements of sublimity in nature. The hour is either mid-morning or mid-afternoon. In the warm, radiant sunshine, two vaguely recognizable visitors, drawn to the dizzying brink of an amphitheater by the rumble and splash of falling water, stand awestruck by its terrible majesty. Far below, three common people (we can tell by the way they're dressed) converse contentedly, oblivious of the romantic grandeur surrounding them. They are at ease in the cool, pungent, mossy shade beside a decaying tree trunk and the remains of a ruined stone wall, the latter revealing that a long-dead resident once embellished the place with some sort of an "improvement." Indeed, taken together, the human figures, provide only the measure of the scene's proportions and meanings.

Even as Lewis was thinking of Rosa, painters of his own generation—Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) in France, and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) in England—were beginning to establish the foundations of the Romantic era, with more impassioned and less homocentric views of wilderness. Human beings in their views, if present, are essentially stage dressing, often victims of nature's superior powers. In the 1820s and '30s a host of young traveling and immigrant artists would march across the American West, drawn by the romance of Indian culture and vast panoramic vistas. They included Titian Peale, Samuel Seymour, George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, John Mix Stanley, Paul Kane, Seth Eastman, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Gustavus Sohon.

Inexplicably, Salvatore Rosa's name is absent today from nearly all books on the history of art.

"the pencil of Salvatore Rosa"

Now, place yourself in Meriwether Lewis's shoes, back in June of 1805. You are the first American of European descent to enter this setting. You, like him, have had this kind of experience before—a glorious sunrise on a cool morning; an effulgent sunset that tinted the diminishing clouds red after a stormy day; a vibrating rainbow; a jagged mountain peak against a clear blue sky; a deep shady canyon in the torrid desert. Your very being was suffused with a thrill you couldn't find words to describe.

That's where Lewis stood, painfully speechless before that awe-inspiring scene. How could he ever give to the rest of the world even "some faint idea" of the scene which was filling him with "such pleasure and astonishment." Only art could serve him.

It would be easy if he were only as eloquent a poet as James Thompson (1700-1748)—"the pen of Thompson" being a metaphor for his genius. He could express the sublimity of it if he were as great a painter of raw nature as the Italian master Salvatore Rosa (1615-1673)—whose "pencil" stood for his mastery of his art.

You, me? When nature defies our tongues, we reach for our cameras and record the picture in pixels. (But see A.E. Mathews' discussion of the differences between a photograph and a drawing of a scene in nature.) The best Lewis could do was draw his own sketch (now lost) on his way home in July of 1806.

Let me disburden you of your natural opinion that Rosa's instrument must have been a familiar lead-pencil—a little rod made not of lead but of graphite mixed with clay that was inserted into a sleeve of cedar or some other wood, and sharpened to a fine point. Prototypes of the lead-pencil first appeared in England in the 16th century, but the ink-less writing instrument as we know it was invented in France in 1795, and slowly caught on during the first quarter of the 19th century, eventually becoming commonplace in America, although most of the manufacturing was still done in Europe. Nicholas Biddle used one, along with pen-and-ink, in preparing his paraphrase of the captains' journals that was published in 1814.

There is no mention of lead-pencils in the expedition's list of supplies, nor any evidence in the journals that Lewis had purchased any off the record in Philadephia. He did, however, order some "gum-elastic" from Gillespie the apothecary. Also known as "india-rubber," that was the standard eraser material for removing errors made in pencil.3 The odds are, then, that they carried a supply of pencils.

On the other hand, for at least 500 years prior to the Lewis and Clark expedition, the word pencil commonly denoted a kind of brush. Noah Webster's definition of pencil as a noun, published in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 (the year the expedition returned home), simply read "a tool for drawing and painting." Painting was the significant keyword; Webster also defined pencil as a transitive verb meaning "to paint." Twenty-two years later he amplified his initial definition in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828): "A small brush used by painters for laying on colors. The proper pencils are made of fine hair or bristles, as of camels, badgers or squirrels, or of the down of swans, inclosed in a quill. The larger pencils, made of swine's bristles, are called brushes." The original definition of the old noun "pencil" prevailed in a more or less condensed form until the 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary.

There were indeed so-called "lead-pencils" of various designs—and qualities—in Lewis and Clark's time, mostly made in England, France and Germany, plus a few in America.4

1. The best discussion of the concept of the sublime, and of the roles of Salvatore Rosa and James Thomson in its history, is in Albert Furtwangler's Acts of Discovery: Visions of America in the Lewis and Clark Journals (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), Chapter Two, "The American Sublime," esp. pages 35-36

2. Etching is a method of drawing images on a metal plate—usually copper—by coating it with an acid-resistant "etching ground" consisting of beeswax, bitumen and resin, through which the design is drawn with a sharp tool. The plate is then painted with nitric acid, which eats away the surface of the plate where the etching ground has been removed. After the acid is washed away and the rest of the etching ground dissolved, ink is applied to the plate and wiped off, leaving ink in the etched grooves. When moist paper is pressed on the plate, the inked design is impressed on the paper. The first great master of the medium was Rosa's slightly older contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn (1609-69).

3. Pen-and-ink errors were removed by scratching away the ink with a—what else could you call it?—penknife, which was a pocket-knife with a single blade about the size of the one on a Leatherman® Micra™.

4. After many years of experimentation by inventors in England, France and Germany, the semimetal graphite displaced lead as the most practical substance for the manufacture of the new pencils, with England leading the way after the discovery of a large deposit of pure graphite in Borrowdale, in the northern Lake District. In 1793, warfare interrupted France's imports of English pencils and led within two years to the invention by Nicolas-Jacques Conté of a new way of compounding graphite and clay to produce a still better writing substance. Meanwhile, Americans continued to import the old standard English pencils to meet the growing market for non-ink writing instruments, while American inventors worked tirelessly to crack the carefully guarded French formula, or else invent a new substance of their own. The first American to achieve marked success in that effort was a Concord cabinet maker named William Munroe (1778-1861), in 1812. Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 70-72; Chapter 8, "In America."