Drowne's Wooden image
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
One sunshiny morning, in the good old times of the town of
Boston, a young carver in wood, well known by the name of Drowne,
stood contemplating a large oaken log, which it was his purpose
to convert into the figure-head of a vessel. And while he
discussed within his own mind what sort of shape or similitude it
were well to bestow upon this excellent piece of timber, there
came into Drowne's workshop a certain Captain Hunnewell, owner
and commander of the good brig called the Cynosure, which had
just returned from her first voyage to Fayal.
"Ah! that will do, Drowne, that will do!" cried the jolly
captain, tapping the log with his rattan. "I bespeak this very
piece of oak for the figure-head of the Cynosure. She has shown
herself the sweetest craft that ever floated, and I mean to
decorate her prow with the handsomest image that the skill of man
can cut out of timber. And, Drowne, you are the fellow to execute
"You give me more credit than I deserve, Captain Hunnewell," said
the carver, modestly, yet as one conscious of eminence in his
art. "But, for the sake of the good brig, I stand ready to do my
best. And which of these designs do you prefer? Here,"--pointing
to a staring, half-length figure, in a white wig and scarlet
coat,--"here is an excellent model, the likeness of our gracious
king. Here is the valiant Admiral Vernon. Or, if you prefer a
female figure, what say you to Britannia with the trident?"
"All very fine, Drowne; all very fine," answered the mariner.
"But as nothing like the brig ever swam the ocean, so I am
determined she shall have such a figure-head as old Neptune never
saw in his life. And what is more, as there is a secret in the
matter, you must pledge your credit not to betray it."
"Certainly," said Drowne, marvelling, however, what possible
mystery there could be in reference to an affair so open, of
necessity, to the inspection of all the world as the figure-head
of a vessel. "You may depend, captain, on my being as secret as
the nature of the case will permit."
Captain Hunnewell then took Drowne by the button, and
communicated his wishes in so low a tone that it would be
unmannerly to repeat what was evidently intended for the carver's
private ear. We shall, therefore, take the opportunity to give
the reader a few desirable particulars about Drowne himself.
He was the first American who is known to have attempted--in a
very humble line, it is true--that art in which we can now reckon
so many names already distinguished, or rising to distinction.
From his earliest boyhood he had exhibited a knack--for it would
be too proud a word to call it genius--a knack, therefore, for
the imitation of the human figure in whatever material came most
readily to hand. The snows of a New England winter had often
supplied him with a species of marble as dazzingly white, at
least, as the Parian or the Carrara, and if less durable, yet
sufficiently so to correspond with any claims to permanent
existence possessed by the boy's frozen statues. Yet they won
admiration from maturer judges than his school-fellows, and were
indeed, remarkably clever, though destitute of the native warmth
that might have made the snow melt beneath his hand. As he
advanced in life, the young man adopted pine and oak as eligible
materials for the display of his skill, which now began to bring
him a return of solid silver as well as the empty praise that had
been an apt reward enough for his productions of evanescent snow.
He became noted for carving ornamental pump heads, and wooden
urns for gate posts, and decorations, more grotesque than
fanciful, for mantelpieces. No apothecary would have deemed
himself in the way of obtaining custom without setting up a
gilded mortar, if not a head of Galen or Hippocrates, from the
skilful hand of Drowne.
But the great scope of his business lay in the manufacture of
figure-heads for vessels. Whether it were the monarch himself, or
some famous British admiral or general, or the governor of the
province, or perchance the favorite daughter of the ship-owner,
there the image stood above the prow, decked out in gorgeous
colors, magnificently gilded, and staring the whole world out of
countenance, as if from an innate consciousness of its own
superiority. These specimens of native sculpture had crossed the
sea in all directions, and been not ignobly noticed among the
crowded shipping of the Thames and wherever else the hardy
mariners of New England had pushed their adventures. It must be
confessed that a family likeness pervaded these respectable
progeny of Drowne's skill; that the benign countenance of the
king resembled those of his subjects, and that Miss Peggy Hobart,
the merchant's daughter, bore a remarkable similitude to
Britannia, Victory, and other ladies of the allegoric sisterhood;
and, finally, that they all had a kind of wooden aspect which
proved an intimate relationship with the unshaped blocks of
timber in the carver's workshop. But at least there was no
inconsiderable skill of hand, nor a deficiency of any attribute
to render them really works of art, except that deep quality, be
it of soul or intellect, which bestows life upon the lifeless and
warmth upon the cold, and which, had it been present, would have
made Drowne's wooden image instinct with spirit.
The captain of the Cynosure had now finished his instructions.
"And Drowne," said he, impressively, "you must lay aside all
other business and set about this forthwith. And as to the price,
only do the job in first-rate style, and you shall settle that
"Very well, captain," answered the carver, who looked grave and
somewhat perplexed, yet had a sort of smile upon his visage;
"depend upon it, I'll do my utmost to satisfy you."
From that moment the men of taste about Long Wharf and the Town
Dock who were wont to show their love for the arts by frequent
visits to Drowne's workshop, and admiration of his wooden images,
began to be sensible of a mystery in the carver's conduct. Often
he was absent in the daytime. Sometimes, as might be judged by
gleams of light from the shop windows, he was at work until a
late hour of the evening; although neither knock nor voice, on
such occasions, could gain admittance for a visitor, or elicit
any word of response. Nothing remarkable, however, was observed
in the shop at those late hours when it was thrown open. A fine
piece of timber, indeed, which Drowne was known to have reserved
for some work of especial dignity, was seen to be gradually
assuming shape. What shape it was destined ultimately to take was
a problem to his friends and a point on which the carver himself
preserved a rigid silence. But day after day, though Drowne was
seldom noticed in the act of working upon it, this rude form
began to be developed until it became evident to all observers
that a female figure was growing into mimic life. At each new
visit they beheld a larger pile of wooden chips and a nearer
approximation to something beautiful. It seemed as if the
hamadryad of the oak had sheltered herself from the unimaginative
world within the heart of her native tree, and that it was only
necessary to remove the strange shapelessness that had incrusted
her, and reveal the grace and loveliness of a divinity. Imperfect
as the design, the attitude, the costume, and especially the face
of the image still remained, there was already an effect that
drew the eye from the wooden cleverness of Drowne's earlier
productions and fixed it upon the tantalizing mystery of this new
Copley, the celebrated painter, then a young man and a resident
of Boston, came one day to visit Drowne; for he had recognized so
much of moderate ability in the carver as to induce him, in the
dearth of professional sympathy, to cultivate his acquaintance.
On entering the shop, the artist glanced at the inflexible image
of king, commander, dame, and allegory, that stood around, on the
best of which might have been bestowed the questionable praise
that it looked as if a living man had here been changed to wood,
and that not only the physical, but the intellectual and
spiritual part, partook of the stolid transformation. But in not
a single instance did it seem as if the wood were imbibing the
ethereal essence of humanity. What a wide distinction is here!
and how far the slightest portion of the latter merit have
outvalued the utmost degree of the former!
"My friend Drowne;" said Copley, smiling to himself, but alluding
to the mechanical and wooden cleverness that so invariably
distinguished the images, "you are really a remarkable person! I
have seldom met with a man in your line of business that could do
so much; for one other touch might make this figure of General
Wolfe, for instance, a breathing and intelligent human creature."
"You would have me think that you are praising me highly, Mr.
Copley," answered Drowne, turning his back upon Wolfe's image in
apparent disgust. "But there has come a light into my mind. I
know what you know as well, that the one touch which you speak of
as deficient is the only one that would be truly valuable, and
that without it these works of mine are no better than worthless
abortions. There is the same difference between them and the
works of an inspired artist as between a sign-post daub and one
of your best pictures."
"This is strange," cried Copley, looking him in the face, which
now, as the painter fancied, had a singular depth of
intelligence, though hitherto it had not given him greatly the
advantage over his own family of wooden images. "What has come
over you? How is it that, possessing the idea which you have now
uttered, you should produce only such works as these?"
The carver smiled, but made no reply. Copley turned again to the
images, conceiving that the sense of deficiency which Drowne had
just expressed, and which is so rare in a merely mechanical
character, must surely imply a genius, the tokens of which had
heretofore been overlooked. But no; there was not a trace of it.
He was about to withdraw when his eyes chanced to fall upon a
half-developed figure which lay in a corner of the workshop,
surrounded by scattered chips of oak. It arrested him at once.
"What is here? Who has done this?" he broke out, after
contemplating it in speechless astonishment for an instant. "Here
is the divine, the lifegiving touch. What inspired hand is
beckoning this wood to arise and live? Whose work is this?"
"No man's work," replied Drowne. "The figure lies within that
block of oak, and it is my business to find it."
"Drowne," said the true artist, grasping the carver fervently by
the hand, "you are a man of genius!"
As Copley departed, happening to glance backward from the
threshold, he beheld Drowne bending over the half-created shape,
and stretching forth his arms as if he would have embraced and
drawn it to his heart; while, had such a miracle been possible,
his countenance expressed passion enough to communicate warmth
and sensibility to the lifeless oak.
"Strange enough!" said the artist to himself. "Who would have
looked for a modern Pygmalion in the person of a Yankee
As yet, the image was but vague in its outward presentment; so
that, as in the cloud shapes around the western sun, the observer
rather felt, or was led to imagine, than really saw what was
intended by it. Day by day, however, the work assumed greater
precision, and settled its irregular and misty outline into
distincter grace and beauty. The general design was now obvious
to the common eye. It was a female figure, in what appeared to be
a foreign dress; the gown being laced over the bosom, and opening
in front so as to disclose a skirt or petticoat, the folds and
inequalities of which were admirably represented in the oaken
substance. She wore a hat of singular gracefulness, and
abundantly laden with flowers, such as never grew in the rude
soil of New England, but which, with all their fanciful
luxuriance, had a natural truth that it seemed impossible for the
most fertile imagination to have attained without copying from
real prototypes. There were several little appendages to this
dress, such as a fan, a pair of earrings, a chain about the neck,
a watch in the bosom, and a ring upon the finger, all of which
would have been deemed beneath the dignity of sculpture. They
were put on, however, with as much taste as a lovely woman might
have shown in her attire, and could therefore have shocked none
but a judgment spoiled by artistic rules.
The face was still imperfect; but gradually, by a magic touch,
intelligence and sensibility brightened through the features,
with all the effect of light gleaming forth from within the solid
oak. The face became alive. It was a beautiful, though not
precisely regular and somewhat haughty aspect, but with a certain
piquancy about the eyes and mouth, which, of all expressions,
would have seemed the most impossible to throw over a wooden
countenance. And now, so far as carving went, this wonderful
production was complete.
"Drowne," said Copley, who had hardly missed a single day in his
visits to the carver's workshop, "if this work were in marble it
would make you famous at once; nay, I would almost affirm that it
would make an era in the art. It is as ideal as an antique
statue, and yet as real as any lovely woman whom one meets at a
fireside or in the street. But I trust you do not mean to
desecrate this exquisite creature with paint, like those staring
kings and admirals yonder?"
"Not paint her!" exclaimed Captain Hunnewell, who stood by; "not
paint the figure-head of the Cynosure! And what sort of a figure
should I cut in a foreign port with such an unpainted oaken stick
as this over my prow! She must, and she shall, be painted to the
life, from the topmost flower in her hat down to the silver
spangles on her slippers."
"Mr. Copley," said Drowne, quietly, "I know nothing of marble
statuary, and nothing of the sculptor's rules of art; but of this
wooden image, this work of my hands, this creature of my
heart,"--and here his voice faltered and choked in a very
singular manner,--"of this--of her --I may say that I know
something. A well-spring of inward wisdom gushed within me as I
wrought upon the oak with my whole strength, and soul, and faith.
Let others do what they may with marble, and adopt what rules
they choose. If I can produce my desired effect by painted wood,
those rules are not for me, and I have a right to disregard
"The very spirit of genius," muttered Copley to himself. "How
otherwise should this carver feel himself entitled to transcend
all rules, and make me ashamed of quoting them?"
He looked earnestly at Drowne, and again saw that expression of
human love which, in a spiritual sense, as the artist could not
help imagining, was the secret of the life that had been breathed
into this block of wood.
The carver, still in the same secrecy that marked all his
operations upon this mysterious image, proceeded to paint the
habiliments in their proper colors, and the countenance with
Nature's red and white. When all was finished he threw open his
workshop, and admitted the towns people to behold what he had
done. Most persons, at their first entrance, felt impelled to
remove their hats, and pay such reverence as was due to the
richly-dressed and beautiful young lady who seemed to stand in a
corner of the room, with oaken chips and shavings scattered at
her feet. Then came a sensation of fear; as if, not being
actually human, yet so like humanity, she must therefore be
something preternatural. There was, in truth, an indefinable air
and expression that might reasonably induce the query, Who and
from what sphere this daughter of the oak should be? The strange,
rich flowers of Eden on her head; the complexion, so much deeper
and more brilliant than those of our native beauties; the
foreign, as it seemed, and fantastic garb, yet not too fantastic
to be worn decorously in the street; the delicately-wrought
embroidery of the skirt; the broad gold chain about her neck; the
curious ring upon her finger; the fan, so exquisitely sculptured
in open work, and painted to resemble pearl and ebony;--where
could Drowne, in his sober walk of life, have beheld the vision
here so matchlessly embodied! And then her face! In the dark
eyes, and around the voluptuous mouth, there played a look made
up of pride, coquetry, and a gleam of mirthfulness, which
impressed Copley with the idea that the image was secretly
enjoying the perplexing admiration of himself and other
"And will you," said he to the carver, "permit this masterpiece
to become the figure-head of a vessel? Give the honest captain
yonder figure of Britannia--it will answer his purpose far
better--and send this fairy queen to England, where, for aught I
know, it may bring you a thousand pounds."
"I have not wrought it for money," said Drowne.
"What sort of a fellow is this!" thought Copley. "A Yankee, and
throw away the chance of making his fortune! He has gone mad; and
thence has come this gleam of genius."
There was still further proof of Drowne's lunacy, if credit were
due to the rumor that he had been seen kneeling at the feet of
the oaken lady, and gazing with a lover's passionate ardor into
the face that his own hands had created. The bigots of the day
hinted that it would be no matter of surprise if an evil spirit
were allowed to enter this beautiful form, and seduce the carver
The fame of the image spread far and wide. The inhabitants
visited it so universally, that after a few days of exhibition
there was hardly an old man or a child who had not become
minutely familiar with its aspect. Even had the story of Drowne's
wooden image ended here, its celebrity might have been prolonged
for many years by the reminiscences of those who looked upon it
in their childhood, and saw nothing else so beautiful in after
life. But the town was now astounded by an event, the narrative
of which has formed itself into one of the most singular legends
that are yet to be met with in the traditionary chimney corners
of the New England metropolis, where old men and women sit
dreaming of the past, and wag their heads at the dreamers of the
present and the future.
One fine morning, just before the departure of the Cynosure on
her second voyage to Fayal, the commander of that gallant vessel
was seen to issue from his residence in Hanover Street. He was
stylishly dressed in a blue broadcloth coat, with gold lace at
the seams and button-holes, an embroidered scarlet waistcoat, a
triangular hat, with a loop and broad binding of gold, and wore a
silver-hilted hanger at his side. But the good captain might have
been arrayed in the robes of a prince or the rags of a beggar,
without in either case attracting notice, while obscured by such
a companion as now leaned on his arm. The people in the street
started, rubbed their eyes, and either leaped aside from their
path, or stood as if transfixed to wood or marble in
"Do you see it?--do you see it?" cried one, with tremulous
eagerness. "It is the very same!"
"The same?" answered another, who had arrived in town only the
night before. "Who do you mean? I see only a sea-captain in his
shoregoing clothes, and a young lady in a foreign habit, with a
bunch of beautiful flowers in her hat. On my word, she is as fair
and bright a damsel as my eyes have looked on this many a day!"
"Yes; the same!--the very same!" repeated the other. "Drowne's
wooden image has come to life!"
Here was a miracle indeed! Yet, illuminated by the sunshine, or
darkened by the alternate shade of the houses, and with its
garments fluttering lightly in the morning breeze, there passed
the image along the street. It was exactly and minutely the
shape, the garb, and the face which the towns-people had so
recently thronged to see and admire. Not a rich flower upon her
head, not a single leaf, but had had its prototype in Drowne's
wooden workmanship, although now their fragile grace had become
flexible, and was shaken by every footstep that the wearer made.
The broad gold chain upon the neck was identical with the one
represented on the image, and glistened with the motion imparted
by the rise and fall of the bosom which it decorated. A real
diamond sparkled on her finger. In her right hand she bore a
pearl and ebony fan, which she flourished with a fantastic and
bewitching coquetry, that was likewise expressed in all her
movements as well as in the style of her beauty and the attire
that so well harmonized with it. The face with its brilliant
depth of complexion had the same piquancy of mirthful mischief
that was fixed upon the countenance of the image, but which was
here varied and continually shifting, yet always essentially the
same, like the sunny gleam upon a bubbling fountain. On the
whole, there was something so airy and yet so real in the figure,
and withal so perfectly did it represent Drowne's image, that
people knew not whether to suppose the magic wood etherealized
into a spirit or warmed and softened into an actual woman.
"One thing is certain," muttered a Puritan of the old stamp,
"Drowne has sold himself to the devil; and doubtless this gay
Captain Hunnewell is a party to the bargain."
"And I," said a young man who overheard him, "would almost
consent to be the third victim, for the liberty of saluting those
"And so would I," said Copley, the painter, "for the privilege of
taking her picture."
The image, or the apparition, whichever it might be, still
escorted by the bold captain, proceeded from Hanover Street
through some of the cross lanes that make this portion of the
town so intricate, to Ann Street, thence into Dock Square, and so
downward to Drowne's shop, which stood just on the water's edge.
The crowd still followed, gathering volume as it rolled along.
Never had a modern miracle occurred in such broad daylight, nor
in the presence of such a multitude of witnesses. The airy image,
as if conscious that she was the object of the murmurs and
disturbance that swelled behind her, appeared slightly vexed and
flustered, yet still in a manner consistent with the light
vivacity and sportive mischief that were written in her
countenance. She was observed to flutter her fan with such
vehement rapidity that the elaborate delicacy of its workmanship
gave way, and it remained broken in her hand.
Arriving at Drowne's door, while the captain threw it open, the
marvellous apparition paused an instant on the threshold,
assuming the very attitude of the image, and casting over the
crowd that glance of sunny coquetry which all remembered on the
face of the oaken lady. She and her cavalier then disappeared.
"Ah!" murmured the crowd, drawing a deep breath, as with one vast
pair of lungs.
"The world looks darker now that she has vanished," said some of
the young men.
But the aged, whose recollections dated as far back as witch
times, shook their heads, and hinted that our forefathers would
have thought it a pious deed to burn the daughter of the oak with
"If she be other than a bubble of the elements," exclaimed
Copley, "I must look upon her face again."
He accordingly entered the shop; and there, in her usual corner,
stood the image, gazing at him, as it might seem, with the very
same expression of mirthful mischief that had been the farewell
look of the apparition when, but a moment before, she turned her
face towards the crowd. The carver stood beside his creation
mending the beautiful fan, which by some accident was broken in
her hand. But there was no longer any motion in the lifelike
image, nor any real woman in the workshop, nor even the
witchcraft of a sunny shadow, that might have deluded people's
eyes as it flitted along the street. Captain Hunnewell, too, had
vanished. His hoarse sea-breezy tones, however, were audible on
the other side of a door that opened upon the water.
"Sit down in the stern sheets, my lady," said the gallant
captain. "Come, bear a hand, you lubbers, and set us on board in
the turning of a minute-glass."
And then was heard the stroke of oars.
"Drowne," said Copley with a smile of intelligence, "you have
been a truly fortunate man. What painter or statuary ever had
such a subject! No wonder that she inspired a genius into you,
and first created the artist who afterwards created her image."
Drowne looked at him with a visage that bore the traces of tears,
but from which the light of imagination and sensibility, so
recently illuminating it, had departed. He was again the
mechanical carver that he had been known to be all his lifetime.
"I hardly understand what you mean, Mr. Copley," said he, putting
his hand to his brow. "This image! Can it have been my work?
Well, I have wrought it in a kind of dream; and now that I am
broad awake I must set about finishing yonder figure of Admiral
And forthwith he employed himself on the stolid countenance of
one of his wooden progeny, and completed it in his own mechanical
style, from which he was never known afterwards to deviate. He
followed his business industriously for many years, acquired a
competence, and in the latter part of his life attained to a
dignified station in the church, being remembered in records and
traditions as Deacon Drowne, the carver. One of his productions,
an Indian chief, gilded all over, stood during the better part of
a century on the cupola of the Province House, bedazzling the
eyes of those who looked upward, like an angel of the sun.
Another work of the good deacon's hand--a reduced likeness of his
friend Captain Hunnewell, holding a telescope and quadrant--may
be seen to this day, at the corner of Broad and State streets,
serving in the useful capacity of sign to the shop of a nautical
instrument maker. We know not how to account for the inferiority
of this quaint old figure, as compared with the recorded
excellence of the Oaken Lady, unless on the supposition that in
every human spirit there is imagination, sensibility, creative
power, genius, which, according to circumstances, may either be
developed in this world, or shrouded in a mask of dulness until
another state of being. To our friend Drowne there came a brief
season of excitement, kindled by love. It rendered him a genius
for that one occasion, but, quenched in disappointment, left him
again the mechanical carver in wood, without the power even of
appreciating the work that his own hands had wrought. Yet who can
doubt that the very highest state to which a human spirit can
attain, in its loftiest aspirations, is its truest and most
natural state, and that Drowne was more consistent with himself
when he wrought the admirable figure of the mysterious lady, than
when he perpetrated a whole progeny of blockheads?
There was a rumor in Boston, about this period, that a young
Portuguese lady of rank, on some occasion of political or
domestic disquietude, had fled from her home in Fayal and put
herself under the protection of Captain Hunnewell, on board of
whose vessel, and at whose residence, she was sheltered until a
change of affairs. This fair stranger must have been the original
of Drowne's Wooden Image.