Painter of "Diana of the Tides" by Walter Prichard Eaton
Author of "The American Stage of To-day," etc.
Given nearly three hundred square feet of blank wall space, and
it takes something of an artist to fill it up with interesting
paint. Probably you would not pick a miniature painter for the
task. Yet, curiously, John Elliott, creator of "Diana of the
Tides," the great mural painting which adorns the large gallery
to the right of the entrance of the new National Museum at
Washington, also paints on ivory. He works, likewise, in silver
point, that delicate and difficult medium; he draws pastel
illustrations for children's fairy tales; he works in portraiture
with red chalk or oils. And, when the need comes, he has shown
that he can turn stevedore, carpenter, and architect, to slave
with the relief party at Messina, finally to help design and
build, in four months, an entire village for the stricken
sufferers, including a hotel, a hospital, three schoolhouses, and
a church. The too frequent scorn of the "practical man of
affairs" for the artist and dreamer, the world's sneaking
tolerance for the temperament which creates in forms of ideal
beauty rather than in bridges or factories or banks, finds in the
life and work of such a man as John Elliott such complete, if
unconscious, refutation, that his story should have its place in
the history of the day.
John Elliott was born on Good Friday, 1859, one of a famous
Scottish border family. His residence is now in Boston,
Massachusetts, at the home of his mother-in-law. Mrs. Julia Ward
Howe. Robert Louis Stevenson had Elliott blood in his veins.
"Parts of me," he once wrote, "have shouted the slogan of the
Elliotts in the debatable land." If Stevenson's Homeric account
of the Four Black Elliotts in "Weir of Hermiston" is historically
veracious, we might fancy that one of their descendants would
feel his activities somewhat cramped on Beacon Street, Boston.
The Elliotts were a wild lot, and some of them did not escape the
hangman. Their family tree appears to have been the gallows. But
Stevenson tells us they were noted for their prayers, and at
least one of them wrote poetry, and declaimed it, drunk, to
Walter Scott, who retaliated in kind.
But the present John Elliott, artist, though he is of the kin of
Stevenson, and bears the dark hair and rather prominent,
melancholy eyes of the traditional Elliott stock, yet physically
much more closely resembles Edgar Allan Poe. If you press him
hard, he will confess that he began life by studying for the
stage, and "almost played Romeo," before painting drew him away.
Reaching Italy, he aspired to enter the studio of Don Jose di
Villegas, now director of the Prado Museum in Madrid, but then in
Rome. Villegas took no pupils. But "Jack" Elliott is Scotch. He
made a bargain. He would teach the master English, in return for
instruction in painting. At the end of two years, young Elliott
had learned much about art, but the master, he says, had acquired
only one English phrase—"I haf no money!"
At the end of two years, Elliott wished to leave, because he
despaired of painting like his master. "That is why I keep you,"
said Villegas; "you have retained your own manner and choice of
subjects." So the pupil stayed on in Rome for five years, sharing
his studio later with Aristide Sartorio, now a leading Italian
painter. Here, in the Via Flaminia, he painted his first
important mural decoration, for the dining room of Mrs. Potter
Palmer's Chicago Lake Shore mansion. This work, called "The
Vintage," is decorously inebriate, a vinous riot of little
cupids. It led, shortly after his marriage in 1887 to Miss Maud
Howe, a daughter of Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, to his establishing
himself in Chicago, where he did many decorations and portraits.
In 1894, he went back to Rome to execute a commission for a huge
ceiling piece for the Boston Public Library. The piece was for a
room later converted into a children's room, and after the canvas
was placed, in 1901, the incongruity of the adult painting and
the purposes of the room caused unfavorable comment. But the room
has been recently readjusted. It is now lined with high oak
shelves, almost to the cornice, filled with musty old books of a
beautiful brown—perhaps the most effective decoration in the
world—and the ceiling tells at its true value.
This ceiling, fifty feet square, divided into two equal panels,
represents the twenty Christian centuries, as horses, led by the
hours (winged female figures) out of the mists of the past into
the illumination of the present. The models for the horses were
the undersized nags of the Roman Campagna, which are "small but
decorative beasties," as Mr. Elliott puts it, and lend themselves
to a slightly conventional treatment. They sweep two by two, out
of a cool mistiness, round the ceiling past the suggestion of a
pale moon, into the full radiance of the golden orb of the sun.
The triumph of the picture is its handling of the problem of
light. This golden daybreak pierces the mists whereon the horses
gallop, touches here a flank, there a wing feather on one of the
hours, and warms to rosy glow the tip of a cloud. It appears in
unexpected places, grows where only shadow seemed to be, and
surprises you anew each time you look up. Painted in the
flat—that is, with no part of the picture telling as farther
from the eye than another, to distort the proportions of the
room—the ceiling yet has great depth, distance, airy lightness.
It is a true decorative painting.
While at work upon it, Mr. Elliott painted many portraits,
including the well-known red chalk heads of the "Soldiers Three,"
Lord Ava, the Marquis of Winchester, and General Wauchope; the
portrait of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge; and that of
Lady Katherine Thynne, now Lady Cromer, a celebrated English
beauty. Indeed, he made her the model for the second hour in the
Boston ceiling, the figure next to the leader in the procession.
Three studies of her head for this figure, well known from
reproduction, are now in the possession of Thomas W. Lawson.
In Rome the Elliotts occupied for some time the apartments of
Mrs. Elliott's cousin, the late F. Marion Crawford, in the
Palazzo Santa Croce. In writing "With the Immortals," Mr.
Crawford had collected many death masks, including one of Dante,
which fascinated Mr. Elliott. Two pictures of "Dante in Exile"
were the result. One of them now hangs in the living room of
Queen Margherita of Italy, the other in the house of Mrs. J.
Montgomery Sears of Boston. A third pastel study was made, an
unfinished head of the poet, and thrown into a wastebasket. By a
curious fatality, it is now better known than either of the
paintings. Mrs. Elliott rescued the drawing, smoothed it out,
framed it, and was allowed to hang it in her chamber. Later it
was seen and purchased by Mrs. David Kimball of Boston, and in
reproduction has gone all over the world, receiving honors in
Japan and the higher honor of a place over the desk of many Dante
students. Yet few who possess the reproduction know anything of
Mr. Elliott, receiving his commission to do a great mural
painting for the new National Museum in Washington, again went to
Rome four years ago. "Diana of the Tides" was completed and
signed on Christmas day, 1908. Three days later came the awful
news of the Messina earthquake, and the Hon. Lloyd Griscom, then
American Ambassador to Italy, at once called for volunteers for
his relief expedition. John Elliott was among the first to
respond. He went south officially as an interpreter. Actually, he
played the part of stevedore as well for ten days on the relief
"I have dropped my last knuckle down the hold this morning," he
wrote back, "and I have only two fingers left that I can wash."
After a few weeks, he hastened back to Rome, to give a promised
public exhibition of "Diana of the Tides," and, as soon as the
exhibition was over, rushed down to Messina again.
There Commander Belknap, who was at the head of the American
relief forces, put him to work, as architect, on the erection of
the American village, in the lemon groves on the outskirts of the
stricken city. "I had never been trained as an architect," he
says, "but I once made over a house up in Cornish, New Hampshire,
and that gave me a practical experience which came in remarkably
Most of the lumber had been cut for the erection of small houses,
and the door and window frames were stock pieces. It became his
task to design and build, as quickly as could be done, not only
comfortable houses for many thousand people, but a church, a
hotel, three schools, a hospital, all out of these small lumber
units. He combined the units for the larger buildings, so
grouping the small stock window frames as to give a pleasing
effect of size, even constructing a kind of rose window for the
church. He helped lay out the streets in such a way as to
preserve all the trees possible. And, in spite of the haste with
which the work had to he done, and the sixteen-hour-a-day strain
under which the workers labored, the Zona Americana emerged an
attractive and sanitary, as well as practical, village. Queen
Helena, as soon as the American village was under way, got Mr.
Elliott to go over the drafts for the plans of the American
quarter in her village near by, working them up along the same
lines. So, in four months, he designed and superintended the
erection of houses, churches, schools, and hospitals for a town
of several thousand inhabitants.
Commander Belknap's report spoke of him as "the first to
volunteer, and the most devoted worker, sharing every hardship
with unfailing good humor and leaving his beautifying touch on
every part of the work."
On June 12, 1908, having built his town and recovered his lost
knuckles, John Elliott returned to Rome, where the soil did not
rock, and set quietly about making twenty-four small pastel
drawings to illustrate a fairy story! From building houses for
the wretched homeless sufferers, he turned to the play tales of
childhood. He laid down the T square and the hammer for a piece
of pastel crayon. But he had triumphantly refuted the scorn of
the "practical man" for the artist. He had shown the stuff that
dreams are really made of. Incidentally, he had won for himself a
decoration from the King of Italy, and the medal of the American
Red Cross Association.
"Diana of the Tides," which now covers the end wall of the
right-hand gallery of the new National Museum at Washington, is
akin to the Boston Library ceiling in its employment of horses
symbolically, its light, luminous color, and its subtle play of
illumination. This charm of illumination is unfortunately lost in
reproduction. Mr. Elliott has made symbolic use of Diana, the
Moon Goddess. in a way obvious enough, but hitherto, oddly,
untried by artists. It is a way singularly appropriate in a
museum of scientific character—a combination of ancient myth and
modern science. As the Moon Goddess, Diana controls the four
tides, which, in the shape of horses, draw her erect and jubilant
figure on a great seashell. They are without guiding reins and
harness, to suggest the unseen channels of her sway. If the
reader will note an advancing wave, he will see that, just before
the crest curls over, the foam is tossed back. Then the wave bows
and breaks. So the nearest horse raises his head slightly, the
next higher, the third tosses his head back, and the last has
bowed his neck. In their motion and grouped attitudes. as they
gallop up on the beach, is the rhythm of an oncoming wave.
Farther than that Mr. Elliott wisely did not go. "Let them
suggest more obviously a wave," he says, "and you have a trick
picture. After a while, you wouldn't see anything in it but the
trick." The wave motion is repeated on a comber out at sea, and,
to the left, against a rock on the shore.
Diana stands behind the horses, against the great, golden moon—a
radiant halo. She has just unloosed an arrow from her bow. Her
draperies are of indefinite color, the rose and lilac and amber
of sunset. Her face, it will be noted, though she stands against
the moon, is lighted from in front. In that fact lies the secret
of the illumination. For this picture was supposedly painted at
that one Byronic hour of the year when
The sun was setting opposite the moon.
Turner, in a small water color, has worked out a similar problem,
with the cool copper of the harvest moonlight bathing one side of
an old stone tower, the warm rose of sunset the other. In Mr.
Elliott's great canvas the mutual lights kill all shadows, and
out toward the great yellow disk of the moon the invisible sun
floods its lilac and pink, kindling the waves, the draperies of
the goddess, the wet flanks of the horses, and suffusing the
whole painting with its delicate, bright warmth, which is yet
kept too cool for gaudiness by the twilight of the moon.
While this canvas was being unpacked in Washington last winter,
Mr. Elliott was exhibiting in Boston his portrait of his
mother-in-law, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe. It was begun and nearly
finished at Newport four or five years ago; but Mr. Elliott has
not cared to complete it, for during the interval the "Grand Old
Lady" has considerably changed in appearance. She is now more
than ninety years old. When the sittings began, Mrs. Howe had
just recovered from an illness, and could read or talk only for
brief periods. Mostly she sat looking out of her window at a bird
which had a nest in a nearby tree. In this attitude, the eyes
raised, the face quiet yet alert, the artist has caught her;
calm, patient, but with one hand characteristically clenched on
the arm of her chair, showing a touch of hidden force and
commanding will. She is dressed in light green. The background is
an indistinguishable brown. Her eyes have that very delicate
light blue of advanced age, wistful yet prophetic. The skin, too,
has the rare ivory delicacy of old age, of old age gently dealt
with and protected. The light is unobtrusive yet
luminous—morning sunshine. The picture is utterly simple; the
more so for its touch of incompleteness. The masses are broad,
artless. It is tender, reverential, a sweet and solemn
glorification of old age, and of the old age of a distinguished
And at the exhibition in Boston one of the women visitors
complained to the artist: "But you know, Mr. Elliott, when Mrs.
Howe comes to the Woman's Club, she always looks so bright and
animated, and always has something smart to say!"
To which the artist replied: "No doubt, my dear lady. But I was
not painting a president of the New England Woman's Club, but the
author of `The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' "
Queen Margherita of Italy made a truer comment when she saw the
portrait in Mr. Elliott's studio in Rome. "That portrait deserves
to go into any collection in the world," she said, "not because
it is a good portrait of a distinguished old woman, but because
it is a portrait of Old age as it ought to be."
Can it be that a mere Continental Queen is a better judge of art
than a member of a Boston Woman's Club? Such thoughts are very
Queen Margherita, ever since she first visited Mr. Elliott's
studio in Rome ten years ago, has been his warm patron. It was
for her he made his well known silver-point portrait of the late
King Humbert, which she carries with her on all journeys. It has,
indeed the boldness of line inseparable from good silver-point
drawing, where a stroke once laid on is indelible and no "working
over" is possible. When "Diana of the Tides " was exhibited in
Rome in February, 1909, the Queen was one of the first visitors.
She was not the first, the Chinese Minister arriving ahead of all
others, on the stroke of ten—the opening hour—attended by all
his suite, to signify his profound Celestial veneration for the
Fine Arts. The Queen, seeing the picture, expressed delight and
volunteered to tell her son, King Victor Emmanuel, about it.
A few days later, at seven thirty in the morning, there came a
knocking at the door, with the announcement, "A message from the
The King, said the messenger, would follow in an hour. Presumably
there was some hurry of preparation in the Elliott family. A New
York artist, at any rate, at seven thirty A. M. would be in no
condition to receive a crowned head—or any other! Promptly at
eight thirty—punctuality being a royal virtue—King Victor
Emmanuel drove up in a motor car with two aides. He remained half
an hour. Being fond of horses, he found much in the picture
genuinely to interest him. The artist accompanied the monarch to
the door of his car, where he thanked him for the honor of his
"Not at all," said the King, in his excellent English. "My mother
told me to come."
Which shows, at least, that the Fifth Commandment is honored in
The twenty-four pastel drawings made to illustrate Mrs.
Anderson's fairy tale, "The Great Sea Horse," were also exhibited
in America last winter. Made immediately after Mr. Elliott's
heartbreaking labor on the rocking soil of Sicily, they are none
the less quiet, childish, and fanciful in their charm. Only one
of them might have been inspired by the turning over in his
uneasy sleep of the giant buried beneath Etna—the picture of the
naked giant sitting on a headland and emptying his hot pipe ashes
into the sea, where they form a volcano. The grim, grotesque old
fellow is carefully drawn, with a fine rhythm of line in the
seated limbs. His bulk dwarfs the headland, and his head and
shoulders grow blue and pale in the sky. One questions why the
ashes do not fall farther out to sea; they seem to lie in the
shallow tide water on the beach. Barring this note of smallness,
the picture is a true grotesque in miniature.
Mr. Elliott also works in genuine miniature. He has painted
several portraits—of Mrs. Potter Palmer, the Chanler sisters of
New York, and many more. He has painted landscapes, as well.
Professor Barrett Wendell possesses a charming example. Most
recently he has been engaged on a large mural decoration, best
fitted, perhaps, for a music room, showing Pan seated on a tree
trunk by a lake, making into a pipe the broken reeds in his hand
after Syrinx eluded him. No horizon line shows. Pan and his tawny
leopard skin (his automobile coat, the artist calls it) tell
against the high purple banks across the lake. The god is making
the best of his loss—making music of it, in fact. He was the
eternal boy, before Mr. Barrie rediscovered him and surnamed him
And there is something of the eternal boy about John Elliott. He
plays with a paint box on a fifty-foot ceiling or a twenty-seven-
foot end wall, turns aside to paint a miniature on ivory, drops
all his paints when a great national calamity comes and is
converted into an architect overnight, building a whole town in
four months and making it as beautiful as he can in the process,
though the "practical" man would say that utility alone was
demanded; and then, when this work is over, turning blithely back
again to make pictures for a fairy book. He is strong, through
his fresh imagination, to combine ancient myth with modern
science in a huge decorative canvas, to reflect the dignity and
loveliness and spiritual power of an exalted old age, to do
practical work in a practical crisis—and to joy, at the same
time, with the moon baby dancing on the beach!
"Jack Elliott," they will tell you who know him, "has an artistic
temperament." Well, if this be the artistic temperament, what a
pity there is not more of it in the world! It is not the
temperament that is self-centered, whining, ineffectual. It is
the temperament that does whatever comes to hand as well as it
can, for sheer love of the task, and of beautiful workmanship
that through imagination wins to sympathy, and through
imagination grasps the opportunity to do practical work
beautifully, where others would only do it practically. It is the
temperament eternally boyish and buoyant, which is on the side of
sweetness and light.
Perhaps it is not what the world means by the artistic
temperament. But it is the temperament of the true artist. "Never
do a pot-boiler," said Mr. Elliott to a young painter the other
day. "Let one of your best things go to boil the pot." In these
words is a rule of conduct that all of us—artists or artisans
brokers or clerks, men or women—might well walk by toward the
light of a more beautiful and cooperative society.