This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution
The Name Allston: An Appropriate Choice?
Boston’s Allston section is said to be the only community in the United States named for an artist---the great Romantic painter Washington Allston (1779-1843). This is of course is no small distinction.
But who was Washington Allston, and how did his name come to be applied to this Boston suburb? And why was the painter Allston honored rather than some other Boston-area artist of perhaps equal distinction such as Copley, Stuart, or Trumbull?
The choice of the name Allston is especially surprising when one considers that this painter was not a native of New England. Allston was born in distant South Carolina into a wealthy family of rice planters. Though he came to New England at a fairly young age, much of his life was spent (his most productive period artistically) in Europe. By the time he settled permanently in Boston in 1818, the painter was already forty years of age, and most of his significant work was behind him.
Another factor that renders the choice somewhat surprising, even inappropriate, was the scant interest this painter showed in American subject matter. Apart from a few portraits of family members and friends, Allston painted almost nothing on American themes. Not one of his brilliant marine paintings, or stunningly iridescent landscapes, or elaborately executed history paintings celebrates the American experience.
While Copley and Stuart have left us a wonderful record in portraiture of early American history; while John Trumbull created giant history canvasses celebrating our Revolutionary and early national history; while Thomas Cole and his Hudson River school associates captured the "wilder image" of our primeval landscape on their canvasses, Allston preferred neoclassical and religious subject matter, considering American themes somehow inferior. While he painted brilliantly in a broad range of genres, as evidenced by such stunning canvasses as "The Rising of a Thunderstorm at Sea," (1804), "Moonlit Landscape," (1819), and "Elijah in the Desert" (1818), in no real sense---apart from his birth here---can he be classified as an "America" painter.
So why then did his name come to be applied to the eastern half of the Town of Brighton?
The name Allston was chosen as an address for a new post office that the federal government had decided to open in that neighborhood. On February 11, 1868 local residents gathered in the the B&W railroad depot at "Cambridge Crossing," as this section of Brighton was then known. After prolonged discussion the participants adopted a suggestion of the absent Reverend Frederic Augustus Whitney that the name Allston be adopted.
Reverend Whitney, who was the minister of Brighton's First Church (Unitarian), and a highly respected figure, was said to have recommended the name because the painter had once lived across the river in nearby Cambridgeport, and also because Brighton had, before 1807, formed a part of the Town of Cambridge.
It is quite possible (even probable) that Whitney knew Allston personally, for the future minister had attended Harvard College and the Harvard Theological Seminary in the early 1830s during the time when Allston lived in Cambridgeport. Harvard students often visited the painter’s studio near Central Square to examine the giant canvases and other works of art that he had on display there.
How appropriate then was the choice of the name Allston for the Boston suburb that bears its name? While it may not have been the very best choice in historic terms, it was in many ways an understandable choice.
Though Allston settled in the Boston area at a late stage of his life, he had long considered himself a New Englander. His association with the region dated back to 1787 when his parents sent the then eight year old boy to live with a maternal uncle in Newport, Rhode Island, in order, it was said, that his "nervous...organization might be recruited by a more bracing air," and also, so that he might be adequately prepared for admission to Harvard College.
From 1796 to 1800 the handsome southerner formed lifelong friendships at Harvard with members of Boston’s social elite. He would eventually marry into two leading Boston-area families: the Channings and the Danas.
His native South, by contrast, held little appeal for Allston. He returned there only once, to collect his inheritance.
Upon graduation from Harvard in 1800, Allston left immediately for Europe, the center of the artistic world of his day, remaining there for most of the next two decades. He returned to Boston in 1808, married Ann Channing, the sister of the Reverend William Ellery Channing, but was back in London by 1811.
Once Allston returned to America permanently in 1818, he chose to live in Boston. During the last quarter century of his life (1818 to 1843) he resided first in the Hub (off of Federal Street), and then in the nearby suburb of Cambridgeport.
Had the painter not settled in nearby Cambridgeport in 1830, it is unlikely that his name would have been given to eastern part of Brighton. His second marriage (his first wife had died in 1815) to Martha Remington Dana prompted his removal from Boston to the developing suburb on the banks of the Charles, directly across the river from present-day Allston. The Danas were a leading Cambridge family. Martha’s grandfather, Francis Dana, Congressman and first American Minister to Russia, had been the principal developer of Cambridgeport. Allston’s father-in-law was a literary figure of importance and professor at Harvard as well as Allston’s closest friend in the last years of his life.
In Cambridgeport the Allstons first lived in a house situated about a third of a mile south of Central Square, with an excellent view of the Charles River marshes. In 1831 the painter built a studio at the corner of present-day Magazine and Auburn Streets, which he designed himself. Shaped like a Greek temple, this edifice was about 20 by 40 feet long, large enough to house the giant paintings that were his stock in trade. Later the couple moved to a house at 172 Auburn Street, much closer to his “painting room,” as he called his studio. The leading literary and artistic figures of Boston---in the era when the city was ”The Athens of America”---visited Allston in his Cambridgeport studio: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Sully, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Margaret Fuller, William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
How well-named is the Boston suburb from an artistic standpoint? When Allston died in 1843, he was at the zenith of his reputation and was considered the foremost American artist of his day. There was dissent, certainly, coming from those who regarded Allston, with his European frame of reference, as irrelevant to America’s efforts to establish a national artistic identity.
With the passage of time, this perception of Allston as an anachronism grew. By the early 20th century his reputation had receded to the point that he often ignored altogether or dismissed as a minor figure.
A new appreciation of the importance and uniqueness of Allston’s work came in the 1940s, however, in response chiefly to the writings of E. P. Richardson of the Detroit Institute of Art, the painter’s principal biographer. Slowly Allston’s reputation revived. A huge exhibit of Allston’s work at the MFA in 1979, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, entitled "A Man of Genius" signaled Allston’s full rehabilitation. The catalog of that exhibit described the namesake of Allston, Massachusetts as "a sensitive portraitist, the first major American landscape painter, perhaps the country’s most important historical painter, and the most versatile draftsman of his time."