illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Review the conversations between Drowne and in Copley in "Drowne's Wooden Image" and explain: How does this reveal what Copley values in an artist, and does this have anything to do with Drowne ultimately falling in love with his creation?

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In his story “Drowne's Wooden Image,” Nathaniel Hawthorne includes a prominent artist of his day, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). The Boston-based Copley offers a critical evaluation of the woodcarver Drowne’s works, and in doing so establishes the theme of artistic passion and divine inspiration. Copley achieved considerable fame as a portrait painter, although he also painted action scenes. Hawthorne shows him as taking an interest in Drowne’s carvings but seeing only one incomplete work that shows true artistry.

As Drowne’s reputation had reached Boston, Copley thought highly enough of his work to pay a visit to his studio. Before they begin to converse, the story’s narrator lets the reader know what Copley is thinking as he looks at the countless wooden figures that fill the space. While it is apparent that the carver has tremendous technical skill, Copley focuses on the inflexibility of the images. He cannot summon more than moderate praise for the stolid images he sees. Copley thinks that all the figures, even those that seem to have intellectual and spiritual qualities, lack the ethereal spark that would make them seem truly human. In conversing with Drowne, he is neither subtle nor very polite in communicating that he notices the absence of even a slight amount of humanity.

The artist, apparently assuming that Drowne is not an insightful person, is surprised to hear the carver deprecate his own work and agree with Copley. Drowne concurs that his work lacks “the one touch” that is “truly valuable.” He not only calls his own works “deficient” but also terms them “abortions.” His praises for Copley as an “inspired artist” makes the other man think more highly of him. Copley questions why Drowne has not produced superior works, as he has the intelligence to recognize what they require.

As he continues to look around the room, Copley spots one work, not yet completed, that he finds breathtaking. He is not even sure that Drowne is its creator. “Here is the divine, the life-giving touch!” Copley cries. He distinguishes the artist’s approach as asking the wood to come alive. Drowne tells him that he considers it his business to locate whatever form is within the rough wood. Copley becomes excited to hear that Drowne shares his vision of art, Copley pronounces him a genius.

The closely related ideas of divine inspiration and the artist’s responsibility to free spirits from natural materials such as wood are present in Copley’s observations during their conversation. After they finish speaking and Copley is leaving the studio, he refers to the otherwise-mechanical carver as “Pygmalion,” an allusion to an ancient Greek myth about a sculptor who falls in love with his creation. This reference foreshadows what actually occurs.

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