illustrated portrait of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne

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In Drowne's Wooden Image, why does Copley view Drowne's current carving as exceptional, and what does this reveal about his artistic values?

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Copley sees Drowne’s figures as lifeless and cold, lacking any sign of what he considers an artist to be. He believes that the only artistic skill demonstrated is in the carving of the wood and that Drowne has not reached into his creative spirit to give life to the figures. Copley states that he admires creativity over mere technical skill. The fact that Drowne can make a figure look realistic is not enough for Copley; he wants to see a true demonstration of creativity, which would be giving life to a wooden figure. When Copley sees the statue of "the First-Born" or "Eve,"

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The painter John Singleton Copley, who lived in New England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appears as a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne ’s...

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version of the Pygmalion legend. Copley decides that a trip from Boston to Salem to meet the wood carver Drowne is warranted because he is somewhat interested in his work. Copley evaluates Drowne as having “moderate ability” as a carver. When he enters Drowne’s studio, he sees a large quantity of “inflexible images.” He senses a “stolid transformation” that makes it seem as if “a living man had here been changed to wood.” In Copley’s judgment, in the carver’s hands, the wood has not taken in “the ethereal essence of humanity.” The figures he sees merely demonstrate the “mechanical character” of Drowne’s skill.

In a conversation with Drowne, Copley conveys his attitudes toward art as a revelation of creativity as contrasted with technical skill. He stops short of praising Drowne, who immediately realizes that Copley is denigrating his work by saying that one figure, that of General Wolfe, lacks “one other touch” to seem like a genuine human being. Drowne admits to feeling dissatisfied with his works to date, dismissing them as “no better than worthless abortions”; he uses the analogy of painted sign posts compared to Copley’s paintings.

Continuing to look around, Copley sees a work in progress that stands out from all the rest. Astonished, he demands to know whose work it is, as he sees that an “inspired hand is beckoning this wood to arise and live.” Also using the word “divine,” he equates the artist with god-like power to give life. Drowne responds that he knows there is a figure lying within the wooden block and that he must find it. Hearing this insight, Copley declares him “a man of genius!"

As he leaves, Copley introduces the Pygmalion theme, commenting on the passion and warmth he now discerns within the “Yankee mechanic.”

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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?

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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