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Royal Cortissoz


Centurion, 1920–1948

Born 10 February 1869 in New York (Brooklyn), New York

Died 17 October 1948 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York

Proposed by William Crary Brownell and Edwin H. Blashfield

Elected 4 December 1920 at age fifty-one

Archivist’s Note: President of the Century Association, 1933–1944; designated an honorary member in 1945

Century Memorial

Royal Cortissoz. [Born] 1869. Critic.

In the one hundred and two years of our Association's history we have elected five of our presidents to honorary membership: George Bancroft, historian; Daniel Huntington, artist; Bishop Henry Codman Potter, churchman; Elihu Root, statesman; and Royal Cortissoz, critic. In the Century we make and prescribe our own standards; and what the world judges, outside our doors, gives no reasons for our actions; and whatever the world thought of our honorary member Presidents at the time they were elected, the world now would use the word great in his profession to describe each of the first four. So, in time, the world will describe Royal. As for us, we knew him to be great in the Century and, beyond that, what matters for us?

In the years of my lectureship in the University of Oxford, I lived in Walter Pater’s rooms in Brasenose College. I wrote my lectures sitting in Pater’s chair at Pater’s table. I could not say, alas, that Pater’s spirit descended upon me, yet neither could I help but learn something from and about my predecessor in those rooms. And as I heard Royal here and saw Royal here, I saw and heard Walter Pater. For these were artists with words—which means artists in thought—and it is with Royal what Pater said about Botticelli. He had named the supreme artists, Michaelangelo and Leonardo, and then he said:

“But, besides these great men, there is a certain number of artists who have a distinct faculty of their own by which they convey to us a peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and these, too, have their place in general culture, and must be interpreted to it by those who have felt their charm strongly, and are often the objects of a special diligence and a consideration wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the stress of a great name and authority.”

All right! I will agree that Royal is no Leonardo or Michaelangelo in words: I will settle for his being a Botticelli!

“It is among these rare artists, so much more interesting to many, than the very greatest, that [Royal] belongs; and he can only be properly understood, loved, or even measured by those to whom it is ‘the delicacies of fine literature’ that chiefly appeal. . . . For strangeness and subtlety of temperament, for rarity and delicacy of form, for something incredibly attractive to those who felt his attraction, he was as unique in our age as Botticelli in the great age of Raphael. And he, too, above all to those who knew him, can scarcely fail to become, not only ‘the object of a special diligence,’ but also of ‘a consideration wholly affectionate,’ not lessened by the slowly increasing ‘stress of authority’ which is coming to be laid, almost by the world in general, on his name.

“In the words of [Royal], thought moves to music, and does all its hard work as if in play. And [Royal] seems to listen for his thought, and to overhear it, as the poet overhears his song in the air. It is like music, and has something of the character of poetry, yet, above all, it is precise, individual thought filtered through a temperament; and it comes to us as it does because the style which clothes and fits it is a style in which, to use some of [Pater’s] own words, ‘the writer succeeds in saying what he wills.’ . . .

“What is most wonderful in the style is precisely its adaptability to every shade of meaning or intention, its extraordinary closeness in following the turns of thought, the waves of sensation, in the man himself. Everything in [Royal] was in harmony, when you got accustomed to its particular forms of expression; the heavy frame, so slow and deliberate in movement, so settled in repose; the timid and yet scrutinizing eyes; the mannered, yet so personal, voice; the precise, pausing speech, with its urbanity, its almost painful conscientiousness of utterance; the whole outer mask, in short, worn for protection and out of courtesy, yet molded upon the inner truth of nature like a mask molded upon the features which it covers.”

When I compared Royal to Pater there were, perhaps, men among you who thought I was laying it on a bit thick. But did not my words in the preceding paragraphs fit Royal? You all know they did. But I did not write them about Royal: every word I read was written by Arthur Symons about Pater.

“[Royal] seemed to draw up into himself every form of earthly beauty, or of the beauty made by men, and many forms of knowledge and wisdom, and a sense of human things which was neither that of the lover nor of the priest, but partly of both; and his work was the giving out of all this again, with a certain labor to give it wholly. It is all, the criticism . . . and the writing about pictures and places, a confession . . . about the world in which he lived. . . .

“It was a world into which we can only look, not enter, for none of us have his secret. But part of his secret was in the gift and cultivation of a passionate temperance, an unrelaxing attentiveness to whatever was rarest and most delightful in passing things.”

I did not write those words either: they also were written by Symons about Walter Pater.

And just as we in Brasenose College knew that Pater fumbled with his papers, if indeed he hadn’t lost them—as he usually had—and never seemed master of any situation, so we in the Century saw Royal. Yet there was a wonderful strength in him—sweetness and strength, pleasure with surprise, an energy of conception which seemed at every moment about to break through all the conditions of usual form, recovering, touch by touch, a loveliness found only in the simplest natural things—ex forti dulcado.

I did not write those words either. They were written by Walter Pater in his essay on the Poetry of Michaelangelo.

Source: Henry Allen Moe Papers, Mss.B.M722. Reproduced by permission of American Philosophical Society Library & Museum, Philadelphia

Henry Allen Moe
Henry Allen Moe Papers, 1948 Memorials