The Artist of the Beautiful Summary

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Artist of the Beautiful

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

The Artist of the Beautiful Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Artist of the Beautiful by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

“The Artist of the Beautiful” is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne and was first published in 1844 in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a well-regarded political and literary magazine that released issues throughout the early 19th century in the United States. The story was also included in the 1846 book Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories.

As with several other works by Hawthorne, “The Artist of the Beautiful” explores the creation of art in its various forms and the relationship artists have with their creations. Several aspects of “The Artist of the Beautiful” also mark it as an early work of science fiction, such as the way it explores the intersection of engineering and art in ways that would have been improbable or fanciful at the time.

The main character of the story is a watchmaker named Owen Warland who is engaged in work on a secretive project. Owen has always enjoyed carving intricate natural figures, so his parents arranged for him to be apprenticed to the master watchmaker Peter Hovenden. Though Owen is talented at manipulating small gears and mechanical parts, Peter is unimpressed by his reluctance to apply his skills in a conventional way. When Peter’s failing eyesight forces him to retire from watchmaking and give his shop to Owen, he does not have confidence in his apprentice’s ability to deliver useful watches that people want. This turns out to be the case, as Owen develops a habit of tinkering with the watches and embellishing them in strange ways.

Visiting the watch shop and finding Owen tinkering with a project that is not a watch, Peter complains to his daughter, Annie, telling her that making useful things is a more noble pursuit than creating art. Though Owen is generally content with the shop’s lack of customers and the free time it affords him to work on his own pieces, he is concerned that Annie might agree with her father and look down on him.

Soon afterwards, the town blacksmith Robert Danforth stops by the shop to deliver some miniature equipment that Owen wants to borrow. Robert and Owen discuss the relative merits of practical and artistic work. The encounter disturbs Owen and he inadvertently ruins his work. Upset by the setback, Owen sets his personal project aside and decides to focus completely on watchmaking.

Once he applies himself, Owen becomes a successful and well-respected watchmaker. His business picks up with the people in town, including Robert, who stops by Owen’s shop one day. He finds Owen once more working on his secret project and is dismayed that he is distracted from practical work. Thinking that it will help Owen be successful, Robert threatens to destroy the secret project. Infuriated, Owen shouts at him and rails about the inability of people to understand his work. For the time being, Owen’s invention is safe from harm.

Soon after that, Annie stops by his shop to ask Owen to fix a thimble for her. She expresses interest in his invention, and for a moment Owen thinks that she might be able to understand what he is trying to accomplish. He changes his mind when Annie accidentally breaks the invention while examining it.

Frustrated by the setback, Owen retreats from society, leaving town to live in the wilderness. He reconnects with nature and spends his time chasing butterflies in the fields. He is interrupted by Peter, who arrives to invite Owen to the wedding of Annie and Robert. Owen is in love with Annie and takes the news of the engagement hard, but soon he goes back to work on his invention.

Years go by, and Owen at last visits Annie and Robert at their home. He tells Annie that he has come to present her with a late wedding gift and produces the invention he has worked so hard on. The invention is revealed to be a tiny clockwork butterfly that is completely indistinguishable from a real insect.

The butterfly flutters around the room, attracting the attention of Annie’s young son who grabs at the butterfly and accidentally crushes it. Owen is not upset by the loss of his creation because he feels that he has achieved his goal as an artist and created something truly beautiful. The butterfly is only one physical manifestation of his skill and sensitivity.

While “The Artist of the Beautiful” is primarily about the importance of art and beauty, Hawthorne also explores the possible drawbacks of Owen’s utter devotion to his invention. When Annie suggests that her child is also an admirable and beautiful creation, the omniscient narrator concedes that this is a worthy point of view. This calls into question whether Hawthorne’s sympathy really lies with his artistic protagonist or whether he sees value in the points of view of his more practical characters as well. As with many of Hawthorne’s stories, the final evaluation of the ideas presented is left up to the reader.