Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Neoclassical Sculptors Abroad

America’s first acknowledged school of professional sculptors practiced their art not on native shores but, with few exceptions, in Italy. Beginning in the late 1820s, aspiring sculptors migrated to Italy throughout much of the nineteenth century, often for the duration of their careers, for several reasons. The abundant quarries of Carrara and Seravezza provided the marble, the medium of choice for Neoclassical sculptors. Skilled craftsmen and carvers, necessary to the complicated and labor-intensive process of enlarging and translating sculptural compositions into stone, were readily available at affordable wages. The glorious wealth of classical, Renaissance, and contemporary art—on view in museums, galleries, and in the streets—offered inspiration and instruction. Leading European Neoclassical sculptors such as Antonio Canova, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and Lorenzo Bartolini—also based in Italy—served as aesthetic mentors while other artists and writers offered camaraderie.

Florence and Rome—with their internationally cosmopolitan environments—were favored by expatriate American sculptors. Boston native Horatio Greenough was the first American sculptor to settle in Florence, arriving in 1828 and remaining until 1851. Other Americans who followed Greenough to the Tuscan capital to practice their art included Larkin Goldsmith Mead (1999.18), Thomas Ball, and most notably, Hiram Powers. Powers relocated to Florence in 1837 and remained until his death in 1873, never returning to the United States (most artists made infrequent trips home in search of patronage, especially lucrative and prestigious governmental commissions). Powers, in particular, enjoyed a national and international reputation. His demure full-length female nude, The Greek Slave, the most famous American sculpture of the period, earned unprecedented publicity and praise. It was the centerpiece of touring exhibitions in the United States that included such other admirable examples of Powers’ work as Andrew Jackson (94.14) and the Fisher Boy (94.9.1).

When Thomas Crawford moved from New York to Italy in 1835, he chose instead to settle in Rome, the first American sculptor to do so permanently. There he established a successful career, his body of work ranging from ennobling public statuary (including Armed Freedom for the United States Capitol) to lighthearted juvenile subjects such as the Genius of Mirth (97.13.1). By the early 1850s, the Eternal City had overtaken Florence, its smaller neighbor to the north, as the sculptors’ long-term destination of choice. Rome became a thriving expatriate artist colony, over the next several decades inhabited by the likes of Edward Sheffield Bartholomew (1996.74), Randolph Rogers (99.7.2), and William Henry Rinehart (11.68.1), as well as a talented group of American women sculptors, who were dubbed “a white, marmorean flock” by author Henry James. Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, in particular, achieved popular and commercial success for her lighthearted genre subjects, known as “fancy pieces,” and mythological subjects such as Medusa and Daphne (1973.133).

After Crawford’s premature death in 1857, William Wetmore Story became the leading American sculptor in Rome, internationally recognized for his emotionally charged monumental figures. Story, who first visited Rome in 1847, lived in grand style in the Palazzo Barberini, and his studio was a recommended destination for any American on the Grand Tour of Europe. Travel guides featured artists’ studios as tourist attractions, bringing prospective patrons—eager for souvenirs of their European sojourns—right to the sculptors’ doors. On view in the studios were plasters of imaginative “ideal” subjects—themes from literature, mythology, and history. These works, considered to be a sculptor’s most worthwhile and creative endeavor, were available for prosperous Grand Tourists to commission for translation to marble (artists generally produced several marble replicas of the same composition to maximize potential income). Or clients may have sat for portrait busts—the backbone of any sculptor’s business—modeled in clay, and later carved in marble and shipped to their homes in the United States. Indeed, the productions and achievements of American sculptors in Italy were closely followed in American newspapers and journals and incorporated into novels and travel recollections. For instance, Story’s brooding Cleopatra (88.5a–d) served as the basis for the masterpiece of the sculptor-hero in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s widely read Marble Faun, published in 1860. Yet, for all its recognition and patronage, especially between the 1840s and 1860s, American Neoclassical sculpture began to wane in popularity as a style by the mid-1870s, when its tenets of nuanced sentiment and ideal form were superceded by the pulsing surfaces and expressive realism of the Paris-based Beaux-Arts aesthetic.