Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Henry Kirke Brown (1814–1886), John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910), and Realism in American Sculpture

By the late 1840s, sculptors in the United States began to produce works with American themes and in a realist style, a distinct turn away from the marbles of expatriate Americans practicing in a Neoclassical aesthetic. As painters of the Hudson River School championed American subjects, so too a similar movement emerged in sculpture. Its two leading exponents were Henry Kirke Brown and John Quincy Adams Ward, both artists of great versatility, completing sculptures ranging from small statuettes to civic monuments. They enjoyed lengthy and prolific careers, beginning in the era of Neoclassical idealism and continuing during the rise of Beaux-Arts naturalism. Together they redefined American sculpture in their choice of aesthetics, subjects, and materials.

A native of Leyden, Massachusetts, Henry Kirke Brown studied painting with Chester Harding in Boston and, between 1836 and 1839, began sculpting in Cincinnati. He then lived in Albany, New York, executing plaster portrait busts to finance a trip to Europe. Brown went to Italy in 1842, settling first in Florence and then in Rome. After he returned to the United States in 1846 and settled in New York, he produced portrait busts in marble of notable cultural figures, including journalist William Cullen Bryant and Hudson River School painters Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole (95.8.1). Brown was a founding member of the Century Association in 1847, a club of arts and letters, and an active cultural advocate like his friends Bryant and Durand.

While well versed in European Neoclassical traditions, Brown strove to produce nationally resonant compositions that appealed to American sensibilities, largely forgoing marble in favor of bronze. He traveled to Mackinac Island in Michigan in 1848 to complete sketches (1990.46.2) of the Chippewa and Ottawa for Choosing of the Arrow (2005.405), which depicts an American Indian removing an arrow from his quiver. Following the trip, Brown modeled Indian and Panther (whereabouts unknown), a figure poised with a club to strike a snarling panther; and, adapted from this group, Panther and Cubs (1992.372), an early manifestation of bronze animal statuettes that depicted wildlife of the American West as exotic and vanishing.

In 1848, Brown established a studio in Brooklyn and set up a foundry. With the help of two French workmen, he produced small bronze sculptures, attaining consistent success sand casting bronzes in the United States, first in his own establishment and later with the Ames Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts. He recognized the potential appeal of small bronzes to engage an American audience’s interest in the arts. Brown’s commissions for New York’s American Art-Union, an organization that distributed works of art by lottery to predominantly middle-class subscribers, included the statuettes Choosing of the Arrow and the female spinner Filatrice (1993.13), both issued in editions of twenty. Like most American sculptors, Brown also modeled a predictable roster of founding fathers, with low-relief medallions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin (2004.44).

Brown’s first major public commission was a bronze statue of DeWitt Clinton with narrative low-relief panels on its pedestal, completed in 1853 for Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. He earned widespread praise for his highest achievement, the bronze equestrian statue of George Washington, unveiled in New York’s Union Square on July 4, 1856. After serving on the first National Arts Commission in 1859, Brown produced several commissions for Washington, D.C. Four portrait statues were installed in National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, a space Brown helped establish, while his equestrian statue of three-time war hero Lieutenant General Winfield Scott (1874) stands in Scott Circle.

In 1861, Brown moved his residence and studio to the rural environs of Newburgh, New York, where he lived until his death. In the later years of his career, he earned several major civic commissions, including a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln (1868) in Union Square, New York, funded by public subscription. Another Lincoln was erected a year later in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. While Brown’s final works reflect little of the vitality of the Beaux-Arts aesthetic that emerged in the 1870s, he deserves unqualified credit for popularizing bronze sculpture and serving as a mentor to younger artists, most significantly, John Quincy Adams Ward (1992.407).

Born and raised in Urbana, Ohio, Ward moved to Brooklyn in 1849 to work in Brown’s studio. Over the next seven years, he developed a command of sculptural practices and adopted Brown’s naturalistic treatment of American subject matter. The culmination of this tenure was Ward’s extensive contribution toward Brown’s equestrian Washington, for which the master gratefully inscribed his pupil’s name on the base along with his own.

Between 1858 and 1860, Ward resided in Washington, D.C., executing portrait busts of influential politicians. He returned to New York in 1861 and set up his own studio. During the Civil War, Ward modeled busts and, as Brown had before him, designed finely crafted objects in precious metals, such as cane handles, pistol grips (2014.699), and presentation sword hilts. His early statuettes The Indian Hunter (1973.257), depicting a youth with his dog, and The Freedman (1979.394), a formerly enslaved African American, were both hailed for their realistic handling and timely themes and were cast throughout Ward’s career. In 1864, he decided to enlarge The Indian Hunter and traveled to Dakota Territory to observe American Indians and complete preparatory sketches. A full-size bronze was dedicated in New York’s Central Park in 1869, the first of four sculptures by Ward erected there (54.90.948).

Ward was skilled in the execution of portrait busts, objectively capturing the physiognomic and psychological traits of his sitters, the majority of them prominent citizens of the day. His earliest busts, such as of William Tilden Blodgett (10.200), were rendered in marble in a hybrid manner reminiscent of Brown’s busts of the 1840s, combining a faithful likeness with a classicizing treatment of the termination. In 1872, Ward made his first trip to Europe. He benefited from his time in Germany, France, and Italy, enlivening and modernizing his style by melding the richly textured surfaces and broadly modeled planes of the Beaux-Arts aesthetic with his own realist style. He traveled abroad again in 1887.

For his many civic monuments, Ward enjoyed success, not only because of his direct approach, but also because of the great popularity of monumental statuary in the decades after the Civil War. The Seventh Regiment Memorial, an overlifesize representation of a weary Civil War soldier, was unveiled in Central Park in 1874, becoming a prototype for other sculptors’ portrayals. Ward’s style was best suited to truthful observation of significant modern-day figures, though equally celebrated efforts such as portraits of Horace Greeley (1890; City Hall Park, New York) and Henry Ward Beecher (1891; Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn; 17.90.4) were executed posthumously from photographs and death masks. Less amenable to Ward’s direct approach are commemorative figures like William Shakespeare (1872; 17.90.2) or The Pilgrim (1884–85), both in Central Park, New York, which, with their emphasis on costume, lack the liveliness of his contemporary subjects. George Washington (1883; Federal Hall, New York; 1972.1a,b), however, is a dignified and confident representation. Two of Ward’s most ambitious works stand in Washington, D.C.: the equestrian statue of Major General George Henry Thomas (1879; Thomas Circle; 17.90.3) and the multifigure James Abram Garfield Monument (1887; The Mall).

Ward’s contribution to American art must be measured both in terms of his sculptural output and his institutional involvements. He was a dominant figure in New York art circles for forty years, serving as a president of the National Academy of Design, a founder and president of the National Sculpture Society, and a founder and trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ward was also attentive to younger sculptors: Daniel Chester French enjoyed a brief internship in his studio, and he promoted Augustus Saint-Gaudens for a major commission (12.76.3a,b). For his dedication to raising the professional status of sculptors and for his advancement of this art form, Ward came to be called “dean of American sculpture.”