1600-1754: Art: Sculpture
The First American Sculptors. In the seventeenth century, struggling to eke out a meager livelihood in the New World, colonists had little time for the decorative arts and paid little heed to artistic trends in England or on the Continent. When they did embellish the utilitarian objects they created, they based their decorations on the folk traditions of their home countries. The first American sculptors were the stonecutters and carpenters who carved low-relief designs on gravestones and wooden objects such as trunks and Bible boxes.
Stonecutters. Early grave markers were made from several kinds of stone, some of which weather badly. Only a few markers from before 1660 are still in existence. The first decorations on gravestones, which began to appear in the mid seventeenth century, are simple geometric designs such as rosettes, pinwheels, and radiating suns. Such ornaments could be carved with simple tools by craftsmen with no artistic training.
Death’s Heads and Skeletons. By the end of the century the winged skull had become the most widely used motif, and it continued to dominate graveyard art throughout the eighteenth century. One ambitious use of this motif appears on the stone of Joseph Tapping (died 1678) in the churchyard of King’s Chapel, Boston. The stone also includes Gothic architectural elements, an hourglass resting on the winged skull, a skeleton carrying the dart of death while preparing to snuff out the flame of temporal life (a candle on a globe), and Father Time holding a second hourglass. The stone also bears two popular Latin inscriptions: “Memento mori” (Remember that you must die) and “Fugit Hora” (Time flies) to reinforce the message that time and death eventually destroy all life. The depiction of the skeleton and Father Time, which is derived from an engraving in Francis Quarles’s Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man (1638), was repeated with some variations on the gravestone of printer John Foster (died 1681) in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Tapping’s stone is attributed to an artisan known to historians as the Charleston Carver, who was active in Boston at the time and may also be responsible for Foster’s stone, on which the carving is deeper and more three-dimensional. A different variation appeared in 1745 on another stone in the King’s Chapel burial ground.
Portrait Stones. By the early eighteenth century depictions of the deceased began to appear on gravestones, becoming the first American portrait sculptures. The earliest of these works may be the portrait signed “N.L.” on the stone of Reverend Jonathan Pierpont (died 1709) in Wakefield, Massachusetts. By the 1740s such carvings could be found in graveyards throughout the colonies, including the Congregational churchyard in Charleston, South Carolina, where the stone of Mrs. Richard Owen (died 1749) shows a smiling woman in contemporary dress. Most of these portraits are rather primitive and two-dimensional, but others approach the realism of European sculpture. The burial ground of the Congregational Church in Charleston has two such gravestones: those of Mrs. Elizabeth Simmons (died 1740) and Solomon Milner (died 1757). Carved by Henry Eames of Boston, these portraits are noted for their realism and three-dimensional form. Other eighteenth-century motifs—including coats of arms, ships, and cherubs’ heads with wings—also attest to the increased skills of colonial stone carvers.
Wood Carvers. Seventeenth-century colonial wood carvers were also untrained artisans working in the folk tradition. Their carvings were typically the sort of geometrical designs that could be made with simple carpenters’ tools such as the chisel, gouge, and mallet. Examples of their work may be found on the boxes made to hold a family’s Bible and writing materials and on various storage chests. One style of elaborately carved chest that has become particularly popular with twentieth-century collectors was made by various carpenters in the Connecticut
River valley, including Peter Blin, who worked in Wethersfield, Connecticut, around 1675-1725 and John Allis and Samuel Belding, who were active in Hadley and Hatfield, Massachusetts, between 1675 and 1740.
The Refinement of Carving. During the second quarter of the seventeenth century, American carvers came under the influence of European design books illustrating the latest classical styles of furniture and architectural ornamentation. A new, refined classicism began to replace the medieval folk carving of the seventeenth century. Because they were frequently called on to produce figureheads for ships, wood carvers often set up shop in the wharf sections of port cities, but they also carved shop signs and ornaments for furniture. As early as 1717 there were professional wood carvers working in Philadelphia, and Henry Burnett was working in Charleston in 1750. Boston had many talented carvers, beginning with George Robinson the Younger (1680-1737) and Isaac Fowle (1648-1718), and including John Welch (1711-1789), who opened his Boston shop in 1733; William Codner, active around 1711; Moses Deshon, active in the 1740s; Francis Dewing, who arrived from London in 1716; Richard Hubbard, active in the 1730s; Samuel More, who was making figureheads as early as 1736; and Samuel Skillin Sr. (1716-1778), who set up his shop in 1740. Welch carved the “Sacred Cod” that now hangs in the Old State House in Boston. Deshon carved the coat of arms for Faneuil Hall in 1742.
The “Little Admiral.” Though little or none of his work survives, Samuel Skillin was a notable craftsman in his day, and some twentieth-century art historians believe that he may have carved the “Little Admiral,” widely considered the earliest freestanding statue created in America. (In his 1844 short story “Drowne’s Wooden Image” Nathaniel Hawthorne attributes it to Boston tinsmith Shem Drowne.) Though someone later painted the date “1770” on the base of this wooden figure, art historians believe that it was carved in the 1740s or 1750s. Because the figure once held an object such as a beer stein or nautical instrument, it is thought to have been made as a trade sign. In fact some scholars believe that it is the portrait of Adm. Edward Vernon (1684-1757) that was standing outside the Admiral Vernon Tavern in Boston in 1750. Another expert, however, says the “Little Admiral” is the portrait of a Captain Hunnewell that stood outside a nautical instruments shop.
Wax Modeling. Another form of sculpture was also popular in the colonies during the eighteenth century, but because wax melts so easily few examples of wax sculpture have survived. Working with wax was also popular with amateurs. Wax was plentiful and easy to mold. As early as 1731 the gentlewomen of New York City were offered classes in sculpting fruit, flowers, and
“other Wax-Works,” and on 28 August 1749 the New York Gazette advertised an exhibit of wax effigies of members of European royalty. Artists were also beginning to make small portraits in wax, an art that became more widespread and further refined during the second half of the century.
Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York: Crowell, 1968);
John Wilmerding, American Art (Harmon d’s worth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1976);
Louis B. Wright, George B. Tatum, John W. McCoubrey, and Robert C. Smith, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period (New York: Scribners, 1966).
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