The establishment of the Boston Athenæum in 1807 as a place for the advancement of American culture coincided with the rise of Neoclassicism as the aesthetic-of-choice, first in Europe and then in the new United States. As an artistic movement, Neoclassicism dominated western art from the 1750s when major archaeological sites at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere were discovered, and the second quarter of the nineteenth century when Romanticism, an outgrowth of Neoclassicism, came into vogue. In the United States, with its pretensions to a democracy modeled on Greco-Roman and Enlightenment ideals, the design language of the classical world seemed perfect for the translation of heady ideas into visual, accessible reality. Thus the proliferation of ancient forms—columns, capitals, acanthus leaves, ideal faces, perfect torsos—in the American fine arts during the late eighteenth century and into the first half of the nineteenth.
Almost as soon as it was founded, the Boston Athenæum began to acquire objects, slowly at first and then, starting in the 1820s, with increasing vigor. Among these early acquisitions were sculptures: free-standing or in relief, made of plaster or marble. These included fine, full-size copies of approved ancients such as the Venus de Medici and the Apollo Belvedere, as well as idealized figures and busts of important historical personages modeled and carved by leading modern European neoclassicists such as Antonio Canova, Sir Francis Chantrey, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and Bertel Thorwaldsen. With the maturation of sculpture in America beginning in the 1820s, the work of native sculptors began to be represented in the Athenæum’s collection. Eventually, this included works by the three “founders” of American neoclassic sculpture, Horatio Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Hiram Powers, as well as examples by their followers Richard S. Greenough, Thomas R. Gould, Harriet Hosmer, Chauncey B. Ives, and William Wetmore Story, among others. At the same time, the Athenæum was featuring works by American sculptors in its annual art exhibitions and, by the time of the Civil War, had established a reputation as a reliable patron of American sculpture. Indeed, by 1860, the Boston Athenæum owned one of the largest publically-accessible collections of sculpture in the country.
This exhibition briought together many of the masterworks of American neoclassic sculptures from the Athenæum’s collection for the first time. The exhibition installation included sections that summarize the ancient roots of Neoclassicism; early European interpretations of it; the rise of Neoclassicism in America; the tension between the classical and the real in portraiture and in images of children during this period; the Neoclassicist’s preference for themes from literature and religion; and the special role that Boston—and the Boston Athenæum—played in the patronage of American sculptors during the first half of the nineteenth century.
David B. Dearinger, Ph.D.
Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture & Director of Exhibitions