Scary Busts

I have several odd phobias including busts: I can’t stand to look at a sculpted portrait busts. They look like severed heads to me—even if they are beautiful. And many are: particularly classical ones, also Renaissance and Baroque ones, but after that I think we should have just left that genre to past masters. My distaste for these disembodied sculptures is a perennial problem because I’m a historian, so I often find myself in rare book libraries, which always feature busts. I just sit myself down as far as I can get away from them, and then get down to business. I think my dislike of busts is very consistent, so much so that when the art historian daughter of a colleague brought two busts by Salem’s iconic master woodcarver/architect Samuel McIntire, the namesake of my neighborhood, to my attention, my reaction was not: wow! but instead oh no. Here they are: busts of John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, and Voltaire, both commissioned by the Reverend William Bentley in 1798-99 and later donated to the American Antiquarian Society.

Busts collage

Maybe I could be in the presence of Voltaire (right) for a few moments, but that John Winthrop bust is simply frightening! You only have the profile above: here he is, face forward: really scary, even in a lovely watercolor of the actual bust made by Joseph Goldberg for the Index of American Art in the 1930s. We are separated by several degrees, but I’m still afraid.

Bust Winthrop Index of American Design NGA

I did not feel very good about disliking, even fearing, something made by McIntire, who is revered here in Salem of course, until I read the entry in William Bentley’s diary on the day that he received the commissioned work: MacIntire returned to me my Winthrop. I cannot say that he has expressed in the bust anything that agrees with the Governor. So he didn’t like it either! Nevertheless, he accepted it and paid McIntire his $8.00 fee. But it’s not McIntire, it’s me: even the works of the greatest sculptor of that era, Jean Antoine Houdon, are off-putting to me. Houdon’s Voltaire? Horrifying–much more so than McIntire’s. I will say that the famous Houdon bust of Washington seems less alarming to me, although this multi-perspective video creeps me out.

Voltaire collage

Even the most handsome Salemite, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as carved by the most gifted sculptor of his generation, Daniel Chester French, is scary. Granted French chose to depict Hawthorne later in life rather than in his splendid youth, but still: sad and scary. Quite conversely, a bust that was crafted to repel, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Anima Damnata (1619), I find far less threatening: one expects a Damned Soul to be scary, but not Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Winthrop.

Bust of Hawthorne NYPL

Bernini collage

8 responses to “Scary Busts

  • Susie

    Haha I loved this. Busts are definitely scary. This is a great collection of them though!

  • rfavis

    Thank you for sharing your phobia. I had not heard of this particular one before. I’m freaked out by the gaping hole used by garages that perform quick oil changes.

  • Almquist Nanny

    Gosh, I’d never knew that sculptured busts could be scary. My reaction to them is one of curiosity, “Who is that person?” I am very fond of a plaster cast of one of my favorite ancestors who was sculpted by Daniel Chester French. He sits in my living room next to a photo of his dear wife where they greet me daily.

  • sam

    It’s funny I’ve always disliked cuckoo clocks with dead animals and I knew someone who very much just liked cherub heads with wings in back of them. I’ve never liked mounted animal heads on plaques even when they are done as white porcelain. Funny it never occurred to me when looking at busts of famous people. I love this article and people’s response to it

  • Brian Bixby

    I don’t have the same reaction to busts. But I did get creeped out one time by wax figures. It was in the Bank of Estonia’s museum in Talinn. I first mistook them for people, partly because I did not want to appear rude and stare at them!

    Who were these wax figures in the central bank’s museum? Estonia doesn’t have much of a great military tradition, so their currency (pre-euro) featured literary figures. Three of the four were of literary figures on the currency.

    The fourth figure was clearly a political statement. It portrayed the last president of the Bank prior to the Soviet take-over in 1940, a man who was subsequently imprisoned and executed by Soviet authorities.

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