Tag Archives: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

Mourning in England and America

When I found the painting below, alternatively titled The Saltonstall Family, or Members of the Saltonstall Family, and painted by David Des Granges about 1636-37, I was immediately drawn to it for several reasons.  I teach several courses on this period, so I thought it would be very useful in illustrating the importance of family in Stuart England. And then there was the Salem connection:  the Saltonstalls were one of the founding families of Massachusetts and of Salem:  Nathaniel Salstonstall (1639-1707) was one of the judges in the witch trials and Leverett Saltonstall (1783-1845) was the city’s first mayor and later a U.S. representative. We have a Saltonstall School and a Saltonstall parkway.  However, a little genealogical research (I never like to engage in too much genealogy–it’s a tangled web) has convinced me that I don’t really have a Salem story:  the man in the painting is indeed Sir Richard Saltonstall, but he is not THE Sir Richard Salstonstall (1586-1661), who sailed up the Charles River in 1630 and became the founder of the Massachusetts Saltonstalls of later fame and fortune. This Sir Richard Saltonstall (1595-1650) never left England, and in the same year that the man who shared his name was exploring the New World he was losing his first wife, who is also pictured below, along with his second, and the children he had with both women.

David Des Granges, The Saltonstall Family, 1636-37.  Tate Museum, London.

This, then, is a mourning portrait, depicting the living and the dead, together:  a truly blended family!  Sir Richard is pictured alongside his dead first wife, Elizabeth Basse, who is pointing to their two surviving children, Richard (wearing a long skirt as was customary for English boys of a certain class until age 6 or 7) and Ann, who link hands with each other and with their father, demonstrating the bonds of family.  Sir Richard’s second wife, Mary Parker, is seated with their newborn child on the right, completing the framed family.

Though some might think it a little creepy to have a dead person in the picture (though certainly far less creepy than those Victorian photographs of the dearly departed), I think that this painting is a rather tender portrayal of remembrance. Sir Richard’s outstretched hand seems to be including everyone in his family, and reminding his children not to forget their mother.  Here mourning is about remembering the dead, rather than just dwelling on loss by putting something on–a dress, a ring, a brooch, an armband.  In terms of aesthetics, I have always admired the elegant American mourning paintings from the Federal period–usually painted on silk and with the requisite weeping willow taking center stage–but this earlier English example strikes me as far more personal, and poignant.

New England mourning paintings on silk from 1810, 1811 & 1815, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and a D.W. Kellogg chromolithographic print of an 1825 painting, Library of Congress.

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