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Demosthenes and Sophocles

Demosthenes and Sophocles


Cast from the original in the Vatican

 Plaster, 202.5 x 90.3 x 53 cm

Purchase, 1858


Cast c.1845 from the original in the Vatican

Plaster, 207.5 x 81.5 x 63.6 cm

Gift of George C. Ward, 1858


Although the Boston Athenæum began collecting fine copies of Old Master paintings and high-quality casts of historic sculpture early in its history, the years between about 1840 and 1860 did not demonstrate much activity in this regard. In 1839, for example, Thomas Handasyd Perkins, one of the institution’s most important patrons, deposited with the Athenæum plaster casts of Night and Day, the dominant figures on Michelangelo’s famous Medici Tombs in the New Sacristy of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. The American sculptor Horatio Greenough, who was one of Perkins’s protégés, had given the casts to Perkins in gratitude for the merchant’s support. Perkins, who undoubtedly did not have space for them in his own home but understood their appropriateness for the Athenæum, immediately offered them to the Library.[1] When they arrived they were given pride-of-place at the end of its Sculpture Gallery and are clearly visible in that position in at least one contemporary engraving of the room.[2] Having become important features of the Athenæum, the two casts were eventually deeded to it by Perkins’s executors after his death in 1854.[3]

The Athenæum’s cast and copy collection continued to grow at a fairly steady rate, and by 1855 the Library owned fifty-six sculptures, of which approximately twenty-seven were copies of ancient Greek and Roman originals. Of those, at least twenty were full-size figures. Within three years this already impressive collection received several more additions, making the Athenæum’s holdings in this area one of the most important in the country by the time of the Civil War.

Like Horatio Greenough before him, sculptor William Wetmore Story acted for a brief time as an agent in acquiring casts from the antique for the Athenæum. Story was a native of the Boston area who had expatriated to Rome in 1856. One of his first self-imposed duties in Rome, evidently, was to act on behalf of the Athenæum in the selection and purchase of casts from the antique. Within a year of his arrival he had acquired nine casts representing some of the best-known Greco-Roman sculptures. This cache included full-size copies of the Barbarini Fawn, the Dying Gladiator, and a portrait of the Greek orator Demosthenes.[4] 

Most of Story’s cast acquisitions are no longer at the Athenæum, but the Demosthenes remains in the collection. It is a copy of a marble Roman copy, now in the Vatican, of a lost Greek original, presumably in bronze, that depicts the famous Greek orator Demosthenes (c. 384-322 BC). Polyeuktos has been identified as the sculptor of the original portrait.[5] He shows Demosthenes as withdrawn, nervous, and depressed, the obvious victim of political change. As one modern scholar has written, the whole sculpture “bespeaks his lonely tenacity in maintaining the [political] struggle” and recalls a line from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, “Man must suffer to be wise.”[6] Therein lies the didactic message that would have, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, explained the presence of such a sculpture in a setting like the Athenæum.

Coincidentally, the Demosthenes arrived at the Athenæum at almost the same time that another cast of comparable size and aesthetic was given to the institution, although it had been on display there for several years. This was a monumental figure of the famous Greek playwright Sophocles (c. 496-406 BC). With the arrival at the Athenæum of the Demosthenes, these two portrait statues were immediately displayed as a pair. In addition, at almost seven feet tall each, they stand as proof of the determination of the Athenæum’s Trustees –  despite the complications and expense involved in making such acquisitions – to create an atmosphere within the Library that would be conducive to intellectual pursuits.

 The Sophocles was one of five casts that had been deposited at the Athenæum in 1851 by George Cabot Ward (1824-1880), a Proprietor.[7] The others were copies of the Discobolus and the Capitoline Venus and busts of the Juno Ludovisi and the Zeus of Otricoli (Jupiter).[8] Ward had purchased these in Italy and assured the Athenæum that each had been “taken directly from the [original] marble” and “could probably only with considerable difficulty, be replaced.” After the casts had been on view at the Athenæum for almost seven years, Ward decided to offer them as a gift to the institution, an offer that was immediately accepted.[9]

Of Ward’s casts, the Sophocles was decidedly the most impressive. It is a portrait of one of the greatest Greek tragedians and author of over one hundred plays. The original marble statue from which the Athenæum’s cast was taken was found in 1839 at Terracina, Italy, and immediately given to Pope Gregory XVI. It was first displayed at his Lateran Palace in Rome – and therefore is commonly called the “Lateran Sophocles” – but was later moved to the Vatican, where it remains. [10] Sophocles is shown wearing a typical Greek himation, which tightly swaths his body and arms, an arrangement of the drapery that is thought to be a symbol of the subject’s admirable self-control. [11] Indeed, during the nineteenth century, this particular image of Sophocles was used as a representative of the “citizen ideal,” making it a perfect addition to a place such as the Boston Athenæum.[12]

David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 253. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Boston Athenæum, Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Sculpture in the Athenæum Gallery (Boston, 1839), 7. This catalogue quotes a letter from Greenough to Perkins in which the sculptor described the history of the casts of Night and Day.

[2] Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion 8 (1853): 201.

[3] Boston Athenæum, Minutes, Trustees Meeting, April 10, 1854, Trustees Records 20 (1807-1887). In 1876, the Athenæum deposited the casts of Night and Day at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which disposed of them in 1933.

[4] The total cost of the casts purchased by Story, including shipping, was $779.50 (BA Account Book 3 (1856-76): 24 (December 31, 1857). At the same time he was buying these casts for the Athenæum, Story gave the institution two others: a copy of the Vatican Mercury (Hermes Belvedere), which remains in the collection, and a bust of the Colossus of the Quirinal.

[5] Another version of the Demosthenes, which is thought to be an ancient copy and is now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen, shows the man in a slightly altered costume with his hands clasped in front of him. According to scholar Gisela Richter, the sculpture now in the Vatican was discovered without hands or forearms. During the early nineteenth century, the figure was evidently provided with these missing parts as well as a scroll, as seen in the Athenæum’s cast. This erroneous restoration was later removed from the Vatican’s version. See Gisela Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks (3 vols.; London: The Phaidon Press, 1965), 2: 216.

[6] Andrew Stewart, Greek Sculpture, An Exploration (2 vols.; New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990), 1: 199.

[7] Ward’s proprietorship (no. 271) came to him in 1844 through his father Thomas Wren Ward and in the same year as his brother John Gallison’s proprietorship (no. 270) (Centenary, 140).

[8] George C. Ward, Boston, to C. Folsom, Boston Athenæum, August 29, 1851, BA Letter Book 16 (1807-1887).

[9] George C. Ward, New York, to the Librarian of the Boston Athenæum, May 20, 1858. BA Letter Book 22 (1807-1887); BA Trustees Records 3 (1850-1861): 279.

[10] Richter, 1:129.

[11] Stewart, 1:77.

[12] Stewart, 1: 192.