John B. Binon, Lyon, France - fl. Boston 1818-1820. John Adams . Plaster, 25 x 21 x 12 in. [with base]. Inscribed on front: J. B. Binon / Boston. Gift of the artist, 1819.
In February 1818 the Massachusetts state legislature passed a resolution to commission a marble bust of former president John Adams for Faneuil Hall in Boston. Typical of members of such bodies, the legislators had second thoughts, however, and one week later voted to delay the project indefinitely. Not to be deterred, William Tudor, Jr., who had proposed the original resolution for the bust, took his appeal to the private sector. Prominent Bostonians lent their support and a public subscription, limited to donations of no more than two dollars per donor, was quickly fulfilled with the help of 215 persons. In March 1818, a committee representing the subscribers wrote to the eighty-two-year-old Adams to ask for his cooperation, expressing their “desire of transmitting to our Children the Features of the Man, whose patriotic energies were so strenuously exerted for the Independence of our common Country.” Adams agreed to sit for the portrait.
For the project, General Andrew Welles nominated the little-known French sculptor John B. Binon, who was in the United States in search of portrait commissions at the time. Since there were as yet no artists in America with the skill to complete such a commission, Binon was certainly in the right place at the right time. Binon presented himself as a former student of the respected French sculptor Joseph Chinard. He had spent about eight years working in Italy before coming to America and had attracted Welles’s attention with his bust of Revolutionary War hero General Henry Dearborn. Binon’s nomination was uncontested, and Tudor sent Adams a letter introducing the sculptor to his sitter. Adams approved the choice and later wrote that he found Binon “to be a Gentleman of Sense and Letters, as well as Taste and skill in All the fine Arts.” The bust was modeled in March 1818, at Adams’s home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and translated into marble for Fanueil Hall, where it remains.
Binon next turned his attention to a bust of George Washington (based on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculptures, Stuart’s paintings, or both), and he also produced a bust of General Humphreys for Yale University. He hoped his bust of Washington would lead to a commission from the United States Congress and, possibly as a marketing ploy, he decided to make plaster replicas of his bust of Adams. In January and February 1819, Binon wrote to Adams of these plans and, more specifically, told him that he intended to send the first of the plaster replicas of the old man’s bust to Adams himself, the second to his son John Quincy, and the third to the Boston Athenæum. Adams replied, but not with words of encouragement. “I am afraid that you are engaged in speculations that will never be profitable to you,” he warned Binon. “The age of sculpture & painting [has] not yet arrived in this country and I hope it will not arrive very soon. . . . I am confident that you will not find purchases for your bust & therefore I am sorry that you are engaged in so hopeless a speculation because I believe you to be a great artist and an amiable man.” If Adams’s purpose was to discourage Binon completely, he succeeded. The sculptor returned to France within a year of receiving Adams’s advice.
The gift of the bust to the Athenæum, which officially occurred on March 18, 1819, was a precedent for later gifts by artists, such as those made by sculptors John Frazee and Shobal Clevenger in the following decades (see entries 82 and 84). But Binon’s bust played an important, broader role in the history of American art. In fact, the bust is best remembered today as having inspired Horatio (1801-1855), who was destined to become this country’s first internationally recognized professional sculptor. Greenough’s connection to Binon was remembered by Greenough’s brother Henry in a letter written in the 1830s to historian and artist William Dunlap. The young Horatio evidently visited Binon’s Boston studio and may have studied with the Frenchman on an informal basis. It was there that he saw Binon’s bust of Adams and, as his brother would later relate, attempted to make a copy of it: “A gentleman who saw him copying, in chalk, the bust of John Adams by Binon,” Henry Greenough continued the story,
was so pleased with his success, that he carried him to the Athenæum and presented him to Mr. [William Smith] Shaw. . . . My brother was then about twelve years old, and of course was much edified by Mr. Shaw’s conversation, who assured him, as he held the chalk in his hand, that there were the germs of a great and noble art. He then showed him the casts there, and promising him he should always find a bit of carpet, to cut his chalk upon, whenever he wished to copy any thing, gave him a carte blanche to the fine arts room, with its valuable collection of engravings, &c. He may be considered from this time as studying with something like a definite purpose and with some system.
Shaw was the Athenæum’s first Librarian and therefore in a position to assist and encourage the young Horatio Greenough. Indeed, within a decade of Greenough’s encounter with Binon and Shaw, he had been graduated from Harvard College and had departed for Europe. There he achieved success as America’s first professional sculptor.
David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 265-268. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.
The history of the commission is given in Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1967), 179-187. The quotation is from Arnold Welles, et al., to John Adams, March 16, 1818 (quoted in Oliver, 180).
According to the Inventory of American Painting and Sculpture at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., the clay model of Binon’s clay bust of Dearborn is in the collection of Forest Hills Cemetery, Roxbury, Massachusetts, where Dearborn is buried. (Also see Jonathan L. Fairbanks, “The Art of Forest Hills Cemetery—Roxbury, Massachusetts,” The Magazine Antiques 158 [November 1998]: 697-703). A marble version of that bust, dated 1818, is in the Chicago Historical Society; and a fired clay version, inscribed Binon de Lyons / Eleve de Chinard / Boston 1818 was at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, in 1993.
John Adams to Henry Dearborn, March 25, 1818, quoted in Oliver, 181.
Besides the plaster version at the Athenæum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, also owns a plaster replica and there is one at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. See the Inventory of American Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., available online at http://www.siris.si.edu/
J. B. Binon to John Adams, February 3, 1819, quoted in Oliver, 184-185. Oliver lists other replicas of the bust, one of which was sent to Thomas Jefferson (unlocated, probably destroyed).
John Adams to John B. Binon, February 7, 1819, quoted in Oliver, 185.
BA Trustees Records, B.A.14 (1807-1815), 1:189.
Quoted in William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834), 2: 414. A plaster bust of Adams with the inscriptions Horatio Greenough / Harvard / Anno 1822 and John Adams / V 1824 was sold by Sotheby’s, London, in 2000. However, its date and the fact that its physical resemblance to Binon’s bust is slight, suggests that it is not directly related to the early copy that Greenough made of Binon’s work. That is true, too, of Greenough’s better known, half-sized marble bust of Adams, dated 1828 and now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The standard work on Greenough remains Nathalia Wright’s groundbreaking Horatio Greenough, The First American Sculptor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963).