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Shobal Vail Clevenger, Sculptor

Washington Allston, 1840. Marble.

Shobal Vail Clevenger, Washington Allston, 1840 (above), marble, 53.1 x 36.5 x 26 cm, inscribed on reverse: S. V. Clevenger. / 1840. Athenæum purchase by subscription, 1843.

Shobal Vail Clevenger, Edward Everett, 1839 (below left), laster, 76.1 x 51.6 x 32.1 cm. Deposited by the artist, 1840.

 

Shobal Clevenger was a member of the second generation of American neoclassical sculptors who followed the artists who established that style in the United States during the second half of the 1820s. Although he was born in rural Ohio, Clevenger benefited tremendously from an early, if somewhat unlikely, affiliation with the Boston Athenæum, which enthusiastically commissioned works by him and included many of his busts in its annual exhibitions. The Athenæum’s collection was also greatly—and rather quickly—enhanced when, in the years around 1840, the institution acquired an impressive number of Clevenger’s busts of famous Americans to add to the ones already in the collection. These acquisitions paralleled similar ones made in the early 1830s, when the Athenæum acquired busts by American sculptor John Frazee (see entry 82). Together, these two groups of busts by Frazee and Clevenger created the foundation upon which the Athenæum’s sculpture collection grew into one of the most important in the country.

Shobal Clevenger began his career as a stonemason; after working in various towns in Ohio and Kentucky, he settled in Cincinnati, the largest city in the area. He was apprenticed there for four years (1829-1833) to stonecutter David Guion. Under Guion’s direction, Clevenger became a master carver of decorative figures for buildings and tombs and – further encouraged by local sculptor Hiram Powers – decided that he, too, should be a professional sculptor. His friend Powers, who was about to leave for Italy and international fame, introduced Clevenger to Nicholas Longworth, Cincinnati’s leading citizen and the Midwest’s most important art patron. Based on his admiration of several busts that Clevenger had already modeled, notably one of William Henry Harrison, Longworth funded the young man’s study of anatomy at the Ohio Medical College. He also encouraged Clevenger to go East in search of commissions and afterwards to Italy, as had Powers, Longworth’s other protégé, and that is exactly the path that Clevenger now took.

In the final months of 1838, Clevenger left Ohio, visited Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, and finally, in the early spring of the following year, arrived in Boston.[1]  While he had had some luck finding work in other cities, his success in Boston was so sudden and so encouraging that he lingered there for over a year. According to one source, Clevenger modeled nearly twenty busts during his first month in Boston and had so many additional orders that he was forced to refuse some.[2] While these figures may be a bit inflated, even a New York periodical felt compelled to acknowledge that, in Boston, Clevenger “was taken by the hand with that kindness and warmth which our sister city, with all her notions, is distinguished for.”[3]

In terms of both the proposed subject and the impact the project would have on his career, Clevenger’s single most important commission in Boston came from the Boston Athenæum. Within months of his arrival, the Trustees of the Athenæum commissioned him to model a bust of Washington Allston (1779-1843), America’s internationally famous painter, who had by that time retired to the nearby village of Cambridgeport. In August 1839 the Trustees asked Allston to sit for Clevenger,[4] who the painter had already met. In fact, Allston referred to Clevenger as a “genius”, assured the Athenæum that he was “deeply sensible of the honour done me” by the request, and promised that “whenever my state of health shall be such as to allow of it, I shall be happy to comply with the request.”[5]

Clevenger undoubtedly traveled out to Cambridgeport to make the initial clay model of Allston’s bust from life. To aid the process—and to help the young sculptor’s career in general—the Athenæum set aside space for him to use as a studio in its building on Pearl Street, and he probably refined the image and cast it in plaster there.[6] Clevenger took the plaster bust with him to Florence, where he supervised its replication in marble. In January 1842 the Athenæum’s Trustees appropriated funds to insure the sculpture—now in its marble form—for its journey from Florence, and it evidently arrived in Boston shortly thereafter.[7]

Before Clevenger left for Europe in the spring of 1840, he expressed his appreciation of the Athenæum’s support by presenting the Library with replicas of eight of his busts.[8] The Athenæum immediately accepted the generous gift and wrote to thank the artist for “his valuable & gratifying donation.”[9] The Athenæum eventually added other busts by Clevenger to its collection: those of John Davis and Lemuel Shaw were acquired through subscription in 1842, a bust of Andrews Norton was a gift in 1959, and a second replica of the bust of Jeremiah Mason came in as a gift in 1962.

Edward Everett, 1839.  Plaster, 76.1 x 51.6 x 32.1 cm Deposited by the artist, 1840.On its surface, the Athenæum’s surprising support of this unknown artist from Ohio seems difficult to explain, but it is probably safe to assume that it was based almost completely upon a swift and complete appreciation of his talents. The Athenæum’s trust in Clevenger’s abilities was certainly indicated not only by the commission of the bust of Allston, but also by the institution’s willingness to give Clevenger some rare exhibition opportunities. In September 1839, shortly after the Athenæum had ordered the bust of Allston from Clevenger, it held its first official sculpture exhibition. Eight busts by Clevenger, including the portrait of Allston and others of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, were features of the exhibition and brought attention to the rising Ohioan.[10] Over the next three years, Clevenger received commissions for busts of other important Bostonians, several of which were exhibited at the Athenæum. These works were modeled during the fall of 1839 and the winter of 1840, with at least part of the work being done in the studio that the Athenæum had provided.[11] Among the group were portraits of Martin Brimmer, James Jackson, and Amos Lawrence, but for Clevenger’s continued success, the most important of the group was of the educator and politician Edward Everett (1794-1865).[12]

From the moment they met in Boston in 1839, Everett and Clevenger developed a special bond, and Everett quickly proved to be one of Clevenger’s greatest supporters, second only to Longworth back in Cincinnati. The friendship between the politician and the sculptor was such that it was noticed and remembered. Historian and journalist Henry T. Tuckerman, for example, recalled that Everett “took evident pleasure in unfolding his mental treasury of taste and wisdom to [Clevenger], and ever has been one of his most steady and efficient friends.”[13]

Some of that wisdom was undoubtedly shared when Everett sat for Clevenger. The original plaster that resulted from those sittings was among the busts that Clevenger left with the Athenæum on his departure for Italy. In addition to the plaster cast that he deposited with the Athenæum, however, he had also taken an additional cast of the bust, evidently planning in advance to refine the portrait further once he was settled in Florence. Clevenger probably knew that Everett himself was to be in that Italian city in 1841, shortly after Clevenger arrived there, and would be willing to give the sculptor further sittings for his portrait. That, in fact, is exactly what took place throughout the spring and summer of 1841. Everett met Clevenger at the sculptor’s studio and Clevenger carefully reworked parts of the bust. As Everett noted in his diary, Clevenger felt that “the projecting attitude and settled posture of the head [was] ungainly.” Clevenger even took a plaster cast of Everett’s forehead “with a view to correcting some points in the statue bust.”[14] Always fascinated by the mechanics of making art, as well as by the machinations of the creative mind, Everett almost certainly discussed these changes with Clevenger, both in advance and as they were being carried out. Clevenger was evidently trying to perfect his artistic conception, with Everett’s help, before translating it into a more permanent—and more costly—marble configuration, a task for which he had been commissioned by Bostonian Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a friend and great admirer of Everett.[15]

Everett was to continue to give Clevenger as much support as he could by advising him on taste and aesthetics and by using his own connections to enhance the sculptor’s career. His faith in the artist was expressed in a poem that Everett wrote on the eve of Clevenger’s departure for Europe; it reads in part:

 Thou Clevenger, from lifeless clay,
Cans’t mould what ne’er shall fade away,
Fashion in stone that cannot die,
The breathing lip & sparkling eye;
And while frail nature sinks to dust,
Create the all but breathing bust.[16]

 

Sadly, “frail nature” sank to dust all too soon. In 1843 Clevenger became seriously ill with tuberculosis, and in a desperate attempt to get him back to the United States before the disease took its toll, his wife appealed to Clevenger’s friends for help. The appeal was heard most clearly in Boston, whose citizens responded with funds that allowed Clevenger’s wife to book passage to London and then, she hoped, to America.[17] Sadly, these efforts were in vain. Clevenger died on shipboard, not far from Gibraltar, a month before his thirty-first birthday. He was buried at sea.

 

David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 276-281. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Although sources differ as to the exact date of Clevenger’s arrival in Boston, one contemporary source had him there by April 1839 (“Shobal Vail Clevenger, The Sculptor,” Southern Literary Messenger 5 [April 1839]: 264). He evidently left Boston in the late spring of 1840, for in a letter to the Boston Athenæum dated April 27 of that year, he stated that he was “about to leave Boston with a view of embarking in a few weeks for Italy.” S. V. Clevenger, Boston, to the Trustees of the Boston Athenæum, April 27, 1840, BA Letters, vol. 9 (1807-1887) (B.A.22.1).
[2] Salem Gazette, October 11, 1839, quoted in Brumbaugh, “Shobal Clevenger: Ohio Stonecutter,” 34.
[3] “Clevenger,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review 8 (February 1844): 203.
[4] Minutes, Trustees Meeting, August 1839. BA, Trustees Records, vol. 2 (1830-1849) (B.A.4.1).
[5] Washington Allston to William T. Andrews, BA, August 21, 1839. BA, Letter Book, vol. 9 (1807-1887), B.A. 22.1.
[6] In April 1839, a writer for the Southern Literary Messenger, who was identified simply as “T”, reported that “Clevenger is now in Boston” and noted that “the visitor stands in his studio, and gazes at the casts, even of those he has not seen, with the conviction that they must be likenesses—there is ever something so lifelike about them.” (“Shobal Vail Clevenger, The Sculptor,” Southern Literary Messenger 5 [April 1839]: 264.)
[7] Minutes, Trustees Meeting, January 10, 1842. BA, Trustees Records, vol. 2 (1830-49) (B.A.4.1). The original plaster of Clevenger’s bust of Allston is in the collection of the National Academy of Design, New York.
[8] S. V. Clevenger, Boston, to the Trustees of the Boston Athenæum, April 27, 1840, BA Letters, vol. 9 (1807-1887) (B.A.22.1). In a postscript to this letter, Clevenger listed the eight plaster busts as those of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Harrison G. Otis, Judge Davis, Judge Shaw, Washington Allston, Jeremiah Mason, and Joseph Tilden. Of these particular plasters, only those of Webster and Mason remain at the Athenæum. However, several others—specifically the busts of Davis and Shaw—were replaced within a few years of Clevenger’s departure with marble versions. See Harding, 20-22.
[9]Minutes, Trustees Meeting, BA, May 11, 1840. Trustees Records, vol.2 (1830-1849) (B.A.4.1)
[10] Boston Athenæum, Catalogue of the First Exhibition of Sculpture in the Athenæum Gallery (Boston, 1839), 7-8.
[11] Perkins and Gavin, 36-37.
[12] The standard biography of Everett remains Paul Revere Frothingham, Edward Everett, Orator and Statesman (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). For Everett’s role as a patron of the arts, see David B. Dearinger, “American Neoclassic Sculptors and Their Private Patrons in Boston” (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1993), 181-362.
[13] Henry T. Tuckerman, “Clevenger,” Columbian Ladies and Gentlemen’s Magazine 1 (1884): 11.
[14] “The operation,” Everett remembered, “was neither painful nor unpleasant.” Edward Everett, Diary, April 3, April 26, and September 2, 1841, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
[15] The marble replica of Everett’s bust was not quite finished when Clevenger died. As a favor to Clevenger’s widow, and because of his own admiration for Clevenger, Hiram Powers volunteered to supervise the completion of the marble. It was then sent to Perkins, who bequeathed it to Harvard University where it remains. See Richard Wunder, Hiram Powers, Vermont Sculptor, 1805-1873 (2 vols. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1991), 2:39.
[16] A copy of the poem was enclosed with a letter from Isaac P. Davis, Boston, to J. H. Clifford, New Bedford, April 22, 1840, Clifford Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
[17] Brumbaugh, “Clevenger: An Ohio Stonecutter,” 43.