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Venus de' Medici

Venus de' Medici

Venus de’ Medici
Copy of the original in the Uffizi, Florence Marble, 158.4 x 43.8 x 47.6 cm Gift of Hannah Sawyer Lee, 1861.

Most of the copies of famous sculptures that increasingly began to arrive in the United States in the early nineteenth century were usually made of plaster. Compared to marble, plaster was relatively inexpensive and less problematic to transport, but that is not to say that collectors did not prefer marble copies if they could get them. Marble is more refined and was always the material preferred by the ancients, or at least that was the belief in the nineteenth century. Given the star quality of an “original” marble such as the Venus de’ Medici, which has stood as the centerpiece of the Uffizi Gallery’s famous Tribuna since the 1680s, the acquisition of a marble copy of it would be significant. That certainly was the case when, in the early 1860s, the Boston Athenæum was lucky enough to receive just such a gift.

The date and place of the discovery of the original Venus de’ Medici are not known. It was possibly in the collection of the Medici family as early as 1598 but definitely there by 1638. By the mid-1680s it had been installed in the Tribuna, a centrally located room within the Uffizi that was dedicated to the best works in the collection.[1] There, the sculpture “was revered as the most beautiful Venus and one of the half-dozen finest antique statues to have survived.”[2] Copies of it were made in almost every conceivable form, and a visit to the Tribuna, specifically to see the Venus, was mandatory for anyone on the Grand Tour.

Significantly, a plaster version of the Venus de’ Medici was one of the first casts to arrive in America, brought to Boston in 1727 by British painter John Smibert as part of a small group of casts and copies. Smibert’s Boston studio, which he generously opened to the public on a regular basis, featured these casts as well as copies of Old Master paintings and engravings he had collected in Europe. In a time before the creation of museums or public exhibitions of art, the display in Smibert’s studio provided visitors, including young artists, with a “visual feast,” as it has recently been called, that remained intact and accessible long after Smibert’s death in 1751.[3]

The significance of the Venus de’ Medici certainly would not have been lost on Hannah (Sawyer) Lee (1780-1865), the patron who eventually gave a copy of the work to the Athenæum. Widowed early, Lee single-handedly raised three daughters; but in 1832, with her maternal duties fulfilled, she turned to writing.[4] Her first publication was an essay on Hannah Adams (see cat. 65), and her works were soon enjoying a fair amount of success.[5] During the 1840s and 1850s, in fact, her books were widely read and she was acknowledged as an influential author. Her most successful book, Three Experiments of Living (1837), a treatise on methods for handling personal finances, was eventually printed in thirty editions in America and England.[6] She also wrote on the fine arts and produced two books on the subject: Historical Sketches of the Old Painters (1838), and Familiar Sketches of Sculpture and Sculptors (1854). The second of these is a two-volume survey of the history of sculpture in the Western world from ancient Egypt to modern Europe and America. It was one of the first books to mention American sculptors, and in this case, Lee was probably identifying artists whom she had met personally: Horatio Greenough, Henry Dexter, and John C. King, all of whom had important Boston connections. She also included a groundbreaking final chapter devoted to American women sculptors such as Caroline Wilson and Harriet Hosmer.

When Lee gave the Athenæum her copy of the Venus de’ Medici, she recalled the circumstances of its creation and provenance.  This marble copy of the Venus de’ Medici at Florence,” she wrote, was purchased by my Brother Mr. William Sawyer when he was in Italy. When it arrived at Boston his friend Dr. John Warren took charge of it & deposited it at the Medical College about the year 1816 where it remained till 1840 when my brother gave it to me. It has remained in my possession till now. . . . I feel happy in presenting it to the Boston Athenæum feeling that it will have a safe & appropriate home in that noble institution.[7]  Once the work had been installed in the Library, the Athenæum’s Trustees expressed their delight with it, noting that it “enriched” the building’s sculpture gallery.[8]

David B. Dearinger, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 256-258. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] For a history of the Tribuna, see Marco Chiarini, “From Palace to Museum: The History of the Florentine Galleries,” in Mina Gregori, Paintings in the Uffizi & Pitti Galleries (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 10-17.

[2]Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 325.

[3]Richard H. Saunders, John Smibert: Colonial America’s First Portrait Painter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 67-68.

[4]Sidney Gunn, “Lee, Hannah Sawyer,” in Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (20 vols.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933), 11:106-107.

[5][Hannah Lee], “Notices in Continuation,” in Hannah Adams, A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams (Boston: Gray and Bowen, 1832).

[6] According to Sarah Josepha Hale, Lee was widowed but not destitute and became a writer, not for “pecuniary motives,” but because she wanted to instruct young people. See Hale, Woman’s Record; or, Sketches of all Distinguished Women, From the Creation to A.D. 1854 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860), 719.

[7]Mrs. George G. Lee to Mr. Henry Rogers, March 14, 1861, BA Letter Book 24 (1807-1887).

[8]“Report of the Fine Arts Committee,” January 6, 1862. BA Letter Book 24. Hannah Lee’s interest in sculpture was passed on to her granddaughter Julia (Bryant) Paine, who gave the Athenæum an important marble by Harriet Hosmer (see cat. 87).