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Venus Victrix and The Judgment of Paris, Horatio Greenough

Venus Victrix and The Judgment of Paris, Horatio Greenough

Venus Victrix, 1837-1840. Horatio Greenough. Boston 1805-1852 Somerville, Massachusetts. Marble. Gift of the estate of John Lowell, Jr., 1842.

The Judgment of Paris, 1837-1840. Horatio Greenough. Boston 1805-1852 Somerville, Massachusetts. Marble relief. Gift of the estate of John Lowell, Sr., 1842.

The history of this pair of sculptures—the freestanding Venus Victrix and the relief The Judgment of Paris that adorns its base—is typical of works created during the nineteenth century by American sculptors for American patrons. In addition, they are firmly linked to the city of Boston and tangible proof of that city’s early interest in supporting the arts: the sculptures were created by Horatio Greenough, Boston’s first professional sculptor; they were commissioned by members of the Lowell family, a quintessential Boston Brahmin family; and they were given to the Boston Athenæum, the city’s oldest and most respected cultural institution.

As Greenough’s native city, Boston naturally played a role in his career from the start.[1] Legend says that one of Greenough’s first artistic efforts was to copy John B. Binon’s bust of John Adams (see cat. 81). His diligence attracted the attention of “an observer,” probably Thomas Handasyd Perkins, who introduced the young man – aged about thirteen – to the Athenæum’s librarian William Smith Shaw.[2] Shaw gave Greenough access to the institution’s collections, and he and Perkins helped the young artist to connect with potential supporters. By the time Greenough had completed his education at Harvard, he was ready to move fully into the professional world and in 1825, again with Perkins’s assistance, went to Italy, eventually settling in Florence.

Before 1830, the United States had been especially deficient in sculptors and thus Greenough’s career was carefully watched. Americans on the Grand Tour visited Greenough in Florence and sent home good reports of his advancement. In 1829 Greenough received a commission from James Fenimore Cooper for a life-size marble group – the first such commission from an American patron to an American sculptor. Based on Cooper’s suggestions, Greenough created The Chanting Cherubs (1830; unlocated), an idealized freestanding sculpture of two angelic youths that received much attention in the press when it debuted in Boston in April 1831 and afterwards toured the major cities of the eastern seaboard.[3] The sculpture made Greenough’s fame and helped him land a much-coveted commission from the United States Congress for a colossal sculpture of George Washington for the rotunda of the U.S. Capital Building in Washington, D.C. (1832-41; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.). Meanwhile, the Boston Athenæum paid tribute to its native son by purchasing marble busts of John Quincy Adams and John Thornton Kirkland in 1829 and 1832 respectively.[4]

With Greenough’s fame on the rise, more Americans followed in Fenimore Cooper’s footsteps, visiting Greenough in his Florence studio and placing orders with him. Many of the wealthier among them sat to Greenough for a portrait bust or, if budgets permitted, commissioned something more elaborate and ideal, as had Cooper. This is precisely what Bostonian John Lowell, Jr., did when he visited Greenough in Florence in February 1834.[5]  Lowell (1799-1836) was a son of Francis Cabot Lowell and Hannah Jackson.[6] When poor health hindered his ability to complete his education at Harvard, he decided to educate himself by traveling, and beginning in 1816-1817 went to India, Holland, and England, ostensibly as a representative of his father’s business. His true interests, though, were literary, philosophical, and eventually artistic. In 1825 he married Georgina M. Amory, but her death and the death of both of their children within an eighteen-month period in 1830-1831 left Lowell in an understandable state of shock. In hopes of alleviating his grief, Lowell increased his travels and, as it transpired, spent the rest of his life on the road.[7]

It was during this period – the early 1830s – that Lowell’s interest in art became intense. In Belgium, France, Italy, and Greece he studied and admired the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods as well as those of the ancient world. But he did not forget the artists of his native land. Raphael may have admittedly been his favorite artist, but the contemporary American painter Washington Allston was a close second. “I would willingly be of some service to so meritorious an artist,” he wrote, and in 1834 he put his money where his pen was, so to speak, by commissioning Allston to paint a subject of the artist’s own choosing. His only request was that “a pretty woman . . . be acceptably introduced” into the painting.[8] The result was Allston’s historical portrait Amy Robsart (1840; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona).[9] At about the same time, Lowell gave the other most important commission of his brief career as an art patron: for a sculpture by Horatio Greenough. Evidently, the order was given when Lowell visited Greenough’s studio in Florence and, as he did with Allston, Lowell left the choice of subject up to the artist. After some delays, including several deaths, the result was Venus Victrix, which is now in the Athenæum’s collection.

Having placed the order with Greenough, Lowell moved on to Rome, where his interests in art increased. He now took on the role of the true gentleman traveler: he employed an artist, the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre, as a traveling companion, with the specific task of making a visual record of their journeys.[10] Unfortunately, Lowell died in Bombay in 1836, evidently exhausted by the difficulties of travel in the East. His death meant, among other things, that he saw neither the painting he had commissioned from Allston nor the sculpture he had ordered from Greenough. “Poor Lowell has died in the flower of his age,” Greenough wrote to Richard Henry Wilde, “a victim to the determination to go over land to India.”[11]

Luckily for both artists, however, members of the Lowell clan assumed responsibility for the commissions. The deceased John Lowell’s first cousin, John Amory Lowell, assumed the commission for Allston’s Amy Robsart, becoming that painting’s first owner; and another close relative took over the order for Greenough’s Venus, although there is some confusion as to exactly which Lowell took this responsibility. In any event, Greenough wrote to his brother in January 1838 that he was “now making . . . a Venus for Mr. Lowell.”[12] The following month, in an unpublished letter to Bostonian David Sears, he reported that he was “now finishing the model of a Venus Victrix for F. C. Lowell.” He then described the work:

I represent the Goddess holding the prize of beauty in her right hand, which a little shades her left breast, while her left hand adjusts the tresses which are supposed to [have] fallen on her shoulders when she prepared her figure for the exhibition. I have endeavored to make a naked female figure perfectly pure. I think I have seen it done by others, perhaps it would be more frequently done if artists attempted it.[13] There can be little doubt that the sculpture that Greenough described to Sears is the one now in the collection of the Boston Athenæum, and his reference to “F. C. Lowell” is evidently to Francis Cabot Lowell, Jr. (1803-1874), a brother of John Lowell, Jr.[14] Francis Lowell may have assumed the commission temporarily, but if so, his involvement was brief. It appears that he quickly turned it over to his uncle John Lowell (1769-1840), known as “The Rebel.”[15] Indeed, when the Lowell family contacted the Athenæum to offer the sculpture, it was said to be in the possession of “Lowell Sr.,” which is the designation used by the family, inaccurately, to differentiate the elder John Lowell from John Lowell, Jr.[16]

Whether or not John Lowell, Sr., was the member of the family who accepted responsibility for the commission from Greenough for the Venus Victrix, he evidently did give Greenough orders for two other sculptures. One was for a bust of Venus, probably a copy of an antique work, and the other was for a relief, The Judgment of Paris. Unfortunately, like his nephew before him, John Lowell, Sr., never saw the sculptures: he died in March 1840, just before the Venus Victrix was shipped to America. It was his son, John Amory Lowell, who offered the sculpture to the Athenæum in 1842.  In doing so, he appears to have been acting on behalf of the estates of both John Lowell, Jr., and John Lowell, Sr.[17] Two years later, Greenough combined the sculptures into a single unit, more or less permanently, when he incorporated The Judgment of Paris into a pedestal that he constructed specifically for his Venus Victrix.

David B. Dearinger from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 273-276. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]The major sources on Greenough are Nathalia Wright, Horatio Greenough: The First American Sculptor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963) and, edited by the same author, Letters of Horatio Greenough, American Sculptor (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972).
[2]None of the standard works on Greenough, including Wright, identify this “observer,” but Perkins, who later played a very active role in promoting the young Greenough, is the most likely candidate.
[3]Wright (1963), 67-75.
[4] Harding, 34.
[5]Wright (1963), 103.
[6]On the Lowell family, see Ferris Greenslet, The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946), and the early chapters of C. David Heymann, American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980).
[7]Greenslet, 196-199.
[8] Quoted in Greenslet, 202.
[9]William H. Gerdts, “The Paintings of Washington Allston,” in Boston Museum of Fine Arts, ‘A Man of Genius:’ The Art of Washington Allston, William H. Gerdts and Theodore Stebbins, Jr., co-curators. (Boston: 1979), 143. Amy Robsart was the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and was the tragic heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (1821).
[10] Edward Everett, Lowell’s friend and eventual eulogizer, recalled these events: “At Rome, [Lowell] made an agreement with a Swiss artist, highly recommended to him by Horace Vernet, as an excellent draftsman and painter, to accompany him, for the purpose of taking sketches and designs of scenery, ruins, and costumes, throughout the whole of his tour. A considerable number of drawings, executed by this artist, have been received in this country since Mr. Lowell’s decease” (Edward Everett, A Memoir of Mr. John Lowell, Jun. [Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1840], 34).
[11]Horatio Greenough to Richard Henry Wilde, August 19, 1836, Letters of Horatio Greenough, 200. Lowell is best remembered today as the founder of the Lowell Institute, which he endowed with half his estate.
[12]Horatio Greenough to Henry Greenough, January 17, 1838, quoted in Memoirs and Letters of Horatio Greenough, Frances Boott Greenough, ed. (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1887), 119.
[13]Horatio Greenough to David Sears, Boston, February 14, 1838. Sears Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
[14]Francis Cabot Lowell, Sr., had died in 1817 and therefore Greenough’s reference could not have been to him.
[15]John Lowell, Sr., was the Athenæum’s first treasurer. He served as the Library’s vice-president in 1814 and was elected its president two years later. As a Trustee, he was instrumental in securing the gift of James Perkins’s home for the Athenæum in 1821. His importance to the Library was acknowledged in 1835 when several subscribers commissioned a bust of him from the sculptor John Frazee (Harding, 30-31).
[16] J[ohn] A[mory] Lowell to Boston Athenæum, February 14, 1842. BA Trustees’ Records 2 (1830-1849). John Amory Lowell (1798-1881) was John Lowell, Jr.’s first cousin and a son of John “The Rebel” Lowell.
[17]Traditionally, both sculptures by Greenough—the Venus Victrix and the Judgment of Paris—have been identified as gifts of the estate of John Lowell, Jr. While this is probably true of the former, it cannot be true of the latter, which more properly should be listed as a gift of the estate of John Lowell, Sr.