Greenough’s Chanting Cherubs
Letter to the Editor in Putnam’s Magazine, Vol. V (New Series), No. XXVI (February 1870) (pp. 241-242).
In Mrs. Hawthorne’s very pleasant record of travels, ¹ recently published, there is an allusion to this beautiful work of Mr. Greenough, in which an erroneous impression is given as to its origin. It is but an act of justice to the memory of the sculptor to remove this impression. Without touching upon the point of Mr. Greenough’s talent, of which his later works must be the best test, we merely give to-day the facts connected with the group of the Chanting Cherubs — which must always possess a certain interest, independently of its beauty, having been one of the very earliest of the superior works of American sculpture. It dates from forty years ago — a whole era in American art — and especially so in sculpture. The winter of 1828 found Mr. Fenimore Cooper in Florence, where he had an apartment in the Casa Ricasoli, and the few Americans then passing through Florence, generally found their way to his rooms, and enjoyed the glow of the noble wood-fires he delighted in building on that Italian hearth. Among these was Mr. Horatio Greenough. Mr. Cooper soon became deeply interested in the young sculptor, whose high personal character, frankness, uprightness, and generous nature won the entire respect and regard of his older friend. There were weeks during that twelvemonth when Mr. Cooper and Mr. Greenough were the only Americans then in Florence. they were very frequently together.
Mr. Cooper from early manhood had always felt a deep interest in works of art, and was especially anxious that the native genius which he knew to exist in America should be fairly developed, both in painting and in sculpture. He had been among the earliest friends of Mr. Cole. He now wished that the young sculptor should attempt something more than a bust. Among those grand works of art which throng the Italian galleries, and have been the delight of the civilized world for ages, is the Madonna del Baldachino of Raphael, now in the Pitti Palace, a picture which would, no doubt, be more vaunted, were it not in the same collection with the Madonna della Seggiola. Unlike this last, with its two sublime figures — said to have been first sketched from nature on the head of a wine cask, in a Roman vineyard — the Madonna del Baldachino is a large picture, giving full expression to a varied devotional spirit, in the faces and figures of saints, angels, and cherubs. At the very lowest point of the whole picture stand two lovely little cherubs, chanting from a scroll — they belong to the numerous cherub family of Raphael, unapproached by other painters, instinct with a supernatural loveliness and innocence, far beyond all beauty of earthly childhood. If not entirely equal to those marvellous cherubs of the Dresden Madonna, whose heavenly eyes appear to reflect the mysteries of eternity, the wisdom of an ever-living infancy — they yet belong to the same choir. At one of his earliest visits to the gallery, these cherubs attracted the admiration of the American traveller; peculiarly fond of children, doting on them in fact, he gradually gave those pictures faces something of the affection belonging to the living. He never went to the gallery without greeting them, without pausing before them. They were his delight during the year he passed in Florence. On one occasion when the young sculptor accompanied him to the gallery, he proposed to him to copy these lovely children in marble.
Mr. Greenough was much pleased with the idea, and immediately began the work. It was, therefore, no servile disposition to copy which led him to chisel this group. He did so in compliance with the earnest wish of a friend, who became the purchaser of the work. The Chanting Cherubs, when finished, were sent to America, where they were exhibited for the benefit of Mr. Greenough; but the fact that they were copies in marble, of a work of Raphael, was distinctly stated at the time, as giving something of additional interest to the work. To accuse the sculptor of plagiarism on these grounds, is sorely unjust. Had Mrs. Hawthorne been aware of these facts, the paragraph relating to the Chanting Cherubs would no doubt have been differently worded, and the only drawback to the pleasure of reading her charming pages would have been removed.
1. The book in question was Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne (1811-1871), Notes in England and Italy. By Mrs. Hawthorne (New York: G.P. Putnam & son, 1870) — Hugh C. McDougall