The Chanting Cherubs: Horatio Greenough’s Marble Group for James Fenimore Cooper

Nathalia Wright * (University of Tennessee)

Published in New York History, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2 (April 1957), pp. 177-197.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

IN October 1828, in the third of his seven years abroad, James Fenimore Cooper arrived with his family in Florence to spend the winter. A few weeks later a fellow countryman appeared — the young sculptor Horatio Greenough, who had also decided to pass the winter there and who hastened thither from Carrara, where he had been during the fall, in the hope of executing Cooper’s bust. Thus met in a foreign city two Americans who formed a lasting friendship and, in their dedication to the common cause of a national art, inaugurated an epoch in the history of American sculpture.

Greenough was at the time twenty-three years old. Son of a prominent Boston family, graduate of Harvard, he had gone to Rome at the end of his college career in 1825 to study sculpture, the first American to enter avowedly upon this profession. He had been forced to return home in 1817 because of illness, had spent a year in America, and had come back to Italy in the summer of 1828. His father, at one time a successful real estate dealer, was now in straitened circumstances, and young Greenough was dependent on the loans of friends and on his own art for support. He had on his visit home received several commissions for busts and one for a statue. Already he aspired to execute ideal works rather than portraits, and his supreme ambition was to be employed on some colossal public work, preferably by the national government.

{178} Cooper, thirty-nine in 1828, was near the height of his fame and popularity. He had entered the profession of letters largely because of an intense national consciousness and he had maintained a vigorous interest in the progress of all his country’s arts. Among his friends were the painters Thomas Cole and John Chapman, both of whom came abroad to study during his years there; he commissioned Chapman to copy a Guido Reni painting for him. In Greenough he saw not only an engaging young man, with democratic sympathies and an ebullient spirit much like his own, but an American artist in need of patronage. The combination won him immediately.

He agreed for Greenough to execute his bust, and during January 1829 the model for this work was made. Finding it satisfactory and becoming increasingly impressed with the young man, he gave an order about the end of the month for a work for himself — a group in marble. The price agreed upon was $200, $50 of which was to be paid immediately and the rest at the time the work was finished. 1 It was to be publicly exhibited in America for the sculptor’s benefit. Thus Cooper aimed, he said, to serve three ends: enable Greenough to execute the sort of work he preferred, increase his chances of being commissioned by the government, and encourage the art of sculpture in America. This art was, Cooper thought, the one most wanted in his native land, being “more openly and visibly connected with the tastes of the people,” 2 and it offered the fairest prospects to a young artist. Further to promote both the art and the first practitioner of it, he began to recommend Greenough widely for government employment. The sculptor, in turn, saw his patron in the same strong nationalistic light. If only some of Cooper’s “love of country and national pride” could be transfused into “the leading members of our high society,” he declared, it would not only “leaven them all” but make them “much better patrons.” 3

The commission which Cooper bestowed on Greenough was in itself a historic one. No American had as yet modelled a group. Greenough had not even put a figure in marble, {179} though he had modelled at least two. He accepted the order, Cooper said, “With a diffidence, that did as much credit to his principles as his modesty,” only on the condition that unless both of them were pleased the work should be regarded as simply one of his studies. 4 As events turned out, moreover, it was the first work in marble of proportions larger than a bust to be executed by one American at the order of another. The commission which Greenough had received earlier, from Robert Gilmor, Jr., of Baltimore, was not carried out until later.

Madonna del Baldacchino

Madonna del Baldacchino, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Cooper also proposed the subject of the work. It was to be a reproduction of the two cherubs singing from a scroll in the foreground of Raphael’s painting The Madonna del Baldacchino in the Pitti Palace. He was influenced, he said, by two considerations. One was the condition of his purse, which would not allow him a larger work. The other was his notion

that the bias of Greenough’s mind just then, was adverse to success in his art. I found him bent altogether on the Michelangelo or the heroic school; certainly a noble and commendable disposition in a sculptor, but one that was not so well suited to the popular taste, as that which is connected with the more graceful forms of children and females. It was my wish, that he should do something to win favor from those who are accustomed to admire Venuses and Cupids, more than the Laocoön and the Dying Gladiator. Thousands would be sensible of the beauty of a cherub who would have no feeling for the sublimity and mystery of the Moses of Buonarotti. 5

The particular subject he proposed also had the popular appeal of undeniable novelty.

Detail from Raphael’s Madonna del Baldacchino.

It did not directly reflect, as Cooper’s statement implied, any major difference of esthetic opinion between patron and sculptor. Both men liked the essentially simple and natural, and Greenough had a special fondness for the forms of children. Raphael’s pair formed, he thought, a “sweet composition,” in which “angel beauty and infantile form” were {180} “charmingly combined,” 6 though he noted that their bodies and limbs were far below the artist’s usual perfection of design. Yet whereas Cooper inclined to the realistic, Greenough was committed to the classical and the colossal, and throughout his life he asserted a preference for the heroic and the severe.

In one respect, moreover, he found the commission from Cooper distinctly objectionable. He was, on both theoretical and practical grounds, averse to copies of artistic works. The copying of famous paintings was at this period a thriving business, and there was even considerable demand for having details of paintings put into marble. The great Florentine naturalistic sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, with whom Greenough was then studying, was making such a copy of Titian’s Venus for an English patron at this time. But only occasionally after this did Greenough agree to copy other works, and then only of antique marbles. After the completion of the cherubs he wrote Gilmor, who had proposed as the subject for his statue a detail from another painting:

To have made another copy of any work whatever would have been, just now, morally impossible. Had I let my imagination sleep and become the mere mouth piece of another inventor in the work, you would have been the sufferer; besides- those amiable ones who amuse themselves with the fair fame of their neighbours would not have allowed to slip an opportunity of attacking me as a man who soared on the wings of Italian masters, because Nature had only given him his own sorry legs to move withal.

Apparently he did not express himself so vigorously on the subject to Cooper. Yet Cooper himself was somewhat on the defensive against the charge of “plagiarism” in the work, made a point of calling it an “original” instead of a “copy,” and solemnly called attention to the fact that the backs of Greenough’s figures were “entirely original.” 7

Nevertheless, despite various misgivings, it was on the whole with the greatest excitement and a profound sense of {181} gratification that young Greenough launched upon his task. “Fenimore Cooper,” he declared a few years later,

saved me from despair, after my second return to Italy. He employed me as I wished to be employed; and has, up to this moment, been a father to me in kindness. 8

“That group,” he wrote Cooper,

will always be most pleasantly associated in my mind — It was ordered at a moment which was a crisis in my life — when wearied with bust making I began to think that there was no hope for one of my turn of thought in America — It was commenced in ill health and melancholy — It was chiselled amid some difficulties — I found both health and spirits in the task and am likely to be much assisted by its being seen, in many ways direct and indirect. 9

Cooper was, he exulted, “a man who understands perfectly what my aim is,” “the noblest patron” with “the broadest ideas on the subject of art” he had yet found. 10 “I would to God,” he fervently wrote Gilmor,

that my power and my talent were equal to my love of my art that I might the better do honor to the favourable opinions of both of you. 11

He probably began work early in February 1829. Raphael’s painting was in poor condition and he may have made his sketches from a print; he had finished drawings of the heads and a hasty sketch of the rest from which to work. But he made his figures the size of life — about three feet high — and took them not from Raphael but from nature. With pride he reported that he had not only modelled every part of the clay but chiselled every part of the marble from living models. 12 The fact was noteworthy, for among sculptors of the current neoclassical school the common practice was to model according to ideal dimensions and to delegate the marble work to assistants. Young Greenough’s practice signified his independence of this school and his kinship with the revolutionary Bartolini. He had some difficulty obtain{182}ing models because the Italian practice of swaddling infants affected the limbs of many. One — the son of one of her dependents — was sent him by the Marchesa Strozzi-Riccardi, who had been impressed by a visit to his studio. The face of the Cherub on the right was thought to resemble that of Cooper’s young son Paul. 13

There were other difficulties too. The attitudes of the figures had to be altered somewhat from those in the painting, it being found, as Cooper said, that

postures that did well enough in accessories, would have destroyed the harmony of the groupe when the figures came to be principals. 14

The one on the left was apparently made to seem the elder. The arm of the one on the right, which was thrown over the other’s shoulder and hardly visible in the painting, gave most trouble. There was also, of course, the problem of keeping the clay model moist. The painter Rembrandt Peale, then in Florence, was amused to see Greenough

before leaving his room for the day, take a mouthful of water, and eject it by a peculiar practice, in a fine shower or spray over his work. 15

But on the whole, the work at this stage went rapidly. By the end of February, when Cooper left Florence for a month, the model was far advanced, and by the middle of May a plaster cast had been made and sent to Carrara to be blocked out or roughly cut, as the practice was, in marble. At this point Cooper expressed his complete satisfaction. Considering “the beauty of the design and the execution together,” he declared, “I scarce know a more pleasing piece of statuary for the size.” 16 He did not see the marble until he went back to America in 1833.

The work rough hewn in marble was returned to Florence in the summer of 1829 for the sculptor to finish. An eighth of an inch of stone — an unusually large amount — had been left for him to trim off, evidently at his direction. His intention was a laudable one, which further distinguished him {183} among his contemporaries: unlike most of them, he was determined to work the material of his art himself, after the example of Michelangelo and the Greeks. But he miscalculated the extent to which he could expeditiously do so. Peale remembered seeing him

at this pitiable labor, reducing the stone, which should have been done by more experienced workmen, and slowly copying, from his little naked and shivering subjects, details of form which he had rendered sufficiently perfect in his clay model. It was a severe lesson, which he never repeated. ...

(Apparently Peale meant that Greenough never again left himself quite so much cutting to do, for he continued to do some.) The marble proved excessively hard, though of what Greenough described as an “exquisite” texture and tint. 17 It was pure though somewhat yellowish.

Meantime, at the end of July, Cooper moved with his family to southern Italy and a year later, without stopping in Florence, left the country entirely. In his absence Greenough’s interest in the group apparently lagged. He did not sound convincing when in March 1830 he wrote Cooper, “The Boys are far advanced — I am thoroughly interested in them — and I hope yet to be proud of them — .” 18 He did not at first show them to all visitors, for which Cooper reproved him. The arrival of two of his brothers in Florence, his difficulties in executing other commissions, and his increasing interest in designing a national monument diverted him. He was also occupied with performing several personal services for Cooper in Florence this year. Early in 1830 he supervised the censoring and printing there of the novelist’s Water Witch and letter to the Edinburgh Review, and over a period of several months he acted as unofficial agent in the lawsuit between Cooper and one of the Coopers’ Florentine servants over the man’s wages. He typically underestimated the time it would take him to finish when he thought in April 1830 the group would be in America in four months. It did not leave his studio for nearly another year.

{184} Throughout the period it was executing it attracted considerable attention in Florence and was widely praised. (Possibly it was on account of Greenough’s group that a copy of Raphael’s cherubs in relief was executed late in the century for the monument at the grave of the Baron Auguste de Mannerheim in the English cemetery in Florence.) Surprise was expressed in the beginning that the subject had not been thought of before. The tasteful and elegant Lord Normanby, then living in Florence, brought visitors to see it. 19 Samuel F. B. Morse, friend of Greenough and Cooper, stopping in the city on his way to Rome early in 1830, was complimentary. Bartolini approved and said Cooper should be contented. Especially admired was the mechanical execution of the wings, which Greenough proudly said were as transparent as drawing paper. He himself felt at last that he had in marble surpassed the model and told Cooper he was “far better satisfied than I ever hoped in the most sanguine moments that I passed in your company.” 21 Possibly he preserved the plaster cast all his life. 21ª Late in the year he and Cooper corresponded about the question of providing the figures with fig leaves, and he designed two alabaster ones attachable by ribbons, to be used “if necessary.” But apparently no such set was made. In the last months of the year he incised on the back of the plinth “Sculptured in Florence for James Fenimore Cooper, 1830” and on the front “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The group left Leghorn at last in February 1831 in the brig Magnet for Boston, where it was to be first exhibited. By this time the title of The Chanting Cherubs had been bestowed upon it.

At this point in his career, though Greenough had meanwhile received other commissions, his financial situation was no better than it had been when he and Cooper met two years before. By September 1829 he knew, though he said Cooper did not suspect, that the price of $200 would do little more than cover the expenses for executing the Cherubs. 21 He agreed to deliver the work to America, but he apparently had to bellow $500 from Cooper to pay for its boxing and shipping. So far was he from being able to repay {184} this sum by the end of 1831 that he had to borrow another $500. “What will you think of my eagerness to pay you the 500 fr [ancesconi] you before lent me?” he wrote. “You will be amused at my expence. ... What shall I say? I will speak of something else.” 22 In the end Cooper assumed the cost of the statuary’s transportation, but it was delivered to Greenough’s order so that the sculptor did not have to guarantee to his patron its safe passage. The next year Greenough borrowed other sums from Cooper, though not as often as they were offered to him. He was, Cooper complained, far too conscientious in all these negotiations. He offered apologies abjectly and expressed gratitude effusively. “I have leaned very hard on you my dear Sir — ,” he explained in 1832,

but if you consider what I have attempted and with what means you will believe that I have borne myself too as much as my knees would stagger under.

“And now Sir,” he recapitulated when the group was gone,

let me thank you again for the friendly eye with which you saw hopes in me as an artist and for the generous hand you stretched out to me and which has not wearied during the long interval between the ordering and the delivery of my work. I know how much I owe you Sir but believe me the obligation is dear to me — . 23

Promptly on receipt of his first draft from the government in payment for his statue of Washington, which was commissioned in 1832, he paid back all he had borrowed.

It was thus doubly important to Greenough that the exhibition of his Cherubs in America prove successful. Both he and Cooper were sure that it would. Supposing that the work would be shown in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Charleston, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, Cooper thought the net receipts would total $1000 and possibly $2000. “I look confidently,” Greenough wrote, “to a handsome profit from this exhibition. If disappointed I shall be embarrassed and that seriously.” 24 At first Cooper had proposed that it be set up in the library of the Capitol in Washington, in order to bring it directly to the attention of con{186}gressmen and perhaps influence them to bestow a commission upon the sculptor. Later he favored New York as the place for the initial exhibition. When Greenough dispatched it to Boston, apparently without announcing his intention to do so, Cooper protested violently, with all his anti-New England animus. Greenough, who said that while the chisel was in his hand he had thought of no critics under the sun, explained that he had felt confidence in trying his “virgin statues” on the Boston critics because they had been so kind to the few busts he had already sent home. 25 His judgment was, on the whole, vindicated, though both his and Cooper’s expectations proved far too optimistic.

The group reached Boston’s Long Wharf on April 8, 1831 and was exhibited to the public, probably at the arrangement of Greenough’s brother Alfred, beginning on April 18, at No. 4 Summer Street, daily except Sunday, between the hours of 10 A.M.-2 P.M., 3-6, and 8-10 P.M. The evening was considered the best time for seeing it. Single tickets were 25¢ and season tickets 50¢. At the sculptor’s stipulation, it stood at eye level on a pedestal, behind which hung a dark crimson curtain. 26 A boy was stationed to turn it around by means of a handle so that it might be seen in every light. On the first day over a hundred visitors came. Receipts of the first week were $140, of the second and third $160. The figures were especially popular with women, and altogether eight or nine hundred of this sex were estimated to have viewed them; most were gratified to discover a resemblance to their own offspring. The total number of visitors, however, was disappointing. About the middle of May the Transcript warned that the “Cherubim” were about to “wing their flight to New-York, never to return.” On June 1 the exhibition was closed. Some of the sculptor’s own friends were reported to have missed seeing his work, supposing it would remain months longer.

The Boston press, as Greenough said, did its part “manfully” in reporting the exhibition and displayed, to his gratification, a remarkably good understanding of his “intention.” 27 At least six newspapers and two magazines carried {187} notices, and more than one appeared in Nathan Hale’s Advertiser, Joseph Buckingham’s Courier, and the Transcript. The New York American printed an extract from a letter of Cooper’s to a friend in which he called attention to the historical significance of the group, praised Greenough’s talent generally, and urged that other Americans patronize native artists; it was quoted by several Boston papers. At least two poems were inspired, both carried by the Advertiser. 28 The first, coupled with a prose description, was written by Greenough’s friend Richard Dana, who sounded a characteristically romantic theme in the concluding lines:

Our parent is a human mind;

His winged thoughts are we;

To sun nor stars are we confined;

We pierce the deepest sea.

Moved by a brother’s call, our Father bade Us light on earth: and here our flight is stayed.

The second, appearing anonymously, consisted of a dialogue between the two cherubs, of which the first of its six stanzas was typical:

First Cherub

Come, sweetest Brother, oh! come let us sing To the Great — to the Good — our Father and King.

Let us set forth his glory, his mercy, his power, And the blessings, so rich, which on all he doth shower. Let us speak of his Justice, Forgiveness and Love, Which stream forth like light from his kingdom above.

We will sound forth his praises, though feeble our voices, And chant how Jehovah, in mercy rejoices.

Generally speaking, the group was praised for its ideal subject and its realistic figures, and the sculptor, when separately noticed, for his general cultivation and admirable character. A critic in N. P. Willis’ American Monthly Magazine (perhaps Willis himself) reported that he was “uncommonly well informed” in the science of anatomy. Another commended his classical education and his modesty and {188} amiability. The most extended article of all was the six-page “Letter on the Chanting Cherubs” which appeared in Buckingham’s New-England Magazine for July. It was largely devoted to an analysis, combining current neo-classical and romantic concepts, of the art of sculpture as the most difficult, abstract and ideal of all the arts, and of the practitioner of this art as a man who “dwells apart like a star.” The author, “Tyro,” was probably young George Hillard, a college mate of Greenough’s. He awesomely described the cherubs as

good spirits sent down from heaven, wandering, hand in hand, through this vale of tears, and singing praises as they go. They bring before us the peace, the joy, the sunshine and the bloom of that undying world “where the weary are at rest and the wicked cease from troubling.”

At the same time he called attention to “the creases in the back part of the infants’ leg (I am a plain-spoken man).” “We knew that he had genius some five or six years ago,” he wrote of the sculptor,

but we did not know then what we now do, that he had the patience, the industry and the sense of responsibility arising from the possession of great powers. ...

And he concluded in a vein to warm any artist’s heart by inveighing against the

Utilitarian spirit abroad, which, if carried to the length, which some of its advocates advise, would make life as bare and as cold as the topmost rock of the Andes. 29

Most gratifying of all to Greenough was probably the praise of his revered friend the painter, Washington Allston. On the first day of the exhibition Allston walked in from Cambridge to attend. His expectations, he told the sculptor’s mother, were surpassed. 31 He pronounced the group one of the most beautiful in modern art and predicted the speedy elevation of its creator — even in immaturity superior to the {189} second rate sculptors of the day — to a pedestal among the very first. Greenough was, he wrote the Charleston bustmaker John Cogdell, a “brilliant, versatile genius,” who possessed the further advantage of a “thorough liberal education.” 31 Incidentally, he pointed out certain anatomical details in the knees of the figures which testified to the “intelligent use of the living model.”

Genuine as all this sympathy was, however, it came from a small and cultured circle. Outside it, two reactions to Greenough’s work troubled its Boston sojourn. Some literal visitors, beguiled by its title and supposing the handle by which it was turned belonged to a concealed organ, were disappointed because the cherubs did not sing. “Well what are they good for then?” inquired one disillusioned visitor. Another, who bought a ticket under the misapprehension that the voices of a glee club in another room were coming from Greenough’s group, announced to the door keeper as he left, “If that is what you call your Chanting Cherubs, I wish I had kept my money.” 32

But the most untoward event of the exhibition occurred about the third week when, at the instigation of some objector to their nudity, the little figures were outfitted with coarse dimity aprons, puckered up at each side and suspended by a thread tied around them. Repercussions were immediate. “C.” in the Courier denounced this “deforming” of the work by “a vile covering, equal in its way to ‘dowlas, filthy dowlas,’” defended the nakedness of the cherubs on the grounds of their sinlessness, and declared that any lady who feared she was courting the attraction of men by liking them had “corruption eating at her.” “Spirit of Raphael!” ejaculated a correspondent of the New York Evening Post, “look down and frown to merited contempt and scorn such affected modesty.” The aprons, he suggested, should be left behind when the group was brought to New York, to furnish Bostonians with decent night caps. Another exasperated critic predicted that every cow on the Boston Common would soon be wearing pantalettes. Within a week or so the figures were restored to their pristine state. “We are happy to hear,” {190} announced one of the city’s editors, that the gentlemen nurses who have the care of Mr. Greenough’s Chanting Cherubs intend to ‘change the diaper’ of the group in a few days.” 33

Greenough was surprised and chagrined when the news of this episode reached him in the fall of 1891. “I had thought the country beyond that,” he wrote Allston. “There is a nudity which is not impure — there is an impurity which pierces the most cumbrous costume.” He proposed that his group be compared with hundreds of prints in English, French, and American annuals which were regularly seen by “our sisters and wives” and he would

leave it to any conscientious man to say whether I have gone to the full length of the letter with which modern delicacy has measured the range of art — . 34

He was doubly grateful thereafter for “one comment on it dictated by true feeling & real taste.” Whatever remarks he and Cooper exchanged on the subject were probably made orally, for at this time he was spending several months in Paris, where the Coopers were then residing. In a lighter mood he sketched, probably about this time, a solemn faced cherub decorously holding in front of him an enormous square cloth.

Yet on the whole, Boston treated its native son’s work more kindly than New York. The group was brought to the latter city sometime in the summer and remained with Cooper’s friend Peter Jay until Alfred Greenough completed arrangements for its exhibition. Meanwhile Alfred showed it privately to Gilmor and to the painter, Robert Weir, who had lived with Greenough in Rome. Subsequently Weir paid tribute to the companion of his student days by representing the figures standing atop of the organ in his painting “The Taking of the Veil,” for which he had made a sketch in Rome. 35

The exhibition space for his brother’s work which Alfred secured was in the new quarters of the American Academy of Fine Arts in Barclay Street, and he probably congratulated himself on so doing. These auspices, however, were {191} curious in view of the feud which existed between the somewhat snobbish American Academy, presided over by John Trumbull, and the recently organized National Academy of Design, to which Greenough belonged and whose president was his friend Morse. The notoriously touchy Morse was outraged when he learned the news in Paris in December 1831 and thereafter spoke less admiringly of Greenough’s work. Endeavoring to placate him, Greenough disclaimed any responsibility for the arrangement that had been made and declared, in reference to the members of the American Academy,

If those gent n imagine that I am to be bamboozled into an approval of their association for the discouragement of art they will soon find their error. 36

Yet apparently both he and Cooper were amused by the whole episode.

So far as the public was concerned, in fact, the place of the Cherubs’ exhibition was probably in its favor. Prominently set up in the first room of the new establishment, the work was shown beginning on November 5 throughout the day and until nine in the evening. A four-page leaflet was issued, largely taken up with the extract from Cooper’s letter printed in the American. 37 The New York papers were all friendly — especially W. C. Bryant’s Evening Post, the Commercial Advertiser, and the Morning Courier. (Poets Bryant and William Leggett were shortly afterward by their less literary colleagues dubbed “the Chanting Cherubs of the Evening Post.”) 38 The New York critics also praised the group’s “perfect truth to nature” as well as “the ideal expression” of the cherubic features, 39 and more than those in Boston they commended it as the product of an American’s “chissel,” noted its importance as the first American group, and encouraged their country men to patronize native artists. The members of the National Academy, far from behaving like their president, passed a resolution thanking Cooper for his service to the country in commissioning Greenough. The work was, thought member William Dunlap, “lovely.” {192} Young Thomas Crawford, then studying in the studio of John Frazee and R.E.S. Launitz, called it “exquisite” when he referred to it several years later. Frazee, on the other hand, succumbed to professional jealousy; it was not, he objected,

really fine statuary as the legs of the smallest boy completely obscure the others. ... This defect is of itself sufficient to damn the group.

Some New Yorkers too were disappointed in the Cherubs’ failure to sing. In relaying the information to Cooper, J.E. DeKay called his townsmen “a race of cheating, lying money getting blockheads.”

But there was, devastatingly enough, more indifference than objection to the little piece. “It is surprising,” Jay wrote Cooper, “how little people here know or care about Sculpture.” Attendance was hardly three hundred the first fortnight, from which number the proceeds were insufficient to cover even the expenses. 41 Later it increased slightly, probably because of the announcement made about the first of December that Greenough wished to raise a subscription to execute a statue of Washington in the city and that future proceeds from the Cherubs’ exhibition would go to that fund. This project, however, did not materialize. The exhibition could but be called a failure; it closed not long after the middle of December. Cooper, who by this time had become disillusioned about his fellow countrymen and was beginning to feel persecuted by them, had a characteristic explanation: he was convinced that his ownership of the work was responsible and that his enemies attacked him through his friend. More ponderable was Trumbull’s advice to Greenough, delivered through Alfred, to remain in Europe if he wished to further his career. 41

It had evidently been planned that the Cherubs would be sent to Washington at the conclusion of the exhibition in New York so that the work might be seen in the capitol during the winter session of Congress. 42 Apparently, however, because of the financial risk which loomed after New York it went to no other city. Altogether Greenough realized only {193} $400 from its showing, most of that amount probably in Boston. 43

At the arrangement of Dunlap, it was publicly shown once more, at the annual exhibition of the National Academy in New York in May 1832. A portrait presumed to be of Greenough, by Rembrandt Peale, hung at the opposite end of the room, 44 and a bust of Washington by the sculptor was also exhibited. On this occasion New Yorkers proved themselves quite as capable as Bostonians of being prudish. A critic calling himself “Modistus“ “effervesced through the press for some time,” as one of the members of the National Academy put it, objecting to the cherubs’ nudity. 45 No aprons, however, were forthcoming.

Sometime this winter and spring desires were apparently expressed by some of Greenough’s admirers to obtain copies of his work. In April he was considering making such copies and proposed to charge $400 for them; Cooper thought the price should be $600 or $800. None, however, was apparently executed.

A year later, in the fall of 1833, Cooper returned to America. Neither in his New York residence or at Otsego Hall, however, did he find a place for Greenough’s “boys.” In 1834 he tried unsuccessfully to interest the House of Representatives in purchasing them. For several years they were stored at the American Academy, where they narrowly escaped destruction in a fire in 1837. Shortly before his death, in increasing financial difficulties, he evidently sold them to a Mrs. Stephens of New York, possibly the wife of the prominent yachtsman John Cox Stephens. 46 Unfortunately the limitations of his estate kept him from filling the role of art patron as he would have liked to do.

The three aims he announced when he commissioned Greenough, however, were in varying measure achieved. In the Cherubs Greenough did execute for the first time a work superior in nature to portraits. Unfortunately its present whereabouts — if it still exists — is unknown. Yet so great apparently was the similarity between this group and that of the Angel and Child which Greenough did in 1833 for {194} Samuel Cabot of Boston, which has survived, 47 that much about the appearance of the first may be conjectured from the second. Like the second, the first was probably predominantly sentimental and unsatisfactory in its combination of ideal and realistic elements. It was even more novel. During the rest of his career Greenough’s development was steadily away from both the sentimentality and the novelty which characterized some of his early pieces. Yet in all his work he consistently aimed at the expression of the ideal in terms of natural forms. In his cherubs, despite the fact that they were copied from the work of another artist, that aim was first fully revealed.

Cooper’s order also helped Greenough secure his coveted government commission, though rather indirectly. After that commission had been awarded Cooper referred to his own as “an innocent little conspiracy” between the two men to “pave the way to a Washington for the capitol,” a “plot” which completely succeeded. 48 Others, however, were more directly influential than he in recommending Greenough at Washington, and the Cherubs was at best dubious proof that the young sculptor might be able to execute a monumental statue to a national hero. Its chief service to his career was to give him at an early date considerable — through in some respects a rather too sensational — publicity.

Nor was Cooper as directly or immediately successful in making the art of sculpture popular in his native land as he hoped. Actually the public appeal of the Cherubs was so limited as to promise its sculptor slight success in his profession. Yet in the results of its exhibition there was decipherable a message which might have insured him more. Cooper’s anticipation of a great vogue for sculpture in America was within the next two decades dramatically realized, and his analysis of public taste was on the whole correct, though the public proved less fond of Cupids than of Venuses. The chief element in that taste which both he and Greenough failed to recognize was its Puritan and common-sensical attitude to nudity. Neither patron nor sculptor was prepared for the fact that the Cherubs rippled the surface of both the {195} American sense of propriety and the American sense of humor. The fact suggested that the nude human figure, if presented at all to the mass of Americans, required special treatment — such as Hiram Powers gave it with such phenomenal financial success a decade or so later in his Eve and Greek Slave. At that time the reception of Greenough’s half-draped Washington, which elicited precisely the same two responses as his Cherubs had, left no doubt about the matter.

Greenough was not, however, any more than Cooper, a man primarily aiming at popularity in his art. He was never deflected from his own aims by public opinion and he never catered to public taste. If the flurry of objections to his first nude figures had any affect upon him, it strengthened his conviction that the only valid subject for great sculpture was the unadorned human form and inclined him to believe that between the great and the merely popular there could be no compromise. In this conviction he proceeded to design and execute the chief work of his life. In a sense his cherubs, impertinent though they seemed — like the putti ornamenting: heroic paintings and sculptures of the Italian Renaissance — were authentic forerunners of his Washington, In that work the first epoch of American sculpture - -with its intense national consciousness, its ambitious aims, and its distinguished though less than great achievement — may be said to have reached its climax.


1 Greenough to Washington Allston, Sept. 19, 1829 (Massachusetts Historical Society).

2 Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper (New Haven, 1922), I, 169. The chief collection of unpublished letters from Cooper to Greenough is in the possession of Mr. David Richardson of Washington, D.C. It is being included in the edition of Cooper’s correspondence in preparation by Prof. James Beard for the Harvard University Press. I am indebted to Mr. Richardson and to Prof. Beard for permission to read these letters in the preparation of this paper, but nothing has been quoted from them. I am further indebted to Prof. Beard for calling my attention to several important facts bearing on the history of the Cherubs to be found in the Cooper papers.

3 Greenough to Rembrandt Peale, Nov. 8, 1831 (New-York Historical Society).

4 Correspondence of ... Cooper, I, 167.

5 William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (N. Y., 1834), III, 230-231.

6 Greenough to Robert Gilmor, Jr., Feb. 25, 1829 (Maine Historical {196} Society).

6a Greenough to Gilmor, Jan. 18, 1832 (Boston Public Library).

7 Extract from a letter by Cooper, July 29, 1830, printed in the New York American, April 30, 1831; Correspondence of ... Cooper, I, 169.

8 Dunlap, III, 226.

9 Greenough to Cooper, June 21, 1831, Yale University). All the letters from Greenough to Cooper cited are at Yale. They are quoted with the permission of the library and of Prof. Beard.

10 Greenough to Allston, April 18, Nov. 17, 1829 (Massachusetts Historical Society).

11 Greenough to Gilmor, May 16, 1829 (Pennsylvania Historical Society).

12 Greenough to Gilmor, Jan. 13, 1832.

13Sources for the last three sentences are Dunlap, III, 250; Greenough to Cooper, March 7, 1831, Dec. 20, 1830.

14 Correspondence of ... Cooper, loc. cit.

15 Peale, “Reminiscences. Painters and Sculptors,” The Crayon, I (March 14, 1855), 162. The quotation from Peale in the following paragraph is also from this page.

16 Correspondence of ... Cooper, I, 168.

17 Greenough to Cooper, Dec. 20, 1830.

18 Greenough to Cooper, March 5, 1830. Most of the details in the rest of this paragraph are recorded in the Greenough-Cooper correspondence of this year.

19 Greenough to Gilmor, Feb. 25, 1829; to Allston, April 18, 1829 (Massachusetts Historical Society).

20 Greenough to Cooper, Dec. 20, 1830. The inscription on the work (see below) is given in this letter. The alabaster leaves (see below) are mentioned in a draft of it (in the possession of the author of this article).

20a A plaster group which may have been the Cherubs was received by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, in 1892 after the death of Mrs. Greenough, but has since disappeared.

21 Greenough to Allston, Sept. 19, 1829.

22 Greenough to Cooper, Dec. 17, 1831. His payment of his borrowings is recorded in his letter to Cooper, May 15, 1835.

23 The last two quotations are from Greenough to Cooper, August 22, 1832, and June 21, 1831.

24 Greenough to Cooper, Dec. 20, 1830.

25 Greenough to Cooper, Feb. 17, 1831.

26 Greenough to Cooper, Dec. 20, 1830. Preceding details come from notices in several Boston papers at the time of the exhibition. (Similar details were carried by New York papers when the Cherubs was exhibited there.) Sources for the next two sentences, and the fourth are the Boston Transcript, May 18, the New York Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 26, the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, Nov. 17, 1831, and Letters of Horatio Greenough (Boston, 1887), p. 71. The amount of the receipts is given in Greenough to Cooper, June 21, 1831. The Transcript quotation and following fact come from the issue for May 10, 1831.

27 Greenough to Cooper, June 21, 1831.

28 Dana’s poem appeared on April 22, the other on April 30, 1831.

29 The quotations and citation in this paragraph are, in order, from “The Editor’s Table,” The American Monthly Magazine, III (April, 1831), 67; Boston Courier, May 6, 1831; The New-England Magazine, I (July, 1831), 20, 25, 26.

30 Greenough to Cooper, June 21, 1831 (the last quotation in this paragraph also comes from this letter); Letters of ... Greenough, p. 70.

31 Jared B. Flagg, The Life and Letters of Washington Allston (London, {197} 1899), p. 252.

32 These two accounts are given in the Boston Transcript, May 16, 18, 1831.

33 The quotations and citation in this paragraph are, in order, from the Boston Courier, May 9, 11; the New York Evening Post, May 17; Niles Weekly Register, June 18; the New York Evening Post, May 24, 1832.

34 Greenough to Allston, Oct. 1831 (Massachusetts Historical Society). The following quotation is from Greenough to Gilmor, Jan. 13, 1832. The sketch of the cherub cited thereafter is in the possession of the author of this article.

35 The chief sources for this paragraph are The Diary of William Dunlap (N. Y., 1931) I, 242; Letters of ... Greenough, p. 16; Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (N. Y., 1867), p. 214.

36 Greenough to Morse, Jan. 5, 1832 (Library of Congress). See also Greenough to Cooper, Jan. 14, 1832.

37 “Greenough’s Marble Group of Chanting Cherubs now exhibiting at the American Academy ... ” (N. Y., [1831]), 4 pp. (Howard S. Mott, Inc., Catalogue No. 14, Jan. 1944, Item 65).

38 Allan Nevins, The Evening Post (N.Y., c 1922), p. 199.

39 New York American, Nov. 25, 1831. The following quotations and citations in this paragraph are, in order, from the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, Nov. 17, 1831; Correspondence of ... Cooper, I, 252. Crawford to Charles Sumner, June 12, 1842 (Harvard); Frazee to Gulian Verplanck, Feb. 18, 1832 (New-York Historical Society); Correspondence of ... Cooper, I, 264. The first quotation in the next paragraph comes from Idem., I, 261-262.

40 The New York Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 26, 1831.

41 Letters of ... Greenough, p. 75.

42 New York Commercial Advertiser, loc. cit.

43 Greenough to Samuel Cabot, Nov. 12, 1832 (Harvard).

44 The New York Mirror, IX June 16, 1832), 395.

45 Thomas Cummings, Historic Annals of the National Academy of Design. (Philadelphia, 1865), p. 126.

46 The sources of this and the preceding two sentences are Edward Everett to Louis McLane, Feb. 18, 1834 (in the possession of Mr. Paul F. Cooper); The New York Mirror, April 8, 1837; A. Storrs to Cooper, Aug. 3, 1842 (Yale).

47 In the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

48 Dunlap, III, 280-211.

* Dr. Wright has her bachelor’s degree from Maryville College, Maryville, Tennessee, and her master’s and doctorate from Yale University. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, has written Melville’s Use of the Bible (1949) and is currently working on a biography of Horatio Greenough.