Washington Allston (1767-1843)

Object Number: 
Overall: 25 1/4 x 14 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. ( 64.1 x 36.8 x 24.8 cm )
Portrait bust.
Gallery Label: 
Departing for Europe nearly a year after graduation from Harvard in 1800, Allston had already determined to become a painter. After studying with Benjamin West in London he traveled about on the Continent, and became especially enamored of the epic-scale paintings and noble themes of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Mingled with this was a romantic delight in the mysterious and the bizarre - a characteristic he shared with his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the early years of the new century Allston, along with John Vanderlyn, attempted to elevate American art from the limiting confines of portraiture and give it a monumental form which would equal the great artistic epochs of the past. Allston brought to America such exciting and grandiose subjects as Belshazzar's Feast, Elijah in the Desert, and Diana in the Chase. The public in general, however, did not take to him, preferring an indigenous art to his imported, strongly Italianate style. Allston returned to America in 1818 and spent the remainder of his life near Boston in the circle of artistic and philosophical enlightenment which centered there, but the total production of that last quarter century was devoted as much to philosophical writings and poetry as to painting. This bust of Allston was formerly attributed to Edward Brackett, who did in fact make a very similar portrait of the subject, marble versions of which are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Worcester Art Museum. The Society's bust, however, is virtually identical with one in the Boston Athenaeum and another in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, both of which were signed by Clevenger. A plaster version is in the National Academy of Design. Clevenger was anxious to follow Hiram Powers to Italy, but his wealthy Cincinnati patron, Nicholas Longworth, had insisted he prepare himself for the trip by modeling likenesses in the leading cities of the East Coast. Thus from late 1837 to the fall of 1840 (when he sailed for Europe), Clevenger worked in Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where he soon became the leading sculptor of portrait busts. The trustees of the Boston Athenaeum persuaded the reticent Allston to sit for the bust in 1839, and the next year Clevenger took the plaster cast of it with him to Italy, where the marble versions were carved. The bust was modeled in Allston's studio in Cambridge, and during the same sittings George W. Flagg painted his portrait of the aging artist. Allston was quite impressed with Clevenger both as an artist and as a man. On December 5, 1839, he wrote to a friend, John Cogdell, in South Carolina that the sculptor had "every quality to make a great artist," and he described him as "modest, amiable, and single-hearted, loving his art for its own sake." Several years later, on June 29, 1843, Allston again wrote to Cogdell: "Clevenger's marble bust of me, which he made for the Athenaeum, so far surpasses the cast that . . . you would hardly know it to have been done from it; it is an exquisite work."
Credit Line: 
Bequest of Mr. Charles M. Leupp
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group