The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

13. Veiled Memories, or, Thomas Crawford in Rome

LAURETTA DIMMICK, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thomas Crawford ( 1813?- 1857) arrived in Rome in September of 1835, when he was about twenty-two. The first American sculptor to settle permanently in the Eternal City, Crawford was immediately enthralled, for here were the ruins, buildings, statues, paintings, and scenery almost beyond his dreams. When he wrote home, he explained apologetically why he had not written sooner: "I have been so bewildered in consequence of having placed myself in such a maze of art as is contained within the Holy City."1 Though he found the variety of Rome's artistic treasures staggering, Crawford soon settled on the prevailing artistic mode by entering the studio of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaidsen ( 1770- 1844), the leading exponent of Neo-Classicism following the death of Antonio Canova ( 1757-1822). 2

Crawford had grown up in New York City, with a talent for drawing and modeling, known of both Canova and Thorvaldsen, and seen engravings and some plaster casts of their works. 3 Refusing to become the office clerk his father had planned for him to be, Crawford apprenticed himself to a woodcarver. To satisfy his artistic ambitions, he supplemented his vocational training by drawing from plaster casts after ancient sculpture at the American Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. When he was about nineteen, Crawford went to work for New York's leading marble shop, the firm co-owned by sculptors John Frazee and Robert Launitz. 4 Before emigrating to America from Russia, Launitz had studied with Thorvaldsen in Rome. Launitz encouraged his young protegé to study abroad and sent him to Italy with a letter of introduction to Thorvaldsen, who received him warmly and invited him to work in his studios near the Piazza Barberini. 5 An enthusiastic letter written home to Launitz reveals the aesthetic assumptions that shaped Crawford's goals and aspirations throughout his career, which he had already absorbed as an art student in New York:

I have done all I could to keep in the path you pointed out for me, and sincerely believe it is the only one that should be followed by a student of sculpture. I allude to the school of the antique, in which only can be found what is beautiful and pure. I have every reason for believing this now since I have seen the works of Michael Angelo, Bernini, and Canova. I think Thorvaldsen is the only artist now in existence who has fully caught the spirit that enabled the Ancients to produce those glorious works that yet remain to astonish us. . . . Rome is the only place in the world fit for a young sculptor to commence his career in. Here he will find everything he can possibly require for his studies; he lives among artists, and every step he takes in this garden for the arts presents something which assists him in the formation of his taste. You can imagine my surprise upon seeing the wonderful halls of the Vatican. Only think of it -- a green one like me, who had seen but half a dozen statues during the whole course of his life -- to step suddenly into the midst of the greatest art collection in the world! At first I was dazzled by all this splendor of art; now, however, I can look upon it calmly, and try to select from this vast treasury those particular works which will be most useful to me in my studies. 6

This essay will identify some of the antique and contemporary Italian works that inspired Crawford in his portraiture and "ideal" creations, or works based upon biblical, mythological, and literary themes.

The aspiring young sculptor spent about a year working in Thorvaldsen's studio. He absorbed much, both stylistically and technically, from his internship with the Danish master. Throughout Crawford's career, stylistic borrowings from Thorvaldsen can be discerned in various of his works, and several will be noted below. In terms of sculp

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