ERASTUS DOW PALMER (1817–1904)
Plaster tondo, 15 in. diameter
Modeled circa 1858
RECORDED: cf. Catalogue of the Palmer Marbles, at the Hall Belonging to the Church of the Divine Unity, exhib. cat. (Albany, New York: J. Munsell, 1856), p. 19 // cf. A Woltmann, “Ein amerikanischer Bildhauer,” Recensionen & Mitteilungen über Bildende Kunst 4 (1865), p. 314 // cf. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (New York: G. P. Putman, 1867), p. 633 // cf. Helen Ely Richardson, “Erastus Dow Palmer: American Craftsman and Sculptor,” New York History 27 (July 1946), p. 327 // cf. J. Carson Webster, “A Check List of the Works of Erastus D. Palmer,” Art Bulletin 49 (June 1967), p. 147 fig. 6 illus. // cf. J. Carson Webster, Erastus D. Palmer: Sculpture––Ideas (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1983), pp. 27, 41, 100, 107, 111, 114, 265, 266, 170–73, 178 illus. plate 52, 179 illus. plate 53, 265–66, 278 // cf. Thayer Tolles, ed., American Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 1: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born before 1865 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), pp. 67 illus., 68
EX COLL: the artist; [possibly] to John Frederick Kensett, New York, 1858; private collection, New York; to [Post Road Gallery, Larchmont, New York]; to private collection, 2006 until the present
One of the greatest and most prolific lyric poets of her day, Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos. Her evocative verse, written in the Aeolic Greek dialect, focused on the intense emotions stimulated by love and erotic desire, while her elegant style, as revealed in the few extant works to have survived, such as “Ode to Aphrodite,” prompted Plato to call her the “Tenth Muse.” Although celebrated for her poetry, artistic interest in Sappho revolved around an incident in her life––a well-known but tragic story, thought today to be false, that she jumped to her death off a cliff when her love was spurned by a young ferryman named Phaeon. (Ironically, Sappho was also associated with love between women, hence the word “sapphic,” which refers to lesbianism, which in turn relates to the place of Sappho’s birth.) During the 19th century, Sappho as the victim of unrequited love became a popular motif for many artists of the day, among them American sculptors such as William Wetmore Story and Thomas Crawford, who were very much aware of the romantic appeal of the subject to Victorian audiences.
Palmer’s enthusiasm for the legend of Sappho was shared by Wendell L’Amoreux (1825–1907), who wrote a twenty-three-line poem on the incident for the catalogue of Palmer’s 1856 exhibition. A Professor of Modern Languages and Assistant Professor of Belles-Lettres at Union College in Schenectady, New York, L’Amoreux effectively captured Sappho’s suffering and loss of hope in his composition, especially the passage in which she declared (L’A., “For Palmer’s Alt-Relief,” in Catalogue of the Palmer Marbles, at the Hall Belonging to the Church of the Divine Unity, exhib. cat. [Albany, New York: J. Munsell, 1856], p. 19):
I loved him––wreaked my passion’s utmost prayer
Upon his ear––and––he spurned it all!
Dark! Dead! All, all is dark and cold and dead!
The sunshine is a gloom to me––the front
Of far Cyllene smiles no longer now,
As when I lay and steeped the purple hours
In dreams of Phaon’s love.
As revealed by this rare plaster version, Palmer conceived Sappho as a comely young woman wearing an alluring low-cut corselet, her hair covered by a cloak that curves gently around her right shoulder. Palmer created numerous replicas of Sappho, both in marble and plaster. Examples of the marble version can be found in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (modeled 1855; carved 1861) and at the Albany Institute of History and Art (1856). The Albany Institute also owns five plasters. Versions in plaster can also be found at the the Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York (1856) and the Phoenix Art Museum (1858). Sappho’s head is turned downwards and to the side as, faced with a future without love, she “contemplates vacancy” and ponders her fate. To be sure, rather than overtly displaying her inner anguish, Palmer’s heroine exudes an aura of quiet introspection that is very much in keeping with Neo-Classicism’s emphasis on calm and restraint.
Palmer’s interpretation of Sappho attracted the attention of many collectors of his milieu, among them the aforementioned Frederic Edwin Church and their friend and fellow painter, John Frederick Kensett, both of whom owned plaster versions. A close friend of Palmer’s, Church taught the sculptor’s son, the painter Walter Launt Palmer (1854–1932), the rudiments of landscape painting. Church’s Sappho is in the collection at Olana. Kensett acquired his plaster from Palmer in the spring of 1858. It has been suggested that his cast of Sappho, formerly in a collection in New York City, is the present work.