William Henry Rinehart was a Maryland farmer’s son whose interests lay neither in schooling nor in agriculture, but in the possibilities offered by a newly opened quarry on the family farm. In 1844, Rinehart moved to Baltimore as apprentice to a stone-cutter, attending evening art classes at the Maryland Institute of the Mechanic Arts. His early promise was recognized in student shows. A fortuitous opportunity to repair a carved mantelpiece in the home of Baltimore railroad entrepreneur and art collector, William T. Walters, brought him to the philanthropist’s attention, and in 1855, aided by Walters, he went to Florence, to pursue a career as a sculptor. Rinehart returned to Baltimore in 1857 and set up a studio in the city, but left permanently in 1858 and settled in Rome, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Rinehart continued to be supported by Walters and by the patronage of other well-to-do Baltimoreans. He was a well-liked member of the American artist’s community in Rome. When Thomas Crawford died in 1857, he left unfinished his commission for the doors of the United States Capitol. In 1861, Crawford’s widow recommended Rinehart for the completion of the task, calling him “the most promising of the American Artists now in Rome.” Although Rinehart’s historical and portrait pieces reflected the naturalistic idiom that gained popularity by mid-century, his ideal work, based on literary and classical themes, remained firmly Neo-Classical. Rinehart died in Rome, just shy of his fiftieth birthday, from complications of a lung ailment, perhaps the legacy of his work as a stonecutter. Unmarried, he directed that the proceeds from his estate be used to support art study for struggling young men, a wish that was, in fact, brought to fruition by his executor, William T. Walters.
In 1859, recently arrived in Rome, Rinehart modeled his Sleeping Children, a work which proved to be an enduring success. Eighteen versions were sold during the sculptor’s lifetime and four remained in his studio at his death: the original model, two plaster casts, a finished marble, and an unfinished marble. Thereafter, Rinehart, a good-natured bachelor, seemed to be a popular choice for parents seeking marble sculptures of their children. He produced a number of statues of children, often engaged in activities considered appropriate to youth or innocence. They stand or sit holding butterflies, birds’ nests, and flowers.