Three Busts by Thorvaldsen for the National Gallery in Washington

1. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
Lady Elizabeth Vernon, born Bingham,
model of 1816 or 1817-1818,
sculpted around 1821-1824
Marble - 42.86 x 17.78 x 20.32 cm
Washington, National Gallery
Photo : Washington, National Gallery

24/10/12 - Acquisitions - Washington, National Gallery - The National Gallery in Washington did not own any works by Thorvaldsen except for a drawing. This gap has now been filled since November 2011 thanks to the addition of three busts acquired from the London dealer, Rainer Zietz. These are probably portraits of Elizabeth, Georgiana and Louisa, the daughters of Richard Binham, second Earl of Lucan, commissioned in 1816 or 1817 and executed in marble between 1821-1824 (ill. 1 to 3). The sculptures apparently remained in the Bingham family for over a century and when offered at auction, in a single lot at Christie’s on 6 July 1999, the seller explained that his father had purchased them from Lord Lucan in the 1960’s.

The story behind the commission is not however very clear since Richard Bingham had four daughters but documents suggest that he only ordered portraits for three of them, plus his wife. As for Thorvaldsen’s account book, it only shows two busts, although a third might be listed under the name of "Mrs. Vernot", probably Elizabeth whose married name was Vernot (ill. 1).

2. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
Lady Georgiana Bingham ?
model of 1816 or 1817-1818,
sculpted around 1821-1824
Marble - 52.39 x 27.31 x 22.86 cm
Washington, National Gallery
Photo : Washington, National Gallery

3. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
Lady Louisa Bingham ?
model of 1816 or 1817-1818,
sculpted around 1821-1824
Marble - 58.42 x 28.89 x 22.23 cm
Washington, National Gallery
Photo : Washington, National Gallery

It is not easy to tell which marble represents which sister. Mary Levkoff, who directs the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the National Gallery, suggests identifications which do not necessarily concur with those put forth by Else Sass [1] or the Thorvaldsen Museum. The Danish museum in fact holds three plaster models ; two correspond to two of the marble busts at the American museum (although they do not have the same first name in Copenhaguen and in Washington) while another one might well represent the fourth sister. Finally, at the Christie’s auction, a bust of a woman attributed to Thorvaldsen was similar to the portraits of the three sisters, as suggested by the catalogue entry, though the headpiece on it, giving it the air of a divinity, was starkly different with the hairdos of the Bingham daughters.

Richard, second Earl of Lucan, was a faithful patron of Thorvaldsen’s and purchased several of his works, notably a statue of Venus as well as reliefs of Night and Day, replicated at various times during the artist’s lifetime.

4. Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824 - 1887)
Bust of a Veiled Woman Marguerite Bellanger ?
Around 1865-1870
Glazed Terracotta vernissé - 68 x 42 x 30 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Photo : Natinal Gallery of Art

A Neo-Classical sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen spent many years in Rome (from 1797 to around 1838) - dominated at the time by Antonio Canova - and distinguished himself above all in the "grand genre". He became famous for his sculpture of Jason ; inspired by Polykleitos, the plaster model was admired by Canova and the amateur, Thomas Hope, ordered the final marble. The Christ he produced for the Copenhaguen cathedral, commissioned when he returned on a trip to Denmark in 1819 and 1820 has also come down as a reference. Besides the above, the sculptor designed large bas-reliefs as well as funerary monuments such as the tomb for Pius VII at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Among the many other busts he produced, Napoleon’s is of course one of the most famous.
Thorvaldsen sought to capture the ideal beauty of Antiquity, in all of its purity, to the point of falling at times into a certain coldness and severity, far from Canova’s graceful manner or even the expression of the Swedish Sergel (1740-1814).

In concluding, we would like to point out the acquisition of another, less impassive, feminine bust by the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2010 : the fantasy portrait of a Veiled Woman by Carrier-Belleuse (ill. 4), perhaps that of Marguerite Bellanger. There are three known versions of this work, one in painted plaster residing at the Château de Compiègne, the other in terracotta and partially painted at the Musée Carnavalet.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 25 octobre 2012


[1] E. K. Sass, Les Portraits Bustes de Thorvaldsen, written in Danish, Copenhaguen, 1963-1965 ; 3 vol.

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