Sunday, February 3, 2013

MWA XII: Gibson's Cupid

For the 12th Monthly Work of Art, I thought I would share a sculpture that ties in well with Valentine's Day, but more importantly also relates to my doctoral dissertation: Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy by John Gibson (1790-1866). This statue was Gibson's most popular subject, with at least 9 known repetitions commissioned in marble by patrons who visited his studio in Rome. All of the versions measure about 51½ in. (131 cm) in height. In our modernist art world, we have a tendency to think of works of art as one-of-a-kind objects, with importance placed on the "first" painting or sculpture, and later copies considered less valuable than the original. For centuries, however, it was just the opposite. Reproduction was key to an artist's success. It was normal for an artist to create a subject and then make replicas of it for patrons as requested. This is one of the reasons why most artists had large studios: apprentices and studio assistants assisted in the reproduction of paintings and sculptures for patrons. Once we understand this was normal procedure for the marketing of art in the past, it's rather intriguing to realize that Gibson's statue, having been reproduced 9 times, was not only one of his most popular subjects, but in fact one of the most popular statues ever made during the 19th century. (And this doesn't include plaster versions that were on display in his Roman studio and at the Hall of Modern Sculpture at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham Park in London.)

Gibson first began modeling the subject around 1830, and it was his belief that it was an original interpretation in sculpture, although modeled on ancient Greco-Roman representations of the god of love. He was directly inspired by Torquato Tasso's pastoral comedy Aminta (1573), in which Cupid appears disguised as a shepherd so that he may use his arrows to play with the hearts of the nymph Silvia and the youth Aminta without anyone recognizing him. The figure merges classical idealism with 19th-century taste for sentimental subjects, although aspects of theatricality are evident as the figure wears a costume to hide his identity. Dressed in a shepherd’s hat and cloak, the tips of his wings slightly visible below the mantle, Cupid’s mischievous nature is masked by a seemingly kind gesture. He hides behind him in his left hand what Gibson described as his “heart-piercing dart,” but reaches out with his right hand “to inspire confidence,” assuming “that air of modesty and timidity to conceal the more his cunning designs.” Some repetitions of the statue have Cupid holding a rose, but others such as the ones shown here have him reaching out with an empty hand.

The 2 earliest versions of the statue were commissioned in the mid-1830s by Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister, and the baronet Sir John Johnstone of Hackness Hall in Yorkshire, and both of those statues are now in private collections. The statue you see here on the left was commissioned in 1836 by the American artist and writer Thomas Gold Appleton, who later donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The image in color you see at the top of this post was commissioned from Gibson by the Russian Crown Prince (later Czar Alexander II) when he visited Rome in January 1839. That version is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Another version commissioned in the early 1840s is currently in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, but the remaining versions are untraced.

UPDATED 2 DECEMBER 2015: New research about this sculpture and its repetitions has now been published in the Journal of Art Historiography. To learn more about this sculpture and Gibson as a designer, click here.

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