Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Sculptors and Sculpture
Author:
Bohan, Ruth L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Whitman demonstrated less concern with sculpture than with either painting or photography, he thought highly enough of it to classify himself as "one among the wellbeloved stonecutters" in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass (Leaves 714). Whitman's scattered comments on sculpture are found principally in his early journalistic writings and in his later conversations with Horace Traubel.

In both published reviews and private commentaries, Whitman endorsed the idealist stance of the transcendentalists, which placed a premium on the moral and spiritual value of a work of art, while generally disregarding its technical requirements. As with painting, Whitman made little distinction between original works of sculpture and cheap reproductions intended primarily for the home. Above all Whitman admired sculpture's emphasis on the human figure and took strong exception to the complete absence of a human presence in works like the Washington Monument in the nation's capital and Boston's "chimney-shaped" Bunker Hill Monument (Uncollected 1:242). Despite his fondness for the cemetery, Whitman found tombstone inscriptions more compelling than the sculpted monuments.

During his Brooklyn years Whitman reserved his most explicit praise for the work of Henry Kirke Brown, an American sculptor whose 1846 solo exhibition at the National Academy of Design followed four years of study in Florence and Rome. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman cited Brown as an artist of "genius and industry" (Uncollected 1:142). Whitman later became a regular visitor at Brown's Brooklyn studio, where he enjoyed the company of a lively group of painters, writers, and sculptors, many of whom, like John Quincy Adams Ward, would establish distinguished careers over the next quarter century. Brown was a leader in the transformation of American sculpture from its emphasis on neoclassical forms and mythological subjects toward a more robust naturalism and a concern with nativist themes. Whitman appreciated both the workshop atmosphere and the free exchange of ideas that distinguished Brown's studio from the more hidebound literary circles of writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The experience helped to stimulate both Whitman's visualist poetics and his maturing national consciousness.

In his later years in Camden Whitman enjoyed the friendship of writer, editor, and sculptor Sidney H. Morse. The founding editor of The Radical and a self-taught artist of only modest talent, Morse constituted a striking contrast to either Brown or Ward. Although Morse's initial effort at modeling Whitman's likeness, undertaken in Philadelphia in 1876, proved a miserable failure, a later attempt, one of several executed on a return visit in 1887, garnered some of Whitman's highest praise. Whitman much preferred Morse's bust to the painted portraits of either John White Alexander or Herbert Gilchrist; at times he even preferred it to Thomas Eakins's portrait. Whitman regarded the bust's rough-hewn quality and focused treatment of the eyes as tropes for the rugged individualism and visionary presence of his verse, judging it "exceedingly fine—a revelation of what art can do at its best, when it becomes nature!" (Traubel 63). In 1889, at Whitman's urging, the bust appeared as the frontispiece in Camden's Compliment.

In the last year of Whitman's life Samuel Murray and William R. O'Donovan, both associates of Thomas Eakins, commenced bust-length sculptures of the poet in Eakins's Philadelphia studio. Housebound and in declining health, Whitman seems never to have seen either work. He did, however, greatly admire a profile photograph which Murray took in preparation for his bust, inscribing one print "Walt Whitman (Sculptor's profile May 1891)." Following Whitman's death, Murray, accompanied by Eakins, made plaster casts of Whitman's head, hand, and shoulder.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. "The Iconography of Walt Whitman." The Artistic Legacy of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. New York: New York UP, 1970. 127–152.

Morse, Sidney H. "My Summer With Walt Whitman, 1887." In Re Walt Whitman. Ed. Horace L. Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned. Philadelphia: McKay, 1893. 367–391.

Sill, Geoffrey M., and Roberta K. Tarbell, eds. Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Vol. 6. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.


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