Ideal Busts

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 90 1/2 inches, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, 76.15

Installed in the Atrium are six ideal busts, four of which belonged to Washington, D.C., banker and philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran (1798–1888), founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, whose portrait bust by William H. Rinehart appears nearby.
The term “ideal” is one that is used to identify works of art depicting mythological, historical, or religious subjects and conveying noble or moral sentiments. In addition, such busts, which were very popular during the Victorian period, suggested collectors’ wealth and cultural refinement. Artists such as Rinehart and Hiram Powers produced catalogues of their sculptures, varying price according to size and maintained studios with trained artisans in order to keep up with the demand for production. Of the seven sculptures on display in the Atrium, only that of Mr. Corcoran was not made with the intent to produce commissioned replicas.

In ancient mythology, Proserpine (or Persephone), the maiden of spring, was the only daughter of Ceres, the goddess of corn or agriculture. Proserpine was carried off to the Underworld by its god Pluto for four months of the year, thereby causing winter, but she was allowed to return to earth each spring. Proserpine was one of Powers’s first idealized busts. This is one of a number of versions with a wreath of wheat in bloom adorning the hair and acanthus leaves, symbolizing immortality, around the chest. In 1838, Powers conceived the idea of a sculpture of Proserpine to serve as a companion piece to his Ginevra. In 1840, when Philadelphia art collector Edward L. Carey commissioned an ideal bust from Powers, the sculptor finally began work on Proserpine. Unfortunately, the work was so labor intensive that it was not completed until 1845. The bust arrived at Carey’s home on the same day as his death. Proserpine was arguably Powers’ most popular ideal bust, and he simplified the design three times in order to be able to keep up with demand. It is likely that Powers produced almost 200 replicas—full-size and two-thirds scale—of his three versions of Proserpine. This version, originally given by Powers to the family of General John C. Preston of Charleston, South Carolina, before being purchased by Mr. Corcoran, is one of the artist’s earlier, more intricate designs.