Portrait Bust of John Jay
Giuseppe Ceracchi was already a famous sculptor when he first visited the United States in 1791–1792. In Philadelphia, then the seat of the Federal government, and elsewhere, he reportedly modeled thirty-six busts of prominent Americans, including terracotta portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. At that time, Ceracchi was unquestionably the most gifted sculptor working in the young Republic.1For a review of Ceracchi’s life and career, see Desportes “Washington,” 140–79; Desportes “Madison,” 108–20; and Craven 1968, 53–54. He became disillusioned, though, when Congress failed to appropriate the funds for an elaborate monument to Liberty that he had proposed, he returned to Rome in 1792.2Gardner 1948, 189–97. Expelled from the Eternal City for his staunch republicanism, he established his studio in Florence. It was there that he began the process of translating several of the busts of Americans from terracotta into the more elegant and permanent materials of marble or alabaster.
In this period, the creative part of making a portrait bust was the modeling of it. After the sculptor achieved the desired perfection of form and expression, he turned the clay model over to studio assistants to cast it in plaster, and from that cast the marble or, in the case of the Madison, alabaster version was copied by skilled assistants who specialized in carving.3At least two plaster versions exist, one owned by Princeton University, the other by the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. Ceracchi probably planned a bust, fully in the round. However, a blemish concealed within the block may have caused him to have half the head cut away. The result was a high-relief alabaster profile mounted upon an oval slab of marble. Writing to Thomas Jefferson in March of 1794, Ceracchi confided his distress: “I tried to do it in marbre as rapresented with the bust I modeled but the block torned with spots . . . and didn’t permit me to perform my proposition.”4Thomas Jefferson Papers, inscribed Florence [Italy], March 11, 1794, United States Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Madison was portrayed with vital naturalism in this profile, which contemporaries compared with antique senatorial portraits from Republican Rome. Even the hairstyle recalls the treatment of the hair on Roman busts. Ceracchi originally intended to give the medallion to Jefferson, under whom Madison served as Secretary of State (1801–1809), but, after the sculptor returned to America in 1794, he presented it instead to the subject’s new bride, Dolley. Thereafter, the medallion fell into obscurity until obtained for the Department of State seventy-two years later.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.