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Robert Charles Winthrop

Robert Charles Winthrop Marble bust
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

Robert Charles Winthrop was born in 1809 into a family prominent in Massachusetts history since Boston's founding by Governor John Winthrop in 1630. His mother's family added descents from Governor James Bowdoin and Sir John Temple, the royal customs collector for New England. Robert C. Winthrop organized the tangible portion of this heritage as the Winthrop Papers and the Bowdoin-Temple Papers, which are now at the Historical Society together with numerous paintings and other pieces of family memorabilia. Eleven generations are represented in this collection, which is one of the most comprehensive of its type in this country.

After graduating from Harvard in 1828, Winthrop read law in the Boston office of Daniel Webster and was admitted to the bar in 1831. He went into politics as a state representative from Boston, and served in the House for six years, including three as Speaker. From there he was elected to the federal Congress in 1840, and when the Whigs gained a majority in 1847 was elected Speaker. When Webster was appointed secretary of state in 1850, Winthrop was appointed senator in his stead. After being defeated for the position of governor of Massachusetts in 1851, Winthrop withdrew from politics.

Since 1839 Winthrop had been a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and in 1855 was elected president, a position which he held for thirty years. During his tenure, the Society grew both in size—raising its statutory membership level from sixty to one hundred—and in stature, primarily through an increase in publications, to which Winthrop himself contributed heavily. His two-volume biography of Governor John Winthrop received critical acclaim at its publication.1

Powers modeled this bust in 1868 at Florence, during an extended European vacation by the Winthrops. The first marble, an undraped version now in the Harvard Portrait Collection, was completed in 1869 and displayed by Winthrop at the Boston Athenaeum upon its arrival. As the first bust was intended for Winthrop's stepson, George Derby Welles, a second was also ordered for Mrs. Winthrop. However, the second bust was to have drapery added, "both to make a little variety, & because she her-self prefers a bust with drapery over the shoulders. She wishes it also to match another bust in our hall, which has a full drapery."2 A plaster cast of the draped version was presented to the Historical Society in 1899 to replace an 1859 Winthrop bust by Henry Dexter which was considered "Weak in design and execution" and a "failure both as a work of art and as respects portraiture."3 In 1918 Winthrop's daughter-in-law presented the marble draped version to the Society.

Hiram Powers made his early reputation in Washington, where he sculpted portrait busts of the nation's officials from 1835 until late 1837. It was, however, after he moved to Italy and established himself in Florence, that his real fame developed. There, the 1840S saw a new American school of sculpture developing around the expatriates Powers and Horatio Greenough.4 Americans flocked to Powers's studio for portrait busts which provided a steady income while he began a series of idealized sculptures. The Greek Slave (1843) in particular brought Powers admiring reviews both in Europe and in America, where it was acclaimed, although the nude presentation was the object of debate.5 The Greek Slave is considered a milestone in American art because it, more than any other single piece, spurred the public to discuss the work of an American sculptor.6

The Society also holds a marble bust of the philanthropist George Peabody (1868) by Powers, as well as a plaster cast of his bust of Jared Sparks.

1. Lawrence Shaw Mayo. The Winthrop Family in America. Boston, 1948, pp. 315-345.

2. Robert C. Winthrop to Hiram Powers, Brookline, Mass., Oct. 28, 1869. Hiram Powers Papers, AAA-SI, microfilm reel 1144.

3. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d ser., 1(1907-1908): 98.

4. Donald Martin Reynolds. Hiram Powers and His Ideal Sculpture. New York, 1977, p. 94.

5. Sylvia E. Crane. White Silence: Greenough, Powers, and Crawford, American Sculptors in Nineteenth-Century Italy. Coral Gables, Fla., 1972, pp. 169-269.

6. Dictionary of American Biography. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds. 20 vols. New York, 1928-1936.