Friday, September 18th, 2009
Browere’s Life Mask of Jefferson
Have you heard the story of how Thomas Jefferson was nearly killed by the artist John H. I. Browere? The elderly, retired statesman and ex-president was approached in 1825 by Browere, who asked to be allowed to take a life mask of Jefferson. Apparently, Browere was not very skillful; the plaster hardened too quickly, which impaired Jefferson’s breathing and ability to cry out for help. Luckily, Jefferson’s hand was resting on a nearby chair, and he was able to bang it on the floor to bring attention to his distress.
To make matters worse, Browere did not apply enough oil on Jefferson’s face, so the plaster stuck to the frail man’s face. Browere had to use a mallet and chisel to break the plaster off of Jefferson’s skin, and the ex-president reportedly groaned and even sobbed during the whole ordeal.1 When discussing the removal process, Jefferson wrote in a letter that “there became a real danger that [my] ears would separate from [my] head sooner than from the plaster.”2
Poor man. It’s no wonder that Jefferson wrote in the same letter, “I now bid adieu for ever to busts and even portraits.”3
The above photograph of this infamous life mask was taken in 1939 by LIFE photographer Bernard Hoffman. Jefferson’s expression doesn’t look to happy – and can you blame him? The man couldn’t breathe!
Understandably, Browere didn’t have the greatest reputation. He was called an “itinerant sculptor” by Dumas Malone and a “vile plaisterer” by Jefferson’s granddaughter.4 Artists in the American Academy (i.e. Trumbull) and National Academy were opposed to Bowere, too.5 It seems, though, that the ambitious writer Charles Henry Hart was able to overlook all of Bowere’s faults. In 1899 Hart published a thorough examination of Bowere’s life casts in a book, and he even went as far as to call Bowere an “ingenious” man.6 (No doubt such a statement reflected well on Hart, who credited himself with rediscovering the artist.) Hmph.
Granted, I do think it is really fun to see life casts of so many prominent members from American history. In that aspect, I’m appreciative of what Bowere did. (If you are interested, you should look at some of the life casts in Hart’s book, found online here). As an artist, though, Bowere definitely was lacking in skill. After all, he almost killed one of the Founding Fathers through his incompetence.
Let’s end this post with a more pleasant portrait of Jefferson, shall we? At least Jefferson appears to breathe freely in this bust:
1 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 626.
2 Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 18 October 1825, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 3:1942-43. See also Gordon-Reed, 627.
4 Gordon-Reed, 626.
5 Charles Henry Hart, “Life Masks – Those Browere Made of Great Americans. Charles Heny Hart’s Comments on Them.” New York Times, 8 April 1899. Copy of article can be accessed here.
6 Charles Henry Hart, Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans (Doubleday & McClure Company, 1899), x. Citation can be accessed online here.