The long and the short of Taft’s Longfellow bust

For fans of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, this is a busy time of year.  They can commemorate his birthday (February 27, 1807) or his death (March 24, 1882).  Or both!

That’s what the UI Class of 1907 did when they hired Lorado Taft to create a marble bust of Longfellow as their class gift to the University of Illinois.  Although it’s been moved around a few times within the university library, it’s still in the building, now in the Literature and Languages Library, Room 225.

W.P. Trent, who wrote an address for the dedication ceremony (printed in the July 1907 Alumni Quarterly), said:  “…no one will dispute the propriety of the presentation of this bust of Longfellow to an institution of learning. There are people who pretend that Longfellow is not a great poet, but I know of no one who contends that he is not in many ways a true and eminent representative of the culture a university exists to spread. Not only was he a teacher in two colleges for a period covering almost a quarter of a century, but was probably the most important link for two generations between the culture of the old world and that of the new. Merely, then, as a teacher, lecturer, critic, and translator, whose home was in New England from which emigrated so many of the pioneers of the Northwest that is honoring him today, Longfellow would be worthy of this bust which a distinguished sculptor, an alumnus of this University has fashioned, and which the class of 1907 is presenting as a tribute of its affection to its alma mater.”

This 29-inch-tall bust was probably begun early in Taft’s career, perhaps while he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts or while a student in Urbana.  The finished marble piece was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1908 and then, many years later, at the 1983 retrospective exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum.  According to Allen Weller (who wrote the catalog for this show): “Taft exhibited a plaster portrait bust of Longfellow in the so-called First Champaign Salon of 1884, which he organized on his return from Paris….  It is not known whether [the finished bust] is a reworking of the portrait made 24 years earlier, but the broad style and simple surfaces make this seem unlikely….  Taft never saw the American poet and obviously worked from photographs, but the turn of the head, the largeness of treatment, and the vividness of the expression give it a vital quality” (page 18).

For some reason, Muriel Scheinman, who assembled a guide to art at the University of Illinois, omitted this bust from her book.  However, in her dissertation she wrote: “Longfellow, self-confident, with a piercing and perhaps visionary gaze, is rendered in a dry, generalized manner…” (page 51).

I’m more inclined to agree with Scheinman than with Weller.  For me, Taft’s bust of Thomas Gilbert from 1895 shows much more personality and energy.  But then, Longfellow was described as a “gentle, placid, poetic soul: an image perpetuated by his brother Samuel Longfellow, who wrote an early biography that specifically emphasized these points. As James Russell Lowell said, Longfellow had an “absolute sweetness, simplicity, and modesty” (Wikipedia biography, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow).

Here is an amazing albumen print of Longfellow by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  No image could have captured his spirit more vividly, and he certainly doesn’t look gentle and placid to me!

The Wikipedia biography also points out that, although Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day and is generally regarded as the most distinguished poet the country had produced, his popularity rapidly declined, beginning shortly after his death and into the 20th century as academics began to appreciate poets like Walt Whitman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost. In the 20th century, literary scholar Kermit Vanderbilt noted, “Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow’s popular rhymings.”  20th century poet Lewis Putnam Turco concluded “Longfellow was minor and derivative in every way throughout his career… nothing more than a hack imitator of the English Romantics.” Could it be that Taft was one of those people who was not that impressed with Longfellow and gave the project only cursory focus?

Following Longfellow’s death, numerous statues emerged.  Here’s a stunning one by Sir Thomas Brock, K.C.B., R.A., that sits in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (1884). (Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2011)

Here’s one by Edmonia Lewis from when Longfellow was still alive, 1872, from the National Museum in Liverpool.  She not only designed it but sculpted it herself. Another version, also by Lewis, is in the collection of Harvard University.  (Harvard has another bust of Longfellow, by Hiram Powers, from 1869.)

Portland, Maine, which is Longfellow’s birthplace, has a full-sized piece that stands in Longfellow Square.  This is much more the quality I would have expected from Taft.  (But then, the Class of 1907 commissioned only a bust, and probably had very little money to pay, at that.)  The Portland piece was designed by Maine sculptor Franklin Simmons (1839-1913) shortly after the poet’s death and was installed in September of 1888.  Here we see an academically robed and bearded Longfellow seated and facing the downtown with his right arm resting on the back of the chair and a scroll in his left.  Three bronze books are placed under his chair.  The sculpture was funded by pennies, nickels, and dimes donated by New England children.  Every year as the holidays approach, Longfellow can be found wearing a long red scarf and holding a wrapped present.

Interestingly, Taft included Simmons in his History of American Sculpture, Supplementary Chapter: 1923.  He wrote: “New men have appeared, men of just as convincing talent and ever-increasing skill.  The world grows old and grows young again!”  He went on to refer to Simmons’ “almost legendary career.”  (page 538)

My visit to the Taft archives to read correspondence regarding the Class of 1907 commission was not successful.  The file contains only a bill in the amount of $300 from the Piccirilli Brothers of New York “for the carving in Italian statuary marble of the Longfellow bust.”  I hope you can visit the bust yourselves and make your own impression.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!