Shobal Vail Clevenger


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Sculptor. Known particularly for unidealized, lifelike portraits, he came from the area of Middletown, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. A farm boy who received little schooling, as a teenager he began working as a mason. In the late 1820s he moved to Cincinnati, where he worked with a stonecutter and met Hiram Powers. He had some instruction from Frederick Eckstein, and in 1836–37 he studied anatomy at the Ohio Medical College. He had achieved considerable skill by the time Henry Clay sat for him in Lexington, Kentucky, late in 1837. Although Clevenger followed standard neoclassical practice in swathing Clay's shoulders with illusionistic fabric to suggest a toga, the head of this sculpture (Metropolitan Museum, 1841–46; modeled 1837) demonstrates an uncannily natural appearance. In the late 1830s Clevenger traveled several times to the East Coast. In Washington, New York, Boston, and other cities, many eminent persons numbered among his patrons. By the time he departed for Italy in 1840, no other American portrait sculptor was more highly esteemed. He settled in Florence, began translating his portrait busts into marble, and embarked on ideal figures. These included a life-size Indian Chief (lost; 1842), then a novel subject and probably the earliest sculpture to treat a distinctly American theme. Suffering from tuberculosis, just three years after his arrival he sailed for home but died at sea. In Florence, Powers arranged for Clevenger's remaining portrait busts and an ideal head to be posthumously carved in marble.

Subjects: Art.

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