Allen Self Portrait, 1919

Portrait bust of Frederick Warren Allen

Frederick Warren Allen’s Self-Portrait Bust, modeled in clay, cast in plaster with a green patina, 1919

Portrait busts are the bread and butter of an artist. When times are good, the advantaged want images of their loved ones, when they’re proud they want something to brag about, when they want to demonstrate appreciation, the gift of a portrait is a perfect way to show it, when someone is important and deserves to be remembered, a permanent memorial is timeless, and there’s something decadent about having a beautiful portrait of a person, be it a philanthropist or yourself!

For an artist, an image of oneself is a good way to practice. Most artists do it at some point in their career, whether they show it to anyone or not. This self-portrait bust was found in the closet of Allen’s eldest daughter. She didn’t remember where it came from and a piece of the hair was broken off above the forehead.

The bust was modeled in clay, cast in plaster and finished in a dark green patina. Inscribed below the neck in back is “JUNE 1919.” Given the date, it was most likely to have been modeled at the Allen summer cottage. In the Boston School tradition, it is a natural and truthful portrayal, yet it is a handsome and honest portrait of the 31 year old sculptor. It does not hide an odd right ear and hair already thinning to what became the bald crown that prompted him to wear a beret for warmth in the winter and a khaki hat with a green sun visor in the summers on North Haven Island. It is a very New England face with an aquiline nose, a long upper lip and a strong jaw and chin. His neck is long with an Adam’s apple, his forehead prominent with bushy eyebrows over noticeable eyes. The strong skull structure balances the details of the hair and the facial features.

The presentation is quite modern and timeless with no clothes to date it and a treatment of the clay that shows the sculptor’s hand. There is a certain hardiness in the groove drawn with his wooden tools in the clay around what might be the edge of a shirt. And there is a decided roughness in the cut away space for an identifying future tag and in the tactile sweeps and chunks of clay forming the portion of the body below the smooth neck; a sculptor rising from a lump of clay. The contrast between rough and smooth effectively shows the sculptor at work. In the total look there is a humble elegance and reserved dignity.

He was building his career when he sculpted this piece, an accomplished artist already with responsibilities for teaching at the Museum School and for his growing family. He was disciplined, independent and creative, a student of human nature and anatomy, and a gifted artist and teacher.

According to the most current records, he sculpted over 35 busts in the years between 1910 and 1940, portraying men and women in many walks of life from an ironmonger to a Secretary of War. He was sought after because of his uncanny ability to create likenesses both in the round and in relief. From Mrs. Francis Kershaw about the bust of her husband, “I like to think there is in the world something so beautiful as this portrait you have created. The face as I saw it today is entirely familiar, with all the loveliness of character I am accustomed to see there, but with a new radiance with which I am not so familiar. It was because of this look that I sent for you. You have caught it and developed it astonishingly; and now my husband stands transfigured before me with this marvelous beauty!’’ From the Director of the Vesper George School to the stained glass artist Charles Connick, “I saw at the Boston Art Club, a bust of you carved in wood. I think I have never seen a more perfect likeness of anyone in any medium. I think it is a marvelous thing. Allen certainly deserves enormous credit for the artistic qualities of it and you are to be congratulated on having so splendid a portrait of yourself for future generations to admire.”

He demonstrated in his own bust the principles he taught to his students, a strong inner structure with movement in the details of the surface forms. In a portrait, the neck must be centered under the skull. “The portrait is in the back of the head,” and “the features or muzzle will forever be wrong unless the skull and neck are first properly studied both in action and structure.”  Details should be interestingly modeled in relation to the solids underneath. And so the broad smooth areas of the brow and cheeks are balanced by the facial features in front and interest created by the details of the hair and ears in back as you turn the head around. The treatment is more impressionistic in how it catches the light while the inner form is classical and anatomically correct according to his academic training as part of the Boston School of Artists. This could well have been a teaching model for his classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts … a fine portrait of a fine artist.

(The principles outlined here and the Allen quotes are from Elizabeth MacLean Smith’s biography, “Frederick Warren Allen, 1888-1961.”)

The bust was taken for repair of the little broken piece of hair to Robert Shure of Skylight Studios in Woburn, MA. Bob is a working figurative sculptor in the academic tradition who took over Allen’s studio when Northeastern University bought out the property and destroyed the building. He moved the contents and named his new place Skylight Studios after the skylight over the sculpture stage of Allen’s original Italianate studio on Tavern Road in Boston, just a block from the Museum. Adio diBiccari was one of Allen’s star students and Bob was one of his studio assistants when Adio bought the studio at the time of Allen’s retirement. Shure inherited the studio from diBiccari and heard all of the stories that Adio had to tell of his beloved teacher. He has carried on the tradition and was happy to make the repair to this self-portrait bust.

Modeled in clay, cast in plaster, colored with a green patina.
Size: 20 7/8” high includes a base 5 ½” square x 2 ½ thick
Inscription: “JUNE 1919” below the neck at the back of the head.Bronze posthumous copy, lost wax cast, green patina, 2012
Bronze size 21” high includes a base 5 7/16” square x 2 7/16” thick
Foundry: New England Sculpture Service


[Provenance: Artist passed plaster to daughter Barbara to daughter Christina, Bronze copy ordered by Christina]

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