Portrait busts are the bread and butter of an artist. When times are good, the advantaged want images of their loved ones passed, 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. We took it to Robert Shure of Skylight Studios in Woburn, MA for repair. Bob is a working figurative sculptor in the academic tradition who took over Allen’s studio when Northeastern University bought out the property. 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 in 1954. 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.
The bust was modeled in clay, cast in plaster and finished in a dark green patina. It is a handsome and honest portrayal of the 31 year old sculptor with the 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 off the midcoast of Maine. It is a very New England face with an aquiline nose, a long upper lip and a strong jaw and chin. He honestly portrays an odd right ear. His neck is long with a prominent Adam’s apple, his forehead prominent with bushy eyebrows over noticeable eyes. The prominent posterior skull balances the facial features. There is a humble elegance in the total look.
He was building to the apex of 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 our 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 college president. 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 marvellous 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 finished areas of the face contrast with the rough clay at the base where you can see how he spread it with his thumb. You can see the tool marks at the chest where he suggested the outline of the edge of a shirt around his neck and cut away a space for an identifying future tag. 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.”)