Daniel Webster

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Daniel Webster
Thomas Ball
30 x 12 x 11 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Gift of Richard and Mary L. Gray

What do the pose and facial expression of this man suggest about him? What political issues of the mid-nineteenth century might be on his mind? Daniel Webster was a well-known American lawyer and senator from Massachusetts during the period of westward expansion in the 1840s and 50s. People admired him for his skills as a speaker and his ability to build political consensus, or agreement. On March 7, 1850 he delivered one of his most important and controversial Senate addresses; in it, he supported the Compromise of 1850, emphasizing his identity as an American and denouncing sectionalism. He died two years later, before the secession crisis divided the country he had worked so hard to keep united.

Small sculptures like this were purchased for display on a desk or a parlor mantel, and ownership indicated admiration and respect for the person represented. There was an increasing popularity for such reproductions, particularly among a rising middle-class market and artists like Thomas Ball benefited from this trend. For his image of Webster, Ball first modeled a life-size plaster bust of the senator and later created this smaller, full-length version. The books beside Webster symbolize his learning, while the shortened column next to him refers to his statesmanship. (The column is also a common device used by sculptors for centuries to balance the figure and help the figure stand up properly.) Note his dignified pose with one hand in his jacket, as was customary for many leading men in portraits, and the care with which his clothes have been detailed. Just after the Civil War, Ball created a monumental bronze version of the statue of Webster for New York City's Central Park as well as one of the very first statues showing Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.  

1. Do you think Thomas Ball admired Daniel Webster? How can you tell?

2. What person that you admire might you want to have portrayed in a small sculpture to display in your home? Consider the way Daniel Webster has been posed and represented. Would your sculpture look similar or different? Why?

Further reading:
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Daniel Webster by Thomas Ball." Accessed February 29, 2012. http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=61823;type=101.

Savage, Kirk. “Molding Emancipation: John Quincy Adams Ward’s 'The Freedman' and the Meaning of the Civil War.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 26-39.

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