Ah, the toga party.  Etched into our collective minds by the brothers of Delta Tau Chi at Faber College, the white cloth symbolizes the connection between American fraternities and the Greek and Roman Empires.  Sometimes, though, the connection between America and those classical civilizations may not be as apparent as Bluto or Otter makes it.

The New York State Historical Association is home to a collection of portrait busts made by John Henri Isaac Browere.  Between 1817 and 1834, Browere created plaster and bronze representations of notable Americans.  These sculptures reflect neoclassicism’s connection with the Roman Empire and its influence on these individuals who were instrumental in creating the United States of America.

One subject of a Browere mask was Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton

Born in the British West Indies, Hamilton began practicing law in Albany, New York, and New York City.  In 1782, he was elected to the Continental Congress as a representative of New York State, and, in 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention where three states—New York not among them—ratified the Constitution.

A supporter of a centralized national government, Hamilton began co-writing The Federalist Papers (with James Madison and John Jay) later that year to promote Constitutional ratification by New York.  Between 1787 and 1788, the three men wrote essays under the pseudonym “Publius” in honor of Publius Valerius Publicola, a Roman official active in creating the Roman Empire.  The following year, Hamilton became the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury until his resignation in 1795.

In honor of Hamilton’s contributions to the new country, Browere created a deathmask of the statesman.  A deathmask is a mold of a person’s face made after he or she dies.

Alexander Hamilton Deathmask, John Henri Isaac Browere, ca. 1816-1817, plaster,  3.875" x 10" x 6.625", Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0232.1940

Alexander Hamilton deathmask, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), ca. 1816-1817, plaster, 3.875″ x 6.625″ x 10″, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0232.1940

Browere also created lifemasks, or molds made of subjects’ faces while they were alive.  To make a mask, Browere oiled his subject’s face and inserted straws into the subject’s nose so he or she could breath.  Then, he applied a few layers of lightweight plaster that he allowed to set for 20 minutes.  Finally, he removed the mold.  Unlike other methods that utilized uncomfortably heavy plaster of Paris, Browere’s process was relatively comfortable for his sitters.  Thanks to his method, notable Americans, including John Quincy Adams, James and Dolly Madison, and DeWitt Clinton were happy to sit for Browere.  With the lifemasks, Browere was able to create realistic portrait busts of the sitters, who he adorned with togas (granted, not necessarily a realistic fashion statement in early-1800s America, but a clear indication of the Roman Empire’s influence during this time).

John Quincy Adams bust, John Henri Isaac Browere,  ca. 1825, plaster, 11.5" x 23" x 29", Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0234.1940

John Quincy Adams bust, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), ca. 1825, plaster, 11.5″ x 23″ x 29″, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0234.1940

Browere’s work gained recognition, which inspired him to propose a national gallery in Washington, D.C., featuring his portrait busts.  Other artists and the public, however, were resistant to the concept.  Browere died in 1834 and never saw his vision realized (his son, Albertus did, however, display some of the busts at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia).

Borrowing imagery evoking the Roman Empire and serving as eternal homages to the new country’s founding figures like Alexander Hamilton, the masks and busts ultimately underscore the relationship between John Henri Isaac Browere and neoclassicism.

I’ll raise my glass to that!

– Eric Feingold, Cooperstown Graduate Program 2014

Want to learn more about Browere or Hamilton?  Give these additional resources a look:

David Meschutt, A Bold Experiment:  John Henri Issac Browere’s Life Masks of Prominent Americans (Cooperstown, NY:  New York State Historical Association), 1988.

Explore:  Alexander Hamilton, New York Historical Society Museum & Library (New York, NY), 2013, http://www.nyhistory.org/explore/alexander-hamilton.

The Federalist Papers, 1787-1788, digitized by the Library of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html.

Interview at Weehawken online exhibit, New York State Historical Association (Cooperstown, NY), 2004, http://library.nysha.org/exhibits/burrhamilton/index.htm.

National Archives and Records Administration, America’s Founding Fathers—Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers_new_york.html.

Statesmen, Heroes, Soldiers, Spies:  Lifemasks of Celebrated Americans, Fenimore Art Museum (Cooperstown, NY), 2009, http://www.fenimoreartmuseum.org/node/613.

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