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Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)

The Sculptor c. 1800

Etching with hand-colouring | 29.8 x 23.5 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 810559

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Rowlandson’s etching is a characteristic juxtaposition of a beautiful young woman and a lecherous old man, but more specifically a satire at the expense of the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737–1823), who is shown working on a clay model of Venus Suckling Cupid. The many sculptures in the manner of the Antique are apparently all inventions or pastiches, perhaps alluding to Nollekens’s early work as a restorer and copyist (with the taint of fakery) of Classical statuary in the celebrated Roman studio of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. At centre is a bust resembling Michelangelo’s Moses, behind that a full-size group perhaps intended to be Apollo (albeit bearded) and Hyacinth, below the model’s feet a bas-relief of a sacrifice, in the shadows beyond Nollekens a relief of a resting Hercules, and so on.

Nollekens was successful over many decades, particularly for his portrait busts, and died rich. But our view of him remains coloured by the poisonous biography Nollekens and his Times (1828) written by his former pupil John Thomas Smith, who had been disappointed in his hopes of a bequest. Smith portrayed Nollekens as a ridiculous figure, miserly, imbecilic and almost deformed, who had improper relations with his models; it is apparent from Rowlandson’s print that Smith was not alone in his low opinion of the sculptor. Two drawings by Rowlandson (Dallas Museum of Art and Houghton Library, Cambridge MA), compositionally close to each other but not to the present print, show essentially the same subject, with an even more elderly Nollekens at work on a standing Venus while a nude model poses provocatively before him.

Text adapted from Portrait of the Artist, London, 2016