Mr. Brenner’s Lincoln: Forgotten Figures
What if Victor David Brenner Never Met the Nortons?
Second of two parts.
[PART 1][PART 2]
"The reelection of Mr. Lincoln was a greater triumph than any military victory could be over the principles of the rebellion. … He is an admirable ruler for our democratic republic. He has shown many of the highest qualities of statesmanship, and I have little doubt that his course and his character will both be estimated more highly in history than they are, in the main, by his contemporaries." CHARLES ELIOT NORTON,
To the extent the elder Norton is remembered outside of Cambridge at all, it is for his time-tested translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and for the lecture series that bears his name and progressive spirit.
Eliot Norton is barely a footnote in history. He wrote a book that was critically panned by his own father before running afoul of the law and fleeing the country, living out a nondescript life abroad.
But now, as the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent in 2009 approaches, it is appropriate for the two Nortons to assume their rightful positions if not shoulder-to-shoulder with the coin artists of the Gilded Era, then right behind them, out of the shadows.
For as we shall see, America and the world would have had a profoundly different idea this past century of what the nation’s 16th president looked like if not for the involvement of Charles Eliot Norton and, even more directly, of his son, Eliot.
Habitual eBay-ers know the fiercest bidding in the typical seven-day sale occurs in the final minutes and seconds. The date was Sept. 5, 2006, and the price hit the $1,000 mark, then $2,000, and when the clock ran out, eBay’s digital hammer fell at $3,273 not an unreasonable sum to pay for three examples of sculptor Victor David Brenner’s Abraham Lincoln.
What was being offered was one of Brenner’s 2.5×3.5-inch rectangular bronze plaques of Lincoln, probably struck by the U.S. Mint in 1908 or 1909, together with two of his round Lincoln birth-centennial medallions showing the dual dates 1809-1909. All were mounted on green velvet, one of the medallions Lincoln side-up, the other showing the side with an eagle atop a cliff overlooking a storm-tossed sea.
Included for good measure was a card, autographed by the artist, and glued to it a Mint-struck "penny" from 1909, depicting the self-same Lincoln.
But the true prize was a set of photographs.
On Feb. 9, 1864, three days before his 55th birthday, Abraham Lincoln "walked more than a mile to Mathew Brady’s Washington studio, where he sat for several photographs," the Smithsonian Institution records. Brady, one of America’s foremost Civil War-era photographers, composed the subjects while his cameraman, Anthony Berger, actually shot the portraits.
Brady (1823-1896) probably would have expected the president to walk to him. He fancied himself an artist and historian who was creating a national photographic archive (Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History, Smithsonian Institution, 1997). In retrospect, he did just that, but it was presumptuous of him to forecast it.
For years, he tried to sell his glass negatives to the government, finally succeeding in 1872 for the princely sum of $25,000 (roughly $400,000 in 2007 dollars).
By this time, Brady and Berger had sold thousands of albumen silver prints, including some of the Lincoln portraits, in stereo view and 2.5×4-inch carte-de-visite format. Patented in 1854, cartes-de-visite became popular in the 1860s because they were inexpensive and fun to collect, not unlike later real-photo postcards.
One of Brady’s images of Feb. 9, 1864, eventually found its way onto the $5 bill. Another portrait, showing a bearded president facing right in full profile, probably wasn’t reproduced quite as often, for the newspapers of August 1909 took glee in reporting that they were publishing it for the first time and that it was the image Brenner used for his design of the new Lincoln cent.
While Brady’s ego would have been massaged to know his images were used on both a coin and paper money, as well as several postage stamps artist Bill Hyde used another reproduction of Brady’s right-facing Lincoln for the 4-cent stamp of 1965 even Brady would have to admit he was capable of more significant portraiture.
"Though Brady photographed Lincoln and his family on several occasions," Panzer writes, "he never produced a portrait on the scale of his portraits of Clay, Webster and Calhoun."
Brady sought to remedy this, Panzer reports, in his letter to Lincoln of March 2, 1865: "Dear Sir, I have repeated calls every hour in the day for your photograph and would regard it as a great favour if you could give me a sitting today so that I may be able to exhibit a large picture."
Brady never got the sitting. He did photograph mourners the following month, however, across the street from Ford’s Theater.
The Brady print that Brenner used was sold in the September 2006 eBay auction of the other Brenner material. Not another contemporary copy of it, not a later reproduction, but the exact carte-de-visite Brenner used to model his original 1907 Lincoln plaque and subsequent coin. It had never before surfaced publicly.
It wasn’t the only photograph. Included with Brady’s Lincoln profile were three other Lincoln photos that had been kept together all those years, of which two were in the same frame as the Brady profile. (The framing might have been done a bit later, in the 1910s or 1920s, but all four photographs had been kept together.)
The other three photographs are a June 3, 1860, campaign picture of a clean-shaven Lincoln by Alexander Hesler of Herbert Georg’s studio in Springfield, Illinois; Lincoln’s last photo by Alexander Gardner of Washington, D.C., on April 10, 1865, showing a slight smile just days before his assassination; and yet another Brady-Berger print from that day in February 1864, showing a seated Lincoln and his 8-year-old son, Thomas, aka Tad, looking at a photograph album (retouched in some reproductions to look like a Bible).
New and direct evidence has surfaced to show that Brenner used all of these photographs, not just the Brady profile, to model Lincoln. We’ll get to that new evidence in a moment. First, we’ll let the photographs speak for themselves.
The full image of Brady’s Lincoln profile, as seen in a version in the Smithsonian Institution, shows the president from head to elbow. Brenner’s Lincoln plaque shows the president from head to elbow. But the carte-de-visite that Brenner saw showed the president only from head to just below the shoulder. The rest was washed out, as in a cameo. The result is what one might expect: Brenner’s figure is true to the Brady photo from head to shoulder. From shoulder to elbow, he would have to make it up.
But Brenner was not particularly imaginative. He was a prolific and talented engraver, but he was a copier. As a young man, he had the mechanical training of a die cutter; the artistic traditions of a sculptor, he acquired a bit later. As we saw last month, his proposal to the Mint for the reverse of the Lincoln cent was a design he copied from his old Parisian mentor, Louis Oscar Roty, just as he had copied preexisting designs when he modeled a four-coin series for the Dominican Republic in 1897.
Beyond his penchant for it, there would have been an imperative to copy existing artwork when modeling Lincoln: Brenner was depicting an actual person, rather than an allegorical figure.
So what did Brenner do to "fill in" Lincoln below the shoulder and upper chest? The direction of the folds in Lincoln’s sleeve and the wider, looser lapels on Lincoln’s coat in Hesler’s 1860 campaign photo provide the answer. The lower section of Brenner’s bust mimics Hesler’s photograph, not Brady’s.
And what of the president’s slight smile on the Lincoln cent?
"I have made Lincoln smiling," Brenner told reporters in March 1909, discussing an exceedingly subtle change he had made to his original 1907 Lincoln plaque. "I had a hard put to it to find a photograph of him in which the slightest idea of a smile appeared. At last I found one."
This difficulty is not surprising. People rarely smiled in 19th-century portraits for want of adequate dentistry, and Lincoln was no exception. He didn’t have all of his teeth. Lincoln had an aversion to dentists, no doubt because one broke off part of his jaw bone around 1841 while removing a tooth without anesthesia. The president had a habit of chewing on his pen, too. (Lincoln’s abnormal skeletal structure strongly favored the right side of his face; Brady and subsequently Brenner profiled his better side.)
"A man or woman is natural when speaking to a child," Brenner continued. "When I talk to you or you to me, we are on our guard. It is always that way with adults. But when we talk to children, our faces relax and we are at our best. … I finally imagined [Lincoln] as talking to a child. And that is the face on the coin."
He didn’t have to "imagine" beyond Brady’s Lincoln-Tad photograph and Gardner’s final image of Lincoln.
Why Brenner made Lincoln’s hair curlier and his nose narrower than in any photograph is anyone’s guess.
Why did this eBay seller have these original prints?
Because the seller was the great-grandson of turn-of-the-century New York attorney Eliot Norton, and the photographs were passed down to him, along with the plaques, medals and autographed coin card Brenner gave Eliot Norton in recognition of the latter’s love for Lincoln and in appreciation for the photographs he borrowed.
The notion that Brenner borrowed the photographs from Eliot Norton’s father, Charles Eliot Norton, has been amply recorded. Medallic art expert and author D. Wayne Johnson mentioned it, for instance, in his May 1971 Coins Magazine article "My Mind Was Full of Lincoln" (from a semi-famous Brenner quote), while Dr. Sol Taylor’s book The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent, first published in 1982, presents facsimiles of contemporary New York Times articles.
"The head of Lincoln which appears on the coin has been designed from a photograph in the possession of Charles Eliot Norton," The Times reported Aug. 2, 1909, the day the coins were issued.
"The original photograph from which Victor David Brenner made his design for the Lincoln penny was in the possession of Prof. Charles Eliot Norton and is now owned by his son and executor, Eliot Norton of New York," The Christian Science Monitor stated.
History is a peculiar thing. It has a way of changing when new evidence is found decades and, in this case, almost a full century later.
Newly discovered primary source documents show that the newspapers of 1909 got it a little bit wrong. The photographs might have come from Charles Eliot Norton’s collection, but Brenner borrowed them from his eldest son, Eliot Norton, while Charles was still alive.
The truth has lain buried in a file box in Harvard’s Houghton Library archives for decades.
Charles Eliot Norton died Oct. 21, 1908; from 1914 to 1949, his heirs donated hundreds of papers and photographs to the library, including several that Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) wrote to various Norton family members.
In a letter of Jan. 31, 1907, on his personal letterhead from 635 Madison Ave., New York City, Brenner thanked Eliot Norton for the loan of not one but multiple Lincoln photographs:
My Dear Mr. Norton,The "statue" is a free-standing bronze bust which, according to Johnson, Brenner completed in 1909 and owned until his death on April 5, 1924, when it passed to Brenner’s brother, Samuel. In 1931, it was sold to the president of Medallic Art Co.; in 1977, it was sold in a Sotheby’s auction to Johnson, who had been a director of Medallic Art Co. in the 1960s and 1970s. He still owns it.
We now know Brenner used several photographs in modeling his Lincoln plaque, not just one; and his letter confirms that he used them to model the free-standing bust, as well.
Why does it matter that Brenner borrowed the photographs from Eliot Norton? Because in selecting the photographs for Brenner to use, Eliot Norton injected his own prejudices into the matter.
Under the banner headline "New Lincoln Penny Gives World Best Picture of Martyr," The Christian Science Monitor of Aug. 10, 1909, quotes Eliot Norton’s impression of Brenner’s finished product:
"There is more of what I believe Lincoln looked like in it than in any other portrait. President Lincoln did not impress people so much with his seriousness as with his geniality; and in this portrait alone of all we possess does this marked characteristic of his come out."
It is little wonder Eliot Norton was pleased; Norton made sure Brenner would emphasize the personality traits Norton wanted him to highlight when he hand-picked the photographs for Brenner to use.
Never mind that Eliot Norton never actually knew Abraham Lincoln. Born July 1, 1863, Eliot wasn’t yet 2 years old when Lincoln died.
What we have in the Lincoln cent is a reinterpretation of Eliot Norton’s rose-colored opinion of what the president looked like.
Eliot Norton’s view of Lincoln was indeed ebullient, as evidenced in his essay "Abraham Lincoln: A Lover of Mankind." He wrote:
"In [his] personal and intimate campaigning Lincoln manifested great enjoyment. His genial good fellowship and pleasant democratic ways were constantly displayed. He assumed no airs of superiority and was ever a simple, humorous and friendly brother-man."
Eliot Norton wrote his essay during his father’s lifetime but didn’t publish it in book form until 1911. After all, his father a true contemporary of Lincoln had found it trite.
"I wish you had gone a little deeper into the psychology of the matter," Charles Eliot Norton wrote in a letter to his son. "General liking of other men is not properly a trait of character, but an exhibition of underlying traits."
It would have been late 1906 when Eliot Norton lent Brenner the photographs. Brenner made and copyrighted a plaster model of his initial Lincoln bust in January 1907, as noted in his letter of Jan. 31, but didn’t reproduce it in bronze until sometime after March, as it was not included in a major exhibition of his works in March 1907.
Brenner’s letter to Eliot Norton suggests that he didn’t borrow all of the photographs at the same time. As Johnson notes in his 1971 article, Brenner made slight modifications to his Lincoln figure from 1907 to 1908 to 1909: The president’s hair got a little curlier, his bowtie a little pointier, his waistcoat a little freer and his composure a little friendlier from version to version.
We do not know exactly when Brenner returned the photos, but he obviously didn’t give his tokens (or rather medals) of appreciation to Eliot Norton until after the Lincoln cent debuted in August 1909 because the signed "penny" card was part of the gift.
What became of the Lincoln photographs was not known until now.
They stayed in the family until last year. They never made it to Harvard with the other items from Charles Eliot Norton’s collections. Instead, they were passed down to Eliot Norton’s descendant, J. Charles Holt, a graphic designer in Louisville, Colorado just 90 miles up Interstate 25 from the American Numismatic Association’s headquarters in Colorado Springs.
"Although they held interest for me from a historical perspective, having them sit in an enclosed cabinet where they were unseen, but safe, seemed a bit sad," Holt, 35, said of his decision to sell the photos and medals on eBay. "I realized that the items could be much better cared for and appreciated if they went somewhere else."
Holt said he contacted several museums, including the Smithsonian, but none expressed sufficient interest.
"I ended up selling them privately for what I assume to be far less than they were worth," Holt told COINage. "If I someday see that they are being cared for properly and appreciated by others, then I won’t regret having sold them."
The winning bidder was a medical doctor and Sunday school teacher in Arcadia, Indiana, who collects Lincolniana, not numismatica per se (although much of his collection is numismatic).
"It really is wonderful material, and it’s well documented," said Dr. Glen E. Leer. "I’m more a lover of history than I am a lover of items. I wasn’t as interested in the medals that Mr. Brenner gave to Mr. Norton; I was more interested in the photographs that Mr. Norton loaned to Mr. Brenner. It was neat to see the actual photos that Brenner used to make the Lincoln penny."
Leer, 44, said he started collecting political memorabilia as a child of 4 or 5 when his grandmother gave him some items from Sen. Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign. Today his collection includes almost all varieties of Lincoln campaign tokens, as well as Indian peace medals and other pieces of exonumia. Leer uses them to illustrate his church lessons.
"I look to give these kids instruction," Leer said, "and if I can serve them a piece of history to go along with it if I can show them a token from the 1864 campaign that says slavery must be abolished and help them understand what was going on there at the time the talk is all the more valuable.
"I try to find people who inspire me to be a better person," he said. "I look on past Lincoln and I see God standing behind him. I try to pick people I can tell my children about historically to give them a model of good Christian values, somebody with principles, somebody who will defend civil rights. That’s the reason I like Lincoln."
And now, Leer is giving coin collectors who missed out on the 2006 eBay auction a second chance. After owning them for 12 months, Leer said, he consigned the photographs and medals in September to Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas for a coin sale in February 2008 presumably during the Long Beach (California) Coin, Stamp and Collectibles Expo from Feb. 14-16.
"I do have other photos exactly like that," Leer said. "These really need to be with somebody who’s interested in the numismatic aspects. I also realized that we’re getting ready for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and this needs to be something that [others] can enjoy."
Initially, Leer was going to keep the photographs and "get rid of the medals, but I thought, no, I just can’t do that. That stuff needs to stay together."
"I have enjoyed those things for the last year," he said. "I would go to my safe and get those things out and I would take a penny out of my pocket and hold it and look at the photographs, and I would think: That’s a beautiful work of art.
"I started admiring numismatics in a special way. I started admiring the beauty of the Lincoln penny by holding it against those photographs. Just to see that was really a special thing."
Holt, the 2006 seller, has no personal knowledge of his forebears’ acquaintance with Brenner. He does remember family lore about great-grandpa Eliot Norton’s last days as a New York lawyer:
"My grandfather, Charles Eliot Norton II, went to visit his father, Eliot Norton, at his law office," Holt relates. "When he arrived, there were police all over the place, and there were two policemen outside Eliot Norton’s office who wouldn’t let [my grandfather] inside.
"Eliot Norton came out, handed each guard a large sum of cash and said, ‘I’m going to the bathroom.’ He then fled the country and went to South America. He was largely involved with [an Italian immigrants’ association] and it’s possible he was somehow involved with the Mafia. Unfortunately, I have had no luck verifying any details of this story."
Eliot Norton died Oct. 18, 1932, in London.
How certain can we be that the prints Holt sold to Leer are the same copies his great-grandfather lent Brenner?
Reasonably certain. In 1927, the Norton family donated approximately 144 of Charles Eliot Norton’s Civil War-era images to Harvard, including other copies of the Lincoln-Tad and 1865 Gardner photographs. But there was no copy of Mathew Brady’s right-facing profile among them.
What if Victor David Brenner never had met Eliot Norton? Odds are, he wouldn’t have encountered Brady’s Lincoln profile when he started modeling his centennial plaque in 1907 and would have used something else as the basis.
What, then, if not the Brady photo? About the nearest thing to a profile was the $5 bill image, which Brenner apparently didn’t see, and Alexander Hesler’s widely circulated 1860 campaign photograph of a beardless Lincoln, which he did see. Perhaps Lincoln himself would have preferred this latter view.
"That looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen," Lincoln said of the Hesler photo at the time.
"There is a peculiar curve of the lower lip, the lone mole on the right cheek, and a pose of the head so essentially Lincolnian; no other artist has ever caught it," said Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon (cited in Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf’s Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose, 1963).
The campaign photo predated Lincoln’s scruffy beard by some five months. The Republican candidate started growing it after Oct. 15, 1860, when a letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell of New York implored him to "let your whiskers grow" because he’d be more electable.
"You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin," she wrote. "All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president."
By the time he greeted young Grace during a pre-inaugural whistle stop the following February, he had indeed let his whiskers grow.
And what of Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hat? It appears in other Civil War-era photographs, but not in the images Brenner borrowed from Norton.
Imagine what might have been: hollower cheeks, bigger mole, straighter hair, rounder nose, beardless chin, even a top hat.
Instead of the prototypical Lincoln photograph instead of a photograph Lincoln himself might have preferred we have the image we’ve known for almost 100 years because Victor David Brenner borrowed these particular prints from Eliot Norton and not some different ones from somebody else.
Why Brenner was so tight with the Nortons is a mystery, but he was. He corresponded frequently with several Norton family members: Charles Eliot Norton, son Eliot and daughter Sara, who compiled her father’s letters into a two-volume set in 1913 (Brenner’s name does not appear in its 1,000 pages).
Brenner was perhaps closest to Rupert Norton (1867-1914), the fourth of six children and, beginning in 1906, a staff doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Brenner tells Charles Eliot Norton in a letter from Paris on July 12, 1905 (erroneously cataloged at Harvard as 1900): "Your son [Rupert] and I see each other often."
But considering that Brenner had started to be noticed within East Coast art circles in the early 1900s Charles H. Caffin of Harper’s Weekly and the popular New York dailies included Brenner in his 1903 book American Masters of Sculpture logic dictates that the patriarch, Charles Eliot Norton, must have been at the root of the relationship.
In retirement since 1898, the elder Norton was Harvard’s first full professor of art history and the nation’s first, as well. For Norton, the advancement of fine art and literature in the United States was a personal and moral quest to elevate post-Civil War America out of her callous, mercantile trappings.
When Charles Eliot Norton and journalist Edwin Lawrence Godkin founded The Nation in June 1865, America was a nation with a newly martyred president and an identity crisis. It wasn’t at all clear that Lincoln’s successors would have the capacity to hold together the fragile Union, much less take the American experiment to the next level.
The quarterly North American Review had been Norton’s forum before the war, and with co-editor James Russell Lowell he had made it the North’s most important scholarly journal. With Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norton also contributed to The Atlantic Monthly. Now, The Nation gave Norton a weekly voice for the nation’s reconstruction.
With Henry James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Lowell in his stable of writers, Norton could advance his postwar agenda, most immediately the quick absorption of newly freed slaves into America’s democratic systems (James Turner, The Liberal Education of Charles Eliot Norton, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.)
"I think Negro suffrage could have been easily secured at the end of the war by wise and foreseeing statesmanship," Norton wrote in a letter dated Oct. 2, 1865. "I think it would have been secured had Mr. Lincoln lived. … But the hour favourable for this has passed, and Negro suffrage will have to be won by a long and hard struggle."
America needed guiding lights to keep her on course. Intellectuals such as Charles Eliot Norton would define and refine a cultural identity for a nation at war with itself one moment and, embracing that identity, a serious player on the world stage the next.
Charles Eliot Norton was a social critic but not a politician. He held a law degree but was not a practicing lawyer. His background was in literature and art, but he was not an artist.
He was an observer, a thinker, a writer, a teacher, writing and teaching what he thought and observed and doing so with such faculty that by the late 1880s he was, in biographer Turner’s words, "the most influential progenitor of the humanities in American education and scholarship," "the preeminent cultural critic in the United States" and a "linchpin in the Anglo-American intellectual nexus that shaped high culture in Victorian America."
Born Nov. 16, 1827, Charles Eliot Norton matriculated at Harvard, completing his education at age 23, then went to Europe, where he discovered Gothic cathedrals and, importantly, British art critic-theorist John Ruskin.
Ruskin’s Modern Painters captured America’s fascination when first published in New York in 1847. Raised a Protestant, Ruskin broke from European traditions; he believed truth, beauty and God were to be found in nature, and that accurate depictions of landscapes, particularly in watercolor, best expressed these virtues.
"Like Ruskin, Norton always stressed the connection between creativity and morality," Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. and Susan C. Ricci write in The Last Ruskinians, a 2007 Harvard art exhibition catalog, "though for Ruskin’s emphasis on art as making God’s work manifest, the agnostic Norton substituted his own view: that the most virtuous civilizations those that were antimaterialist, well-mannered and fairly governed naturally produced the finest art."
Norton spread his philosophies at Harvard, where his first cousin, Charles William Eliot, was university president. Norton lectured on art history and then, in 1875, was named full professor. He taught his students including historian-philosopher George Santayana ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") the ideals of Ruskinian aestheticism, which embraced studies of plants and animals, landscapes, still lifes of fruit and architectural renderings of buildings.
While these might appear to the modern eye as inartistic copies, there was an underlying "sense of urgency in recording what they [Ruskinians] thought were civilization’s noblest paintings, sculpture and buildings before these were restored or demolished," Stebbins and Ricci write. They used paint because it was simply the best available medium; photography had hardly advanced beyond the daguerreotype. Today’s nature photographer is actually the quintessential Ruskinian.
A particular watercolor drawing of a butterfly in Harvard’s archives is characteristic of this school. It is by Victor David Brenner.
In 1879, Norton organized the Archaeological Institute of America and served as its first president. In 1881, he helped establish the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
Norton held nothing back when he found no truth or beauty. Still upset over what he considered unjust U.S. expansionism in the Spanish-American War of 1898, he wrote six weeks after William McKinley’s assassination on Sept. 14, 1901:
"The descent from Washington to McKinley is as from Gabriel to Lucifer, and today McKinley is the more popular of the two. … Roosevelt is a better man, but he has not equally the art and the craft by which popularity is to be gained. … It is barely possible that his accession to the presidency may result in a change in our detestable policy and proceedings in the Philippines. He is not pledged to the subjugation of the Filipinos, and he is not hard-hearted nor possessed with the cruel spirit of Christian self-righteousness."
Theodore Roosevelt had been exposed to Ruskinian ideals at an impressionable age, completing undergraduate studies at Harvard College in 1876 and graduating magna cum laude in 1880. The New York City lad’s naturalist tendencies conformed nicely with the Ruskinians’ yen for landscapes; it is little wonder the aestheticism of the late 19th century should carry over to something Roosevelt could affect as president namely, coin designs.
After all, coins spend just as well if they’re ugly and had McKinley not caught a bullet when he did, giving the less crafty Rough Rider the gift of incumbency, perhaps they would have been.
"By express, please … accept a bronze copy of the Whistler plaque today finished," Brenner wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in his July 12, 1905, letter, the earliest found in Harvard’s archives.
Artist James McNeill Whistler was a contemporary whom Charles Eliot Norton considered unsurpassed in etching but unimaginative in his painting and highly conceited. Brenner’s plaque pokes fun at Whistler’s notorious conceit, showing the artist on one side and a strutting peacock opposite a meek butterfly on the other.
"I can claim to myself only credit for appreciation of the value of ‘Messieurs les Enemies’ in the design of its reverse," Brenner’s letter continues. "The suggestion of it is due to your son Rupert, who being present with James Loeb at my [Paris] studio when I was searching for an inscription, exclaimed, ‘Messieurs les Enemies’ is good! And indeed, it hit the point so well that one of the prominent writers here referred to it as ‘Le malicieuse plaquette de Whistler.’
"The peacock I took for two reasons," Brenner wrote. "Whistler used it in decoration, and for the nature of the bird. The butterfly in the lower end is in the attitude of bowing, so that taken in whole, it represents to me a harmonious irony."
The late Glenn B. Smedley, in his groundbreaking albeit woefully incomplete 1983 census of The Works of Victor David Brenner, wrote: "In this work Brenner achieved a superb characterization of Whistler the vainglorious, belligerent egoist who bickered with critics and writers."
James Loeb, Rupert Norton’s friend, is more than a passing character in our story.
In 1903, Harvard’s Class of 1888 was looking for a fitting way to memorialize its schoolmate Lloyd McKim Garrison, whose death came too soon in October 1900. His friends felt they owed their gratitude to the bookish fellow; he had recently taken it upon himself to organize the annals of the Hasty Pudding Club.
Hasty pudding was the common man’s supper; the club started in 1795 as an association of Harvard’s undergraduate men of letters who met each year to eat it and nurture their friendships. In the 1870s and ’80s, it was a semi-exclusive social club whose members met and gossiped and smoked and drank and congregated for a rollicking stage show. (Today it’s a coed theater troupe.)
Charles Eliot Norton was a member, just as his father, 1830s Harvard sacred-literature professor Andrews Norton, had been. In 1880, Theodore Roosevelt was elected Hasty Pudding Club secretary. (And, like Norton in retirement, Roosevelt would later serve as a Harvard "overseer," a member of an advisory body of elders.)
One member of "The Pudding" who graduated with Garrison in 1888 was Loeb. Another 1888 classmate was Rupert Norton.
That Loeb was treasurer of Hasty Pudding in his senior year is appropriate. He was the son of Solomon Loeb, a German-Jewish émigré with a successful investment banking house in New York City.
Solomon had sent James to Cambridge in 1884 for a liberal arts education. Upon graduation, his professor, Charles Eliot Norton, gave him an opportunity to study Egyptology in Paris and London. Solomon wouldn’t allow it. He insisted that young James join the family business, Kuhn Loeb & Co. (After World War II, the company merged into what we know today as Shearson Lehman/American Express.)
You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. James considered himself "an idler who keeps busy, spending time with the interests which are dearest to me: art, literature and music." He gave investment banking a good shot and was named a partner, but he suffered a series of apparent mental breakdowns. He traveled to Vienna, stayed with Sigmund Freud and developed a lasting interest in psychology. On Jan. 1, 1902, only 34, he formally retired.
He maintained his friendship with Charles Eliot Norton. In 1901, Loeb established a fellowship in Greek studies in Norton’s name; in 1902, he gave Norton a 14th- or 15th-century oil painting of Chaucer, in whose Canterbury Tales Norton and Lowell found a kindred spirit.
"The name of James Loeb … is so connected with Norton’s that it should not be introduced without a special word," Norton’s daughter Sara wrote in 1913. "As an undergraduate Mr. Loeb came much under Norton’s influence … and the dedication of his powers to scholarly ends and liberalities … speaks in a measure for that influence, among others."
Loeb (1867-1933) was generous with his share of the family fortune. He was a major benefactor to the Archaeological Institute and the Institute of Musical Art in New York (now part of Juilliard), and in 1907, before his mentor’s death, he created the Norton Lectureship, which continues to this day.
In 1912, in the spirit of Ruskinian preservationism, he gave Harvard a collection of Greek and Latin texts with English translations that formed the basis of the Loeb Classical Library. By this time, Loeb was living in Germany, where he collected art and antiquities, had another breakdown and donated more than $2 million to the fledgling Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry.
Loeb was still in New Jersey in 1903 when his classmates decided to honor Lloyd McKim Garrison’s memory with an annual, endowed award recognizing Harvard’s best undergraduate poet, for a work not exceeding 150 words. They needed a physical prize and hired Brenner to sculpt it. It is still awarded.
That same year, Solomon Loeb died. James Loeb moved to Munich in 1905. Brenner moved to Paris in 1905 and modeled a posthumous portrait plaque of Solomon Loeb.
In 1906, still in Paris, Brenner modeled a portrait plaque of Rupert Norton.
Later in 1906, probably when he returned to New York, Brenner sculpted one of his very few (maybe as few as two) figures in marble: a 25-inch-tall, free-standing bust of Charles Eliot Norton. It resides in storage at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, where records show James Loeb commissioned it from the artist.
Months later, in mid-1907, Brenner completed his first Lincoln plaque, and in 1908, Hasty Pudding alumnus Theodore Roosevelt personally invited Brenner to turn it into a U.S. coin.
Brenner never did model an effigy of Eliot Norton, the man who gave him the vision we would know as Lincoln for the next 100 years.
©2007 MILLER MAGAZINES INC./LEON WORDEN. RIGHTS RESERVED.
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