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 Shobal Vail Clevenger  (1812 - 1843)

About: Shobal Vail Clevenger
 

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Lived/Active: Ohio      Known for: sculptor-busts of prominent men, stone cutting

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BIOGRAPHY for Shobal Clevenger
Facts/Data
Birth
1812 (Butler County, Ohio )
 
Death
1843 (At Sea-Atlantic Ocean)

Lived/Active
Ohio

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sculptor-busts of prominent men, stone cutting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Clevenger, Shobal Vail (22 Oct. 1812-30 Sept. 1843), sculptor, was born near Middletown, Ohio, the son of Samuel Clevenger, a weaver who migrated in 1808 from New Jersey to take up farming in Ohio; although his mother's first name is unknown, her maiden name was Bunnell.  Young Clevenger was sent at the age of fifteen to do masonry work on the Centerville Canal. Contracting malaria, or perhaps tuberculosis, he returned to his family to recuperate, sought work in Louisville, Kentucky, and then in Cincinnati, where he was enthralled by the sight of a female figure carved in wood for the market house.  Determined then to become a sculptor, he apprenticed himself from 1829 to 1833 to David Guion, a stonecutter.

Though virtually illiterate, Clevenger did well as an apprentice from the start.  He was soon carving angels' heads and other ornaments in Guion's shop. Clevenger married Elizabeth Wright of Cincinnati in 1833; the couple had three children. He unsuccessfully sought commissions in Xenia, Ohio, but quickly returned to Cincinnati to resume working with Guion. A little later he went into partnership with a stonecutter named Bassett and also took lessons from Frederick Eckstein, a skilled sculptor from Germany, who also taught Hiram Powers and Henry Kirke Brown.

In 1835 Clevenger chiseled a delightfully realistic bust in freestone of Ebenezer Smith Thomas, editor of the "Cincinnati Daily Evening Post." The resulting praise led not only to several commissions but also to a patron, the wealthy Nicholas Longworth, whose generosity enabled Clevenger to study anatomy at the Ohio Medical College (1836-1837).

After executing more busts, including one of Henry Clay, the powerful senator, and another of William Henry Harrison, the future president, Clevenger made plans to follow his friend Powers to Italy; Powers had lived and worked in Florence since 1837. Clevenger first traveled to Boston and Salem, Massachusetts, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and modeled in plaster numerous busts of highly placed Americans, including John Quincy Adams, Washington Allston (Boston painter), Nicholas Biddle (Philadelphia financier), Edward Everett (governor of Mass.), Philip Hone (New York politician and diarist), Harrison Gray Otis (Massachusetts politician), Lemuel Shaw (Massachusetts Supreme Court justice and later Herman Melville's father-in-law), Julia Ward (Julia Ward Howe; poet), and Daniel Webster.

With commissions to sculpt several of these models in marble, and assisted by a loan from Longworth, Clevenger and his family set sail for Europe in October 1840.

They stopped for a few days in Paris, so that Clevenger could visit the Louvre, and then continued on to Florence, where Powers helped them find a house they could afford to rent on their already strained budget. Brown, by then also an expatriate sculptor in Florence, also assisted. Clevenger was intensely busy for the next two years. He modeled bust drapery, visited the Vatican sculpture gallery, was inspired by Sir Walter Scott to do an ideal head titled The Lady of the Lake (1842), and modeled a life-size Indian Chief (also 1842). He also hired Italian copyists to put twenty of his bust models into marble--a regular practice of sculptors.

He shipped the finished work to the United States on commission--for pay that was sometimes slow in coming. Clevenger socialized only a little with Horatio Greenough, the first and premier American sculptor in Florence; but Clevenger's wife and children occasionally met with Greenough family members.

Then came tragedy. Already plagued by money problems, the somewhat
spendthrift Clevenger was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. He rapidly grew worse and was ordered by his Italian physician to return to the United States. Money was collected from fellow American artists in Florence to help the Clevengers. Everett, at that time American minister to England, sent a sizable sum. Powers and Brown had to carry Clevenger aboard ship at Leghorn.

When he and his family were two days west of Gibraltar, Clevenger died and was buried at sea.

His widow was obliged to accept gifts and temporary housing from well-wishing professional friends in the East, but in less than two years she and her children began to make their home with relatives in Missouri and then Louisiana.

Clevenger completed about forty busts, an ideal head, and a model of the first Native American ever sculpted. His busts, and many plaster copies, are widely placed in museums and elsewhere in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. Although Powers agreed to complete Clevenger's Indian Chief, financial plans fell through and Clevenger's model disappeared. An engraving of it was published in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1844. Several of Clevenger's realistic and expressive busts were, like those of Powers and Brown, in advance of their times aesthetically.

Until long after his death, most American sculptors, especially those working
in Italy, continued the popular neoclassical tradition, especially when their subjects were biblical and mythological. Clevenger, on the other hand, surprised many sitters by not only his swift but more importantly his realistic busts. His Otis (1840) includes a believably wrinkled, down turned mouth and a tensed neck. His Allston (also 1840) inspired the painter to write, almost in surprise, that his friends called it an exact likeness. And his Webster (modeled in plaster in 1838), probably Clevenger's best bust, was often reproduced in marble and widely praised for avoiding idealism and presenting the mighty senator's head as it really looked.

Clevenger's professional example, which was only made better by a unique combination of self-confidence and humility, assisted--as did the portrait bust work of Powers and Brown, among others--in clearing the path for realists and naturalists to follow.

Source:
American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, Inc., American Council of Learned Societies. Further information is available at http://www.anb.org.


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