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 John Henri Isaac Browere  (1790 - 1834)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: portrait and life mask sculpture, painting

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Ad Code: 3
John Henri Isaac Browere
from Auction House Records.
Abstract Composition
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John Henri Isaac Browere was one of America's earliest professional sculptors and also was a painter in oils.  Born in New York City, he began studying painting there with Archibald Robertson, and then in 1816-1817 went to Paris where he continued his studies.  He was the first American sculptor to study in Paris and one of the few Americans who studied there before the late 19th century.

He returned to America in 1817, and settled in New York City but traveled all over the country for subject matter.  He conceived a plan to create a sculptural portrait gallery of famous living Americans from the Revolution to the current time.  The project was among several portrait galleries created in the 19th century including Charles Willson Peale's series of paintings and Mathew Brady's collection of photographs.

Browere's project included traveling, making plaster life masks of his subjects, and then working them into full busts of head and shoulders (the chest was usually covered by a classical toga).

The casting of a life mask was exceedingly uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous for the subject, since breathing was restricted while the plaster hardened. The Revolutionary figures that were still alive at the time of the project were quite elderly and frail.  Thomas Jefferson almost died when Browere attempted to make his life mask in 1825. "The artist positioned Jefferson on his back on a sofa.  . . .Browere, who was apparently not very skillful, covered Jefferson's face and neck with plaster that hardened too quickly.  The mask began to impair Jefferson's breathing and prevented him from speaking."  Everyone including Browere had left the room, and Jefferson only got their attention by banging a chair on the floor.  Panic ensued.  "Browere immediately tried to remove the mask, but because he had not put sufficient oil on Jefferson's face, the plaster stuck to his skin.  Jefferson groaned and even sobbed as sections of the cast were pulled off his face.  . . .the life mask had almost become a death mask." (Gordon-Reed, 626)  Somehow, pulling himself together, Jefferson appeared to host Browere at the dining table that evening, and even "for some inexplicable reason" responded positively to Browere's request that Jefferson write a testimonial for him.

Browere was regarded in his own time more as an artisan than as a sculptor, both because the heads of his sculptures were mechanically reproduced and because he did not work in marble (his sculptures remained in plaster until they were cast in bronze long after his death).  He tried to interest the federal government in funding the casting of the plasters into bronze, but this did not occur.  Nevertheless, Browere has a significant place in the development of sculpture in America, and his collection, still intact, was bequeathed to his family and is a very valuable historical record of the sculptor's famous contemporaries.

Sources:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art"
Groce & Wallace, Dictionary of Artists in America
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemings Family of Monticello: An American Family


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