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 Henry Dexter  (1806 - 1876)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts      Known for: sculptor-portrait bust, figure

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Ad Code: 3
Henry Dexter
from Auction House Records.
A White Marble Portrait
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Basically a self-taught painter and sculptor, Henry Dexter, 1806-1876, never saw another artist carve or model a portrait sculpture until after he had achieved his own artistic and career success with work that was realistic in intent, but classical in form and conception.

Considered a pioneer of American sculpture, Dexter completed for Mount Auburn Cemetery a memorial statue of the "Binney Child," which is thought to be the first marble statue created in America.

It was his view that there was a distinctly American art, and he never went to Europe, believing that American artists who lived and studied in Europe lost their American characteristics.

Dexter was born October 11, 1806, in Nelson, New York, in Madison County, and grew up on a farm near Pomfret, Connecticut, after moving there when his father died in 1817. After a youthful apprenticeship to a blacksmith, he went into business for himself for seven years. He was an excellent metal worker, attributing his later skill with the chisel to this experience. However, he never enjoyed his work.

His wife's uncle, the Boston painter Francis Alexander, recognizing Dexter's artistic aspirations, influenced the young artist-to-be to begin painting. Dexter moved his family to Providence, Rhode Island, where he became a fairly successful portrait painter. At the age of thirty, he began modeling in clay when he moved to Boston, and a year later to Cambridge, where he lived the rest of his life.

His first commission was an 1837 bust of Samuel Sweet, now in the public library at Newburyport, Massachusetts. He sculpted Charles Dickens' portrait during the author's visit to the United States in 1841. It is considered his most famous bust, of the over two hundred he created in his lifetime.

Dexter completed plaster portrait busts of thirty-two of America's thirty-four governors between 1859 and 1860, with the exception of the governors of Oregon and California. To accomplish this monumental task, he traveled 17,000 miles in era when the transportation system on the American continent was difficult at best, working approximately one week on each sculpture. His bust of Texas Governor Sam Houston, 1793-1863, is in the collection of the Museum of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Austin. To sculpt the portrait of the Governor, Dexter traveled by ship to Galveston, Texas, then stagecoach to Austin.

Upon completion of his governor project, all of the portrait sculptures were exhibited in Boston. He wanted them to become part of a national portrait gallery, but the advent of the Civil War blocked the project.

Dexter died on June 23, 1876, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His exhibitions include the Boston Athenaeum, and the Charleston Exposition, in South Carolina, in 1902. His portrait of Amos Lawrence, the founder of Lawrence, Kansas, is in the collection of Kansas University, in Lawrence. A bronze cast from the original portrait of Houston, is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. It was exhibited at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, in 2003. His 1837 plaster bust of Boston Mayor, Samuel Atkins Eliot, is in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum. Dexter's portrait of Dickens is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as is his 1859 bust of President James Buchanan.

Other portrait busts by Dexter include poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, scientist Louis Agassiz, Henry Wilson, and Anson Burlingame. His figures include "The Backwoodsman," now at Wellesley College (1847); "The Cushing Children " (1848); "Gen. Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill" (1857); and " Nymph of the Ocean " (1870).

John and Deborah Powers, "Texas Painters, Sculptors, and Graphic Artists"

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