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 John Skillin  (1746 - 1800)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts      Known for: ship figurehead carver

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
From Boston, Massachusetts, John Skillin and other members of his family were considered some of America's first sculptors, something for which there was little tradition from the 'mother country' of England. The Skillin family was prominent in this method for almost a hundred years before, during and after the Revolution.  However, none of their original work seems to exist today, so scholars are left only with records and personal descriptions of them.

The carving of figureheads was one of the first forms of American sculpture, and flourished during the "new spirit of independence" after the American Revolution.  The figurehead style was described as "free, vigorous, original and democratic." However, the development of the "sleek clippership" saw the end of this era and its use of figureheads. (Garfield)

With the commissioning in 1794 by the U.S. Congress for six frigates, John Skillin and his brother Simeon Skillin were hired to carve ornate figureheads for the ships by designer, William Rush of Philadelphia. The figures were to be appropriate for the names of the ships including an Herculean figure standing on the firm rock of independence for the Hercules.  Rush's directions to the Skillins was that the figure should have "one hand on the fasces which was bound by the Genius of America and the other hand presenting a scroll of paper supposed to be the Constitution of America with proper appendages, the foundation of Legislation." 

The original figurehead has not been found, but Michel Felice Corne did a painting of it with the ship in 1803, and an enlargement of the figure head shows that the Skillins carried out the commission. (Captain Speaks)

Jane Day Garfield, An Abstract of a Thesis, The Role of the Skillin Family in the Development of the American Figurehead, June 1964, Southern Connecticut State College. (Quotations in the text are from this abstract)

Online: The Captain Speaks: Figureheads and Billetheads in Old Ironsides,

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