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 Simeon Skillin, Sr.  (1716 - 1778)

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Lived/Active: New York/Massachusetts      Known for: sculptor-ship carver, figureheads

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Founding member of the famous Skillin family of figurehead carvers and from Boston, Massachusetts, Simeon Skillin, Sr. 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. His sons were Simeon Jr, John and Samuel. The Skillin family was prominent in figurehead carving 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 written descriptions.

Simeon Skillin, Sr. operated a carpentry and carving shop from about 1740 until his death in 1778, and records indicate the shop performed ordinary carpentry as well as "ornate, decorative work for furniture makers, carved shop signs, and carved figureheads for ships." (Falk) He is recorded as having carved a bust for a monument in Dedham, Massachusetts of either William Pitt or Lord Chatham, which was placed in 1767 but destroyed by British troops two years later.

In 1767, he was commissioned to carve a 6 to 9 foot figurehead of Minerva for the brig, Hazard, one of the first armed ships of the Revolution.

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,

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Active in New York City from 1700 to 1822, and described artistically as a ship carver, his relationship to the Boston figurehead carvers is unknown.  From 1806 to 1811, he was in partnership with Jeremiah Dodge in the company of Skillin & Dodge, and after 1822 was a dealer in crockery and earthenware.

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

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