A captivating image of ideal beauty, this allegorical figure is a prime example of nineteenth century American figure carving. She was probably used as a garden or architectural figure, though her present condition suggests that she has been protected from the elements for most of her existence. Few nineteenth century wooden figures have survived in such fine condition, entirely intact with original carved detail and a nearly original paint surface. The delicate handling of her face, her flowing hair adorned with roses, her pose and the treatment of her drapery indicate that she was created by a master carver who was familiar with current trends in the fine arts.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carved wooden figures served a wide range of functional and symbolic purposes. Although most often used as ships' figureheads and shop and cigar store figures, they also graced public buildings, ceremonial structures built for important civic ceremonies and gardens of well-to-do citizens. In 1793, for example, Elias Hasket Derby asked Samuel McIntire to design a summerhouse for the garden of his farm in Danvers, Massachusetts. Derby also commissioned several works from the Boston shipcarvers, John and Simeon Skillin, Jr., including figures of The Reaper, The Shepherdess and The Hermit and Pomona.
The celebrated Philadelphia sculptor and shipcarver, William Rush, also carved a number of allegorical figures during his long and productive career. Among his best-known works is his Allegory of the Schuylkill River or Nymph and Bittern, which he created in 1809 as a fountain in Centre Square, in front of a pump house that had been designed in the form of a Greek temple by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Draped in a Neoclassical garment, Rush's figure held the bittern, a large wading bird in the heron family, on her right shoulder. In addition, his son, John Rush, carved a monumental Goddess of Liberty for the Berks County Court House in Reading, Pennsylvania around 1840.
These are some of the most prominent examples of the long-standing tradition in which Flora or Spring can be situated. Found on Staten Island, she may have been made for an estate owner who wished to embellish his property with an elegant carving. If so, she might have been placed in a garden house or some other enclosed structure that sheltered her from the weather. Then again, she could also have been done as an architectural sculpture for a meeting hall or banquet room for a civic or fraternal organization or a private club. In any event, she was surely a special commission, probably to commemorate a special occasion or as part of a larger program of architectural decoration.
She was carved by either an American shipcarver or a European-trained carver who immigrated to the United States around the mid-nineteenth century. New York City was the most important shipbuilding center in the United States from about 1820 until after the Civil War, and the shipyards along the East River south of Twelfth Street were among the busiest in the country. A number of talented shipcarvers operated workshops in the maritime district, supplying all types of decorative work in wood. Trained in traditional Anglo-American carving techniques, they were a tightly knit group bound by family ties and master-apprentice relationships. In addition to carving figureheads, shop figures and architectural ornaments, they would also create any type of figure on commission.
The active carving business in New York City attracted other skilled artisans as well, most notably German figure carvers who came to the United States after the Revolution of 1848. Many of them had trained in state craft schools, where they studied with academic sculptors and learned principles of drawing and composition as well as carving techniques. Several are known to have settled in New York, and while they generally did not create figureheads, they did carve many other types of wooden figures, from carousel animals to decorative statues for architecture.
Both of these groups of carvers would have been familiar with the Neoclassical style of this figure. The fact that she is holding both a cornucopia and a wreath, and is adorned with many roses, make her allegorical references somewhat mysterious. She may represent Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, who was usually portrayed with cornucopia of blossoms that she scattered over the earth. Give her youth and beauty, she might also have been intended to personify Spring, particularly if she was originally part of a series of the four seasons. Then, too, she could represent Love or Beauty, ideals that were commonly associated with roses.
The ancient image of Flora became quite popular in the early nineteenth century due to the revival of interest in flower symbolism, otherwise known as the "language of flowers." Starting in Napoleonic France, a seemingly endless number of gift books, dictionaries and emblem books gained a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Books like Charlotte de Latour's La Langage des Fleurs of 1819 and Elizabeth Wirt's Flora Dictionary of 1829 became international bestsellers, inspiring all sorts of related visual imagery, from prints to ceramic figures. In the United States, language of flower books reached a high point of popularity in the 1840s and 1850s, though they maintained their appeal until the end of the century. The Victorian language of flowers was a language of love, a means of expressing personal sentiments through delicate and beautiful objects. By embodying this symbolism, the figure of Flora or Spring resonates with meaning as a major expression of the nineteenth century carver's art.
-Ralph Sessions, Art Historian and Curator, The Image Business: Shop and Cigar Store Figures in America.