[Rush] is at the head of a branch of the arts which he himself has created. His figures, forming the head or prow of the vessel, place him in the excellence of his attitudes and action, among the best sculptors that have existed.
- Benjamin Henry Latrobe, “Anniversary Oration, Pronounced Before The Society of Artists of the United States,…On the Eighth of May, 1811,” The Port Folio, vol. 5 (1811), p. 24 (see Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Philadelphia, 1982), p. 15).
Identifiable as by William Rush (1756-1833) through her incised, expressive eyes and staccato tendrils of face-framing hair, this remarkable figurehead displays nuances and details that could be executed only by one of America’s finest sculptors. Folds of diaphanous fabric cling to the figurehead’s form, while her delicate, elongated neck is punctuated by protruding clavicles. Grain patterns in the now-exposed pine visually accentuate her front cheek, knee, and décolletage.
Rush, a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, is widely regarded as the first major American sculptor. He began carving in his early teens as an apprentice to Edward Cutbush (c. 1735-1790) and turned to figureheads and ship ornaments in 1774, quickly overtaking his mentor in skill and ingenuity. Rush has been credited with introducing French-style full-length, seemingly in-motion figures to an American audience (see Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Philadelphia, 1982) and Ralph Sessions, The Shipcarver’s Art (New Jersey, 2005)).
This figurehead bears great resemblance to the nymph from Rush’s 1809 Allegory of the Schuykill River, and can thus be dated to a similar period in the artist’s oeuvre. The sculptures have comparable facial features, and both differ from Rush’s later carving in his modeling of fabric: the creases and folds of their dresses are tighter and closer to the body than the flowing, undulating drapery seen in the artist’s later work. Now lost in her entirety, the nymph is known from her extant head, a bronze cast of the sculpture, and John Lewis Krimmel’s 1812 painting Fourth of July in Center Square, which depicts the sculpture amidst a crowd of Philadelphians (the head and Krimmel, Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, acc. no. 1990.8 and acc. no. 1845.3.1 respectively).