This bust of the first U.S. vice president occupies a commanding place in the Senate Chamber. It sits almost directly above the rostrum used since 1859 by vice presidents while presiding over the Senate. Daniel Chester French was awarded the commission for the bust of John Adams in May 1886. The piece was modeled at French’s New York studio, pointed in Carrara, Italy, and finished in New York. It was placed in the Senate Chamber in 1890.
When the Joint Committee on the Library originally authorized the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection in 1886, the first announced commissions honored five men: the three former vice presidents then living–-Chester A. Arthur, Hannibal Hamlin, and William A. Wheeler–-and the first two holders of the office–-Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Sculptors for the living vice presidents were selected based on the subjects’ suggestions; artists to represent Adams and Jefferson came from the sitters’ home states. French, although born in New Hampshire, had been raised in Massachusetts and initially trained there. He produced his first public work, the famous Minute Man, for the town of Concord.
French agreed to execute the bust of John Adams for the standard $800 fee that the Senate had determined. He worried, however, that the sum might not be adequate to attract other artists of note. He wrote to Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark, “I consider it an honor and worth a good deal to have a bust of mine in so important a position. I do not know how many sculptors you will find who will look at it in the same way.”
French rejected existing sculptures of Adams as unsuitable models for the Senate bust, commenting that they were not of the correct proportions for the niches in the Senate Chamber. On being pressed further to find a model to copy, French wrote to Clark in July 1886, “There is an absurd bust in Faneuil Hall, Boston, that was taken late in life and looks like a silly old woman, and there is another in the church at Quincy that was probably made after his death and is not necessarily authentic. I should not want to copy either of them.”
French sought another visual resource. Although it has been suggested that he probably drew on the oil portraits of Adams by Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and Mather Brown, a comparison suggests otherwise. French chose to sculpt Adams as an older man than the figure seen in those paintings–-indeed, older than he appeared during at least his first term as vice president, if not his second. Adams also wears his own unadorned hair–-distinctive, winglike puffs–-instead of the fashionable peruke or powdered hair of earlier years. It seems most likely that French used the superb portrait of Adams begun by Gilbert Stuart in 1800 but, to the consternation of the family, not completed and delivered until 1815. This painting, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., had remained in the Adams family and was lent by them (with an Abigail Adams portrait, also by Stuart) to the 1889 Centennial Celebration of George Washington’s inauguration. French would certainly have seen the Stuart painting at that time, the year in which he was working on his bust of Adams.
If anything, French offers a less idealized Adams than does Stuart. For instance, the folds of material at the bottom of the vest suggest the girth that led Adams to be dubbed “His Rotundity.” The creases and wrinkles of the face are also stressed more, and the face is expressive and full of humanity. Although the downturned corners of Adams’s mouth suggest the acidity of his personality, they also carry the promise of an ironic wit. The frontality of the bust, with only a slight turn of the head, is emphasized by the high, bladelike coat collar that frames and accents the face. It projects a briskness, a sculptural analogy to both the sharp intellect and the sharp tongue that characterized Adams. But then French softens and enriches his presentation of the head by cushioning it within a triangulation of the elaborate, improvised lateral hair puffs and the blossoming shirtfront. This bust matches the description of Adams by a contemporary (who was looking at the Stuart portrait): “Age has given a softness and mellowness to the countenance...without losing the characteristic vigor of former years.”
French, one of the premier sculptors of his day, was principally concerned with expressing naturalism in the human form, in contrast to the neoclassical idealism of his predecessors. Noted for his public monuments, allegorical sculptures, and portrait busts, the popular and prolific artist is most celebrated for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1922. He also executed the Senate’s bust of Vice President Henry Wilson and a full-length marble statue of Michigan Senator Lewis Cass in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.
1. Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 140-41.