In this low-relief plaster cast, Elihu Vedder has represented a woman’s head in a medallion-like, although irregular round field against a nearly square background. Her eyes are closed as if she is in a dream-like reverie and her hair flows up and out at either side as if caught in the wind. The relief is framed in a Renaissance-revival black frame with painted rinceau ornamentation, and this was most likely chosen by the artist and sold with the relief. The original sculpture or mold, from which this plaster cast was made, is dated 1891 at the upper left of the roundel.
The identification of the subject of this relief is uncertain, although the piece is closely related to Vedder’s carved marble relief of Santa Cecilia dated 1897. (1) In the marble relief, which is nearly twice as large as the Dumbarton Oaks sculpture, Saint Cecilia also has closed eyes, and her hair similarly blows out to either side. However, she has a halo, and organ pipes are seen in the lower right of the composition. In his autobiography’s entry for 1891—the date of the sculpture from which the Dumbarton Oaks cast was taken—Vedder also lists a bas-relief of Santa Cecilia and remarks: “The first one only is counted in things that are mechanically repeated. That is, only mentioned once in list.” This may refer to the original 1891 sculpture or sculpture mold from which the Dumbarton Oaks relief was subsequently cast.
Both the style and subject of Female Head are strongly reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite art. Elihu Vedder visited England frequently and became very interested in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, establishing a close friendship with Simeon Solomon and also becoming interested in the art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Frederic Leighton. For a number of Pre-Raphaelite artists, Saint Cecilia was a popular subject, and their depictions of her were often inspired by Lord Alfred Tennyson's 1833 poem, “The Palace of Art,” in which he describes a scene where, “Near gilded organ-pipes, her hair Wound with white roses, slept St. Cecily.” Similarly, many of these artists, especially Simeon Solomon, favored depictions of the heads of beautiful women seemingly asleep or in reverie with their eyes closed or half-closed. Vedder’s relief sculpture follows directly in this tradition.
(1) In his autobiography, The Digressions of V: written for his own fun and that of his friends (New York, 1910), 494, Vedder records the sale in 1897 of “Santa Cecilia (marble) to Mrs. H.M. Wilmarth, Chicago.” This relief was later sold at auction on November 30, 1999, by Christie’s, New York, lot 54. The relief measures 29 cm x 29 cm (11 3/8 in. x 11 3/8 in.).
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 48-51, no. 5.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 5.
Puchased from the artist in 1898 by Anna Barnes Bliss, New York, N.Y.
Collection of Anna and William H. Bliss, New York, N.Y., and Montecito, California, until February 22, 1935, when it was inherited by Mildred Bliss, Washington, D.C.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.