From contributor Lisa Strong, Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The Curatorial Department has been developing mobile device tours for some of its most beloved artworks, and in the course of this research has discovered a number of new and interesting things about one in particular: The Veiled Nun. To begin with, some of the most basic information we have about the piece is wrong!
What we do know about the sculpture is that it was purchased by William Wilson Corcoran during a short trip to Rome in 1863. Corcoran kept the sculpture in the library of his home on Lafayette Square until just before the gallery opened to the public in 1874. At that point, the Corcoran’s Board and curator realized that they did not have enough artwork to fill the galleries, so Corcoran, as well as members of the Board, went through their collections and selected additional objects to donate. Among them was The Veiled Nun.
From the time The Veiled Nun entered the collection up through the 1930s, it was listed in catalogues as a copy of a sculpture by an unknown artist. This attribution was changed in 1939, when a visitor to the Corcoran thought she recognized the bust as a sculpture by Giuseppe Croff that was illustrated in a catalogue of the 1853 New York World’s Fair.
When we obtained a copy of the catalogue, however, and looked at the illustration, (Croff’s original bust is unlocated) there were some significant differences between the two sculptures. The Croff bust does not have the same hairstyle and her eyes are closed, whereas The Veiled Nun’s eyes are open, and the orientation of the two pieces is reversed (possibly a result of the engraving process for the illustration). We then consulted with experts in nineteenth century sculpture, sending them pictures of the two busts. They concurred that the piece was not actually by Croff. Rather, it was created in a commercial workshop in Rome, making it unlikely we would ever know the name of the carver(s).
It may seem that learning a sculpture is not by a known artist, but an anonymous copyist, would be a major step backwards, but in fact, we know much more about the workshop system in Italy in the mid-nineteenth century than we know about Giuseppe Croff.
It is a little known fact that sculpture in this period was produced by a designer (the artist who signs the piece) and a craftsman who actually carved the piece in marble. The artist would have designed the sculpture in plaster or wax and then submitted that model to the workshop for production. Studio labor was specialized, so there would have been one craftsman to select and rough out the block of marble and to confirm there were no flaws in the stone. Next, another craftsman used a mechanism called a pointing device to drill into the block and match the contours of the plaster model. Yet another craftsman carved the face, followed by specialists in hair, eyes, etc. and a final artisan who polished the surface. This commercial production system was the same whether a workshop was producing a signed piece of sculpture under an artist’s supervision or a copy of an antique or eighteenth century design.
Veiled busts were extremely popular subjects in the period. They were a testament to the skill of the artist and workshop that produced them. Many of the commercially produced veiled busts were based on the work of the Antonio Corradini and Giuseppe Sanmartino, well-known sculptors of veiled figures in the Capella San Severo, Naples. Others were more generic veiled heads probably produced with the aim of reproduction en masse for the tourist trade. The primary English language guide to Rome, John Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in Central Italy (1857) lists advertisements for numerous workshops that tourists could visit to purchase copies, as well a shipping agent to assist them in transporting the artwork home.
Once Corcoran returned to Washington, D.C. and put The Veiled Nun on display in his home, it received only an occasional mention from visitors. Likewise, its exhibition in the first Corcoran building (now the Renwick) in a niche of the rotunda, elicited little comment. This is perhaps because The Veiled Nun would have been a fairly familiar subject for Victorian audiences who were accustomed to virtuoso sculptural techniques. It was only in the early twentieth century, long after the taste for realistic sculpture had changed and the market for veiled busts had evaporated that the public began to take note. By 1969, when Readers Digest approached the Corcoran with a request for its audience’s favorite piece, The Veiled Nun was an easy answer. It was firmly entrenched as the one of Washington’s most beloved artworks and it remains among its most popular today.