A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth-Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives

John Adams Jackson’s The Morning Glory

by Supriya Sudan

At first glance, John Adams Jackson’s marble sculpture, The Morning Glory, appears to be a simple, traditional American relief portrait of a young girl [Figure 1]. However, if one looks more closely at the work, one comes to realize that there is more to the portrait than meets the eye. The sculpture appears to blur the lines between idealization and imperfection. It also reveals the great level of detail Jackson put into the work and it emphasizes the importance of the work’s title. In the process of examining and admiring each element of the relief, one is drawn further and further into the work and is left with several unanswered questions such as who is the artist? Why is this sculpture significant? And why did the artist specifically choose the title, The Morning Glory?  In this paper, I will examine and analyze the answer to these questions, while specifically focusing on 19th-century perspectives of American sculpture. I will also discuss how classical ideologies and different artistic styles influenced the work of American sculptors in Italy.

Artist's Biography

In order to fully understand The Morning Glory, it is important to first familiarize oneself with the artist’s life and work. John Adams Jackson was a renowned artist during the 19th century. He was born in 1825 in Bath, Maine. He received his first art lesson from a prominent book illustrator in Boston, David Claypoole Johnston (Craven 203). During his apprenticeship, Jackson focused on crayon portraits and studied linear and geometrical drawing (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum). From 1845 to 1850, he was one of the first sculptors to travel to Paris and, again, studied drawing as well as anatomy under Charles Suisse. In 1851, Jackson decided to formally pursue sculpture, instead of painting or illustration; he traveled to Florence, Italy and began creating marble portrait busts (Craven 203). Jackson travelled to Italy to create his marble sculptures because Florence was a cultural center for the arts at this time, and because the materials, living, and labor were cheaper in Florence than in America (Brown 394). As a result, he was also influenced by European ideals on sculpture. He died in Italy in 1879. 

The Rise of Portraiture

Although John Adams Jackson primarily sculpted portrait busts, his Morning Glory medallion represents one of his idealized relief portraits. However, it is not a completely ideal work, but instead, is the integration of abstracted and naturalistic forms. More specifically, it conveys how people’s natural human desire for depictions of relatives or important modern-day figures resulted in the rise of portraiture and made it a popular art form in early American sculpture (Post 107-108). Furthermore, the fact that the young girl seems to be wearing a simple dress and is depicted in a warmhearted and pure manner alludes to broader, more generalized middle class ideologies during the middle of the 19th century. Up until 1830, important members of society did not like posing for sculptors in their everyday clothing; however, once they became aware of their powerful status in society, they felt more comfortable posing in “rich but bourgeois garments” and were even compelled to compete with one another to find the artist who created an unmatched “likeness” (Rheims 249).  Every member of middle-class society wanted to leave an image of himself/herself behind so that they would be remembered (Rheims 249). Yet, they did not simply desire to be closely resembled; they also wanted the portraits to express their character (Normand-Romain 41).

For example, in Eduard Magnus’ Portrait of Aglaya A. Senden (1839) [Figure 2], one can closely see the similarities between this portrait and Jackson’s portrait, The Morning Glory and how both artists are employing these nineteenth century ideals. Similar to The Morning Glory, the young woman in Magnus’ portrait is wearing a simple gown with a low neckline. She is looking to the left and is staring out into the distance; yet, it unclear what has captivated her. As a result, the portrait plays on the viewer’s imagination and forces him/her to analyze her inner thoughts. The fact that her face and neck is accentuated by light and that she has soft, rounded features also portrays her as having an innocent and kind nature. The portrait becomes a unified work expressing both the physical and emotional attributes of the figure. However, in The Morning Glory, Jackson ingeniously and subtly twists the figure’s body to emphasize her beauty and bring the figure to life as the viewer walks around it. As the viewer moves around the sculpture, from left to right, the figure emerges from the relief as it is alive, until the face gets lost altogether, and the relief becomes more of a simple carved surface with ornate detail. This invokes both a sense of thrill and delight in the viewer. It also demonstrates how the activation of the viewer’s imagination adds another dimension to the sitter’s persona, which I will come back to later on. 

As a result of the increasing demand for portraiture, dealerships encouraged sculptors to adhere to the public’s increasing desires to reflect modern-day personalities in the works. The sculptors, therefore, created medallions, statuettes, and caricatures, which mirrored the progression of lithography. Moreover, Jackson, like every other sculptor at the time, created medallions, such as this one, because they were quicker, less cumbersome, and cheaper than portrait busts. The medallions were created in a series (The Morning Glory was repeated fourteen times), and were very successful. The medallions’ small-scale were highly suitable for bourgeois apartments. The fact that the artist used the same model to create several works and that the works were being distributed in a series, also represented the high importance and/or status of the model (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Normand-Romain 41). It is important to note that although creating medallions was faster and easier to produce compared to other sculptural forms, Jackson still meticulously crafted this piece; this can be exemplified by the intricately carved details in the girl’s hair and dress.

Understanding a Relief

In addition to understanding the artist and the interest in portraiture, it is equally important to understand what a relief sculpture is as well as what it is not. A relief sculpture is defined as a sculpted surface that is raised from a flat background, which can only be viewed from one side [Figure 3 and Figure 4). It is not a rounded surface such as freestanding sculpture and because of its form, it cannot emulate the lifelike nature or level of realism that a round sculpture contains. On the other hand, unlike round sculpture, it is similar to painting and can, therefore, emulate the same pictorial effects as a painting. For example, as in Figure 2, when viewing the sculpture, one feels a sense of depth through the deeper, carved out surfaces, which then creates dark and lighter surfaces, which adds a sense of 3-dimensionality; artists refer to this as modeling. While round sculptures can be displayed on a flat surface or upon a pedestal, reliefs are viewed directly from one standpoint, laterally, and are completely within the viewer’s space. In 19th century America, relief sculptures were considered to be an “intermediary” between sculpture and painting (Gerdts 2-3, 6).

The Morning Glory, in particular, represents a relief portrait that may have been privately commissioned. This suggests that it was either hung on the wall like a painting or was a form of furniture decoration for a mantelpiece. It portrays how, like paintings, the hooks, or metal fasteners, are attached to a frame. As a result, the frame surrounds the sculpture and protects it from damage [Figure 5]. It is also important to note that sometimes due to the sculpture’s large size, the marble relief becomes too heavy and makes hanging the work an unsuitable method of display (Gerdts 6). In fact, when the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum first acquired the piece in 1873, it was placed upon a decorative easel [Figure 6]. However, this may have actually worked to the museum’s advantage and accentuated the sculptural qualities of the work even further. When viewing the work on a slight incline, the viewer immediately notices how light reflects off the marble in various angles and forms darker shadows in the carved marble. Consequently, the darker shadows highlight the face and neck, and make it seem as if the young girl’s skin is glowing.

The Morning Glory: Up-close

The manner in which Jackson executes his work further demonstrates how American sculptors were interested in depicting literary and picturesque elements in their idealistic works, completely abandoning the accurate portrayal of sculptural form (Craven 269). For example, when viewing the relief sculpture from a distance or when viewing a photograph of the sculpture taken from a far distance, it seems as though the relief sculpture is an ideal image of a young, healthy girl. However, up close, the viewer is able to observe all the minor and/or major imperfections in the work.


[thinglink annotation] John Adams Jackson, The Morning Glory Marble, Mount Holyoke College Museum.
The first thing the viewer notices is that the marble sculpture is comprised of a series of imperfect circular and oval shapes. There are three basic round shapes: the girl’s oval-shaped face, her circular head, and the oval shape of her body and dress. The viewer then immediately notices that the girl has a very chubby face, barely has a visible neck, and that her face and body are not proportional. Whereas the face seems close to life-size, the body seems extremely small, which, therefore, makes the head seem extra large. The nose and lips are also flat, in relation to the rest of the face, which is further emphasized by the soft contour of the side of the cheek. The contour of the cheek connects to the contour of the forehead; together, they form a single line that separates the nose and lips from the rest of the face.

However, despite the fact that the sculpture has many imperfections, the viewer is still able to delight in the high level of detail and is fully aware that this is a sculpture that is emphasizing the beauty and youth of the girl. This can be inferred by her low neckline, graceful appearance, and the portrayal of beautiful flowers in her hair. It is clear that Jackson has deliberately called his sculpture The Morning Glory to accentuate the meaning of the flowers in her hair and to call more attention to its narrative.

Jackson's, The Morning Glory Vs. Houdon's, Cherubs: Allegory of Autumn, Blending the Style of Neoclassicism with Rococo

The Morning Glory also conveys how American sculptors were influenced by antiquity and classical traditions rather than American themes. Yet, although American sculptors were interested in neoclassicism, which was the revival of classical works, they did not just emulate one style; instead, they blended different styles together. This can be inferred by the fact that while The Morning Glory does integrate naturalism and idealism as in neoclassical works, such as John Flaxman’s Monument to Agnes Cromwell (1797-1800), it still contains imperfections and disproportions [Figure 7]. In particular, the relief depicts how Jackson simultaneously deviated from the traditional neoclassicist ideals by meticulously crafting the details in the dress in the same manner as the head and face (Craven 268).

Moreover, it illustrates how Jackson transforms the typical neoclassicist relief by integrating it with Renaissance and Rococo styles, which were typically defined by high levels of ornamentation, detail, and geometrical elements. For example, when compared to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Rococo-style work, Cherubs: Allegory of Autumn (1780), one can see how both artists use rich decoration to engage viewers and direct their eye around the work [Figure 8]. The decoration also provides texture to the work, is very specific, and makes the work more visually appealing to the viewer. Particularly, in The Morning Glory, there are very shallow grooves on top of the girl’s head to depict every strand of hair, curls are carved out more deeply to give her hair volume, and the tiny perforations and vegetal decorations in her dress make it appear more life-like [Figures 9-9.1]. In Houdon’s Cherubs: Allegory of Autumn, the tufts of hair are also intricately carved, the leaves are smooth with crisp edges, the grapes are rounded to make them look more natural, the baskets are carefully carved to reference their wicker or wooden material, and the slabs of marble on the bottom contains carved lines to represent the layering of stone [Figures 8.1-8.6]

Both Jackson’s The Morning Glory and Houdon’s Cherubs portray how abstracted ideals are replaced with specific evocations of imaginary textures and various surfaces, in which all the textured surfaces work together to unify the whole work. The curved shapes, circular and oval forms, and the convex and concave lines are all repeated in the marble surface. Every component and every detail recalls another element in the marble. In The Morning Glory, the carved surfaces of the flower crown and hair are repeated in the curved ornamental trim of the dress [Figures 9.2-9.3]. In Houdon’s Cherubs: Allegory of Autumn, there are leaves on one of the cherub’s hair and on the base, and everything is represented in twos: there are two cherubs, two baskets of grapes, and two slabs of stone. Yet, in The Morning Glory, The sculpture’s portrayal of naturalism, ideality, mysteriousness, childlike imagination, minimal emotion, and virtuous appearance also depicts how Jackson is reflecting the style of the Romantic-Victorian era (Craven 269). In contrast to Cherubs, The Morning Glory is a very complex work, which plays more heavily upon the viewer’s senses as well as represents the artist’s independent spirit and deviation from traditional, classical norms of sculpture.

Concluding Remarks

As Milton Brown would argue, The Morning Glory portrays how these reliefs were created for a public that blurred the lines between art and literature and consisted of a “poetic allusion” which was carefully crafted in immense detail (394). I would further argue that Jackson intentionally crafted every detail in the marble to emphasize the girl’s face and body and to refer to the title, The Morning Glory. The use of the word “glory” within the title suggests that the work is about depicting a beautiful person- a beautiful flower that brightened a loved one’s day.  On the other hand, the fact that the relief conveys a sense of sadness and emptiness, reflected in the girl’s vacant eye, seems to symbolize the flower after it has lost its color and has faded [Figure 10].  Jackson leaves the viewer wondering if, perhaps, the sculpture is less about beauty and more about expressing death and mourning the loss of someone special. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the sculpture activates the viewer’s imagination further illustrates how it presents the sitter’s likeness as possessing an inner life.

Jackson’s relief portrait is definitely an intriguing sculpture, which draws the viewer further into the work. The fact that it is not completely idealized nor imperfect, has a high level of detail, and contains an interesting narrative increases the viewer’s interest and causes him/her to ask questions about why the sculpture looks the way it does and what the work is attempting to achieve. By looking into these fundamental questions and by explaining the 19th century ideologies of American sculptors and perspectives on portraiture, I hope I have given my reader a comprehensive understanding of John Adams Jackson’s sculpture, The Morning Glory.

List of References

Brown, Milton W. American Art to 1900. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1977.

Craven, Wayne. Sculpture in America. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968.

Gerdts, William H. “The Neoclassic Relief.” In Perspectives on American Sculpture before 1925 (Tolles, Thayer, ed.). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003, pp. 2-23.

Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Catalog Record for John Adam Jackson and The Morning Glory. South Hadley, MA, 9 Nov. 2016.

Normand-Romain, Antoinette Le. Sculpture: The Adventure of Modern Sculpture in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1986.

Post, Chandler Rathfon. A History of American Sculpture: From the Early Christian Period to Present Day. Vol II.  New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1921.

Rheims, Maurice. 19th Century Sculpture. Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1972.

This page has paths:

This page references: