Robert Ball Hughes

Robert Ball Hughes studied in Londen under the sculptor Edward Hodges Baily and at the School of the Royal Academy of Art, where he also exhibited examples of his work in the 19820s. He arrived in the United States in 1829, opened a studio in New York, and was immediately successful, especially in portraiture. His best-known early commission was a statue of Alexander Hamilton for the rotunda of the New York Merchants’ Exchange, a work that was destroyed by fire shortly after being completed. By that time, Hughes was already being described, in the words of a reviewer for the American Monthly Magazine in 1834, as “the first sculptor in America.”

Hughes exhibited a selection of works at the American Academy of Fine Arts, New York, in 1833. That same year he was made an Honorary Member of the National Academy, very possibly in demonstration of respect for the display at its rival institution. In gratitude, Hughes wrote the Council of his “deep interest…. In the prosperity and welfare of that talented ad enlightened body” and offered his assistance “in any way tending to promote it.” Nonetheless, he did not exhibit in National Academy. Indeed, it was also in 1833 that Hughes became a member of that organization’s board of directors. This choice of allegiance is readily explained by letters published by Thomas Brumbaugh indicating that Hughes relied on John Trumbull, then president of the American Academy, for financial support during his early years in America and for the elder artist’s use of his connections in helping him obtain commissions.

During the 1830s Hughes continued to work in portraiture, modeling busts of such illustrious subjects as National Bowditch (c. 1839, Washington Irving (1836), and Edward Livingston (1836) (all Boston Athenaeum) as well as of his benefactor, John Trumbull (c. 1834, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut). Additionally, Hughes modeled a life-size seated figure of Bowditch, the original of which was said to be the first bronze statue cast in the United States and which was placed at Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1847 (since replaced by a copy), based on characters in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy; and Little Nell (c. 1835, Boston Athenaeum), drawn from Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.

Around 1850 Hughes moved to Boston, where, while continuing to work in the portraiture, he conducted experiments with the burning of images in wood. In 1851 he sent a figure of Oliver Twiest to that year’s Crystal Palace Exposition in London; the Duke of Devonshire purchased it. Hughes also gave lectures on art in the Boston area, but the period of his major sculptural endeavors was over.

DBD National Academy of Design
Section 6

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