Cornelius & Baker's Answer to the Rage for Parlor Sculpture

BY DONALD L. FENNIMORE

Liberty, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1855.
Patinated zinc, brass, H. 18¾ in.
Private collection.

This allegorical statuette of America has all the attributes that made her instantly recognizable; the liberty cap and pole, the American flag, and medallion embossed with the profile of George Washington. Her tunic alludes to ancient Greece and America’s conceptual connection to it. This statuette was probably originally an ornamental fitting on a large gasolier the firm made for one of several state capitol buildings, many of which were later dismantled and replaced with electrical chandeliers.

Few realize today the extraordinary level of enthusiasm with which Americans pursued ownership of sculpture during the last half of the nineteenth century. The reasons for the popularity of parlor sculpture were many and varied, but essentially sprang from the desire of the wealthy and the newly vested middle class for art as an expression of their taste and sophistication. Tastemaker Clarence Cook succinctly stated this impulse when he noted that “there is hardly anything that better rewards [the] trouble [of acquiring it] than a fine cast of a really noble or lovely piece of sculpture.”1

This quest to acquire the trappings of culture gave rise to a network of artists and manufacturers, with Paris at its apex, serving as it had for centuries as the consummate source of high quality art. Frequent advertisements appeared in the pages of American newspapers, similar to that placed by Alonzo M. and Francis A. Viti, importers of Italian marble and fancy goods, in the December 20, 1865, issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer: “SPECIAL SALE OF FINE FRENCH ARTISTIC BRONZES/Just received per steamer Hecla…a fine collection of elegant Bronze figures and groups comprising the subjects of sculpture, agriculture, Columbus, Rubens and Vandyke, Francis I and Charles V, Don Quixote, Vulcan and Pluto, Diana de Gaby, Don Caesar and Don Juan. All just received…from Pairs.” These figures, as the Vitis had noted in an earlier September advertisement, were “…well suited for the decoration of parlors, halls, etc, etc.”

Benjamin Franklin, attributed to Cornelius
& Baker, Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1857.
Patinated zinc, brass, stone. H. 11¼ in.
Private collection.

This historical statuette of founding father Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) would have been immediately recognizable to mid-nineteenth century Americans. Franklin’s fame as a self-made man and a self-effacing man of the people appealed to the democratic spirit that pervaded America at the time. As such, statuettes of him would have found a welcome and prominent place in American parlors. Examples of this statuette are recorded on large chandeliers in state capitol buildings and also on smaller privately owned chandeliers.

In answer to French imports, American artists made and offered their own versions of historic and artisrtic sculpture. Notable among them was the firm of Cornelius & Baker. Its founder, Christian Cornelius (d. 1851), first appeared in the city directory for 1810 as a
silversmith, but by 1813, he is listed as “silverplater.” This remained unchanged until 1825, when his listing added “patent lamp manufacturer.” By 1833, the directory lists him as a lamp manufacturer only. In 1838, he incorporated with his son Robert and named the firm “Cornelius and Company, lamp & chandelier mfgr.” With the acceptance of Isaac F. Baker as a partner, the directory listing became “Cornelius & Baker” in 1853, and remained so until 1869, when it changed to “Cornelius and Sons.”2

By the time the firm operated as Cornelius & Baker, it was “one of the largest factories of its kind in the country, and perhaps the world…. Their establishment is carried on in three different places, and required the labor of six hundred and fifty workmen and two steam-engines.”3 It was, and remains today, best known for the extraordinary range and quality of lighting devices—candle, oil, gas, and kerosene. Customers included the United States government and a clientele that stretched as far as Cuba, South America, Canada, China, and India.4 Their lighting met with universal acclaim, exemplified by Critic’s commentary extolling the “elegance and lightness of design” of their work exhibited in national and international exhibitions of arts and manufactures.5
The Departure and The Return,
signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1858. Patinated zinc, wood. H. 13½; H. 12¼ in.
Private collection.

The legends cast into the base of this statue, The Departure, and its companion, The Return, suggest the tale of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune and returning as a seasoned veteran. Their imagery may have alluded to personal success through military involvement in the westward expansion of the United States in the minds of Americans in the 1850s. This was epitomized by Horace Greeley’s (1811–1872) exhortation for ambitious young men to “go west.” A Civil War context would have been equally valid for Americans during the 1860s. Examples of these statuettes, ordered in 1859, still stand atop their double-arm gas wall brackets in the Vermont State House. Several other pairs have survived and remain together to this day.

America, attributed to Cornelius
& Baker, Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1855. Patinated zinc, wood. H. 22½ in.
Private collection.

Africa, attributed to Cornelius
& Baker, Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1855. Patinated zinc, wood. H. 20 in.
Private collection.

The pair of statuettes entitled America and Africa may have been intended to represent two of the four continents, America, Africa, Asia and Europe, a sculptural quartet that had graced stylish parlors in Europe since seafarers began exploring the globe. Alternately, they could have had a more immediate meaning for their owners at a time when feeling ran high over race relations. The prominence of manacles and chain on Africa suggests Cornelius & Baker intended it to appeal to anti-slavery advocates. A signed example of America stands on a gasolier hanging in the President’s Room in the United States Capitol.

Most of the fixtures made by Cornelius and Baker employed attractive but generic design features of the time, principally C- and S-scrolls, flowers, leaves, tendrils, and bunches of grapes. However, some were populated with human figures, like the chandeliers commissioned for the President’s Room in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Vermont State House in Montpelier and the Ohio State House in Columbus. Among them were “statuettes of Prudence, Science, Commerce, Liberty, America [and others of artistic, historic and allegorical inspiration] all modelled and bronzed in the highest style of art.”6

Zouave, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1857.
Patinated zinc, wood. H. 16¼ in. Private collection.

The exotic uniform on this menacing looking figure can be traced to the battalions of French Zouaves who served in Algeria from the 1830s through the 1860s. Their reputation as an elite corps prompted many imitators, including the Philadelphia Zouave Corps organized at the onset of the Civil War in 1861. They and other American volunteers enthusiastically adopted the Zouave uniform, which they soon discarded for standard issue because soldiers found them unwieldy on the battlefield. Patriotic householders purchased such statuettes in admiration of those volunteers.

Puppeteer, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1858. Patinated zinc, wood. H. 14½ in. Private collection.

Puppetry, long a popular mode of entertainment, was practiced widely in the United Sates during the nineteenth century, largely by itinerant puppeteers who traveled from city to city in search of audiences. The good will generated by its practitioners and the appeal of their offerings was sufficiently large to foster “genre” statuettes like this for the parlors of middle class householders. This statuette was offered individually or as one of a pair. Its pendant was the figure of a boy with banjo and trained monkey.
Western Hunter, signed “Cornelius
& Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1858. Patinated zinc, wood. H. 29 in.
Private collection.

The self-confident stance of this hunter speaks to America’s attitude toward the western frontier. Taming it, President James K. Polk (1795–1849) claimed, was the nation’s “manifest destiny.” Stories about the American frontier, exemplified by James Fenimore Cooper’s (1789–1851) The Last of the Mohicans (1826), also had considerable appeal for East Coast urban dwellers. Householders who bought this statuette acquired tangible evidence of both their affluence and their appreciation for American literature.
With a view to broadening the firm’s customer base and capitalizing on the increasingly popular desire for sculpture in stylish households, Cornelius & Baker adapted many of the statuettes from their lighting devices for display on tabletops, pedestals, cabinets, niches, desks, sideboards and fireplace mantels, advertising them as “bronze ornaments.”7 Though the firm and its competitors on both sides of the Atlantic liberally used the term “bronze”—an ancient, expensive, and much admired alloy of copper and tin used for casting statuary—to describe these statuettes, they were actually made of inexpensive zinc, with their surfaces colored to imitate bronze.8 This use of patinated zinc to cast multiple copies of any given figure allowed Cornelius & Baker to sell their statuettes at prices affordable not only to affluent householders, but also those of moderate means. The statuettes made by Cornelius and Baker pictured in figures 1 through 7 were used interchangeably as components of lighting devices and ornaments on parlor tables. Their height, excluding the wood or stone bases, ranges from 10 inches to 21⅛ inches. Statuettes created exclusively for use as parlor sculpture (figures 8–12), in response to rising demand by householders, ranged in size from 13½ inches to 40½ inches.
General Andrew Jackson, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1855. Patinated zinc. H. 23⅞ in. Private collection.

This is Cornelius & Baker’s most famous example of parlor sculpture. It depicts Andrew Jackson saluting his victorious troops following the Battle of New Orleans, the last engagement between Great Britain and the United States during the War of 1812. The firm cast it as a reduction of the celebrated heroic-scale statue made by American sculptor Clark Mills (1810–1883) and erected in Lafayette Square opposite the White House in 1853. Cornelius and Baker made and sold a number of these statuettes to art conscious householders. In addition, the fame of this figure led the White House, the New York Historical Society, and the Andrew Jackson Historical Park Museum in Lancaster County, South Carolina, to acquire copies of the firm’s reductions in 1859.

The subjects of the statuettes vary, but they clearly evidence a bias toward American subject matter, which is not surprising given the surge in national self-awareness at the time. The United States was a young nation, testing itself in all areas of endeavor against its long established counterparts in Europe. Sculpture, relatively new to the country’s arts at the time, was embraced as a medium for expressing Americans’ enthusiasm for their country and their place in world history.
Lexington with Gilpatrick Up, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1855, Patinated zinc, wood.
H. 13½ in. Private collection.

This portrait of the celebrated American racehorse Lexington (1850–1875) ridden by professional jockey, Gilbert Watson Patrick (1817–1882), popularly known as Gilpatrick, was modeled by Cornelius & Baker after popular British equestrian sculptures of the time. Lexington was the most famous thoroughbread race horse of his day, winning six of the seven races he entered. His career, though short because of failing eyesight, spawned a large following of race enthusiasts to whom Cornelius and Baker catered by making multiples of this statuette.
Hunter, signed “Cornelius & Baker,” Philadelphia, Pa., ca. 1858
Patinated zinc. H. 40½ in.
Private collection.

This statuette, known also as Pioneer and Frontiersman, is an idealized portrait of Daniel Boone (1735–1820), the most celebrated explorer and pathfinder of the early American frontier. Boone’s garb and stance meld the attributes of an American pioneer with a Roman gladiator, a connection that appealed to Americans who believed the United States and ancient Rome had much in common. At 40½ inches high, it is the largest example of Cornelius & Baker’s parlor sculpture presently known.

Donald L. Fennimore is curator emeritus at Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Delaware.

1. Clarence Cook, The House Beautiful (New York: Charles Scribners’s Sons, 1881), 123.

2. For additional details see Charles S. Cornelius, History of the Cornelius Family in America (Privately printed Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1926). Denys Peter Myers, Gaslighting in America (Washington, D.C.: U.S: Department of Interior, 1978).

3. C.T. Hinckley, “Everyday Actualities–No. VIII”, Godey’s Lady’s Book (Philadelphia, March 1853): 199, 203. The firm’s physical plant consisted of a large brick manufactory at 181 Cherry Street, another at Columbia Avenue & 5th Street and a store located at 176 Chestnut Street.

4. The Manufactories and Manufacturers of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Company, 1875), 510. Examples of lighting by the firm can be seen in Peter Denys Myers, Gaslighting in America (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1978); H. Parrott Bacot, Nineteenth Century Lighting (West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1987); and Gerald T. Gowitt, 19th Century Elegant Lighting (Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2002).

5. John Tallis, Tallis’s History and Description of the Crystal Palace, 3 vols, vol. 1 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Company, 1852), 68.

6. The Manufactories and Manufacturers of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century, 511.

7. Cornelius & Baker advertisement, North American and United States Gazette, December 31, 1863.

8. Interested readers are directed to an excellent book on the subject, Carol A. Grissom, Zinc Sculpture in America 1850–1950 (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2009). 

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