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The Mond Bequest at King's College London: A Celebration

Sappho by Ferdinand Seeboeck

King's SapphoKing's SapphoFerdinand Seeboeck’s Sappho is an original composition, posed and proportioned to match Dausch’s version of the Lateran Sophocles, rather than a copy of a single ancient model.

Classical musesClassical muses

The body and drapery follow an established type for the depiction of a Muse: entirely appropriately for a lyric poetess complimented already in antiquity as ‘the Tenth Muse’ (and the choice is by no means unique to Seeboeck among nineteenth-century sculptors); the main variation is the position of the leg, modified for symmetry with Sophocles.

The head of the poetess seems to combine features of several ancient depictions, examples of which would have been available to Seeboeck, either directly or via photographs or engravings: a supposed Sappho in the Museo Archeologico Nationale in Naples, which gives a cue for the facial features, and another type represented both on coins and in marble sculpture, for the handling of the hair and head-dress.

Naples 'Sappho'Naples 'Sappho'Details of ancient representations of Sappho can be found, as for Sophocles, in Gisele Richter’s Portraits of the Greeks; a generous selection of modern representations are illustrated and discussed in Margaret Reynolds’s The Sappho Companion.

Seeboeck’s is a serenely reflective poetess, in contrast to the more sombre, sometimes grief-stricken Sapphos depicted by many other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sculptors and painters, and a world away from the sensual Sapphos sometimes shown.

It is tempting to suppose that the Monds’ selection of Sappho as the companion to Sophocles – not by any means an inevitable, or even a very common pairing – had something to do with the presence in their household, and influence over its artistic tastes, of not one but two literary ladies, in Frida and Henriette Hertz.

Ferdinand Seeboeck in his studioFerdinand Seeboeck in his studioFerdinand Seeboeck was born in Vienna in 1864, and studied at the Vienna Academy between 1880 and 1883. He first visited Italy in 1885, living initially in Florence - where he worked briefly with Adolf von Hildebrand - and establishing himself in Rome from 1889 onwards.

He acquired a studio in Baden-Baden, to which he made regular visits. But, with the exception of the years of the First World War, his principal residence was in Rome from 1889 right up to his death in 1952, at the age of eighty-eight: an obituary notice in Das Münster for 1954 celebrated him as the last to go of ‘the old German artists’ colony of Rome’.

Nymph and SatyrNymph and SatyrReligious art, of a rather bland kind, was a mainstay of Seeboeck’s later career: for instance, a full set of Stations of the Cross for the mother house of the Salvatorian Order in Rome, and a thirteen-foot bronze statue of the Reverend Bonifacius Wimmer, founder of the Benedictine Order’s establishment in the United States, for St Vincent’s Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

But he was also an accomplished portraitist, numbering Domkapitular Alexander Schnütgen, founder of the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne, the archaeologist August Mau, and Pope Pius X among his subjects.

Classical subjects, however, seem to have been rare in his output. There were a few small bronzes and reliefs of Nymphs and Satyrs, but the Sappho stands out in his oeuvre as his only truly large-scale piece on a classical theme.

Alexander SchnütgenAlexander SchnütgenThis fact may plausibly be linked with his special relationship to the Monds in the earlier part of his life, which is evidenced also by the small bronze statuette of Henriette Hertz at her writing desk, which he executed in the 1890s and is still in the possession of the Bibliotheca Hertziana.

It was a chance encounter with the Monds in Florence, and their consequent financial support, that enabled his career-making move to Rome; and according to a contemporary diarist, it was to their direct commission that he made his Sappho.

It would be entirely understandable under these circumstances for the aspiring young (twenty-nine year-old) sculptor to have agreed to work on a scale and in a style other than those to which he was subsequently to settle as a mature and established professional.

References:

  • M. Reynolds, The Sappho Companion (Palgrave 2003), 53-85
  • G. Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks (Phaidon 1965), 70-2
  • G. Mayer, Ferdinand Seeboeck. Bildhauer in Rom (Private publication, Rome 2002)
  • Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur, http://www.bildindex.de
  • Das Münster 7 (1954) 123
  • B. Strittmatter, Forward, Always Forward: The History and Construction of the Wimmer Memorial Statue, St Vincent Archabbey Publications, 2004
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