Figureheads

DEFINITION

Symbolic human or animal figures that from earliest times have been carved and placed on the prow of sailing vessels, they are a tradition linked to folk-art wood carvers as early in America as the 17th century. The first known ones are small and usually busts of human beings. These were followed by erect, free standing, larger figures made for clipper ships and leaned forward conforming to the speed and sleek design of the ship. The last of these free standing ones were carved in the 1870s and 1880s. After the American Revolution, Figureheads appeared with a wide range of subjects including symbolic and mythological human and animal figures, marine forms such as dolphins and alligators, national heroes and the American eagle. Well-known figurehead carvers are members of the Skillin family of Boston---John Skillin (1746-1800), Simeon Skillin Jr.(1756-1806) and Simeon Skillin Sr. (1716-1778); Samuel McIntyre (1757-1811) of Salem, Massachusetts; and William Rush (1756-1833) of Philadelphia who operated an active Figurehead-carving shop for fifty years. Sources: "The Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art"; Ralph Sessions, 'William Rush and the American Figurehead', "The Magazine Antiques", November 2005, pp. 148-153

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