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Nathaniel Bowditch Statue

First Bronze Statue cast in America

Bronze Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch
Courtesy of Liz West
From Muffet's Photostream on Flickr at


Bronze Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch
"Recast by GruetJ., Fondeur, Paris, 1886."
Wikipedia Photo by Daderot
from Wikipedia article about Nathaniel Bowditch



    First life-size bronze statue cast in the United States, 1847, recast in Paris in 1886 from the original plaster that is now in the Boston AthenaeumNathaniel Bowditch was an American mathematician and astronomer who authored The New American Practical Navigator of 1802.  His famous book is shown resting on his right knee in the picture above.  For more information about Mount Auburn Cemetery see Wikipedia and www.MountAuburn.org.  The entrance to Mt. Auburn Cemetery is in Cambridge, MA, home of Harvard University, near Boston and about 7 miles from Ball Hughes home "Sunnyside" on School St., Dorchester, MA.


Engraving of Bronze Statue of Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch

from A Hand-Book for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad With a Description of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2nd Ed, 1858, Boston: William V. Spencer, p. 35.


    See a description and poem about the statue in A Hand-Book for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad With a Description of Mount Auburn Cemetery, 2nd Ed, 1858, Boston: William V. Spencer, p. 33-36.  This book had many editions with different names: Guide Through Mount Auburn, A Hand-Book for Passengers over the Cambridge Railroad, 5th Ed., 1864, and Mount Auburn Cemetery Including a Brief History and Description of Cambridge, Harvard University, and the Union Railway Company, 19th Ed., 1883.

Broadside from The University of Hong Kong Libraries:

"Boston: May 18, 1847 : Ball Hughes requests the pleasure of your company to the private view of the bronze statue of the late Dr. Bowditch, which he has just completed at the foundry of Messrs. Goodin & Gavett, Hawkins Street, on Wednesday, the 19th inst. from 3 till 7, and from 8 to 10 o'clock" 

    From American Sculpture in the Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by Susan James-Gadzinski and Mary Mullen Cunningham. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1997, p. 29:

"In 1838 Hughes was commissioned to make an effigy of the eminent Boston mathematician and astronomer Nathaniel Bowditch. Hughes's plaster model (Boston Athenaeum) depicts Bowditch seated with a copy of his book The Practical Navigator propped on his right knee and a globe and sextant beside his chair. When Hughes tried to have the piece  cast, he ran into great difficulty: nothing so large had yet been cast in the United States, and the advanced casting techniques of the European foundries were still unknown. Finally, in 1847 a bronze was cast by the Boston copper dealer and bell founder Henry N. Hooper [sic?] and placed on Bowditch's grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery. It was defective, however, and had to be recast in 1887 [sic] by the French foundry Gruet Jeune."

    Eliza Ball Hughes describes the difficulties that her husband encountered with the making of the Bronze Statue in the fourth installment of the Sketch of the Life of Robert Ball Hughes by Mrs. E. Ball Hughes,  pp. 20-22 .

    From A History of the Cemetery of Mt. Auburn, by Jacob Bigelow, Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1860, pp. 52-53:

"At a meeting of the Trustees, January 31st,
1848, the following vote was passed: — "Whereas
the Trustees of the subscribers to the statue of the
late Dr. Bowditch have paid the customary price
for the land on which the statue now stands,
therefore, voted, that all the land included within
the exterior side of the fence around said statue
be, and the same is hereby appropriated and dedi-
cated forever to the use and purpose of sustaining
and protecting the said statue."

This statue had been erected under difficulties
from the proceeds of a subscription raised soon
after the death of Dr. Bowditch, in 1838. The
Committee having charge of the work had con-
tracted with Mr. Ball Hughes for a bronze statue
to be delivered within a certain time. Mr. Hughes
completed the model, but failed to produce the
bronze casting. The Committee, after waiting a
number of years and repeatedly extending the
time of the contract, at length broke off their
negotiation with Mr. Hughes, and declared the
contract void. Mr. Hughes, however, persevered,
and with the assistance of a benevolent friend, at
length completed an imperfect casting, which the
subscribers thought proper to accept. Of its
present condition, an opinion may be formed from
the following vote of the Trustees, May 10th,
1853: — "Voted, that a Committee of one be
appointed to cause the statue of Dr. Bowditch to
be repaired by stopping the holes and painting the
whole of a bronze color." It is to be hoped that
this memorial to the memory of a distinguished
philosopher and citizen, of which the design is
better than the execution, may be restored, as it
can only be, by a new casting to be sought from
those who venerate his memory."

The digitized copy of the book that was donated to Harvard University by the author can be viewed at The Internet Archive or on Google Books. Note that the statue was not recast until 1886.

    Note that Familiar Sketches of Sculpture and Sculptors, Vol II, Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Company, 1854, p. 152 states that the book on Bowditch's knee is his celebrated book, the "Mecanique Celeste" (translation of LaPlaces book from the French) and not the The New Practical Navigator.

    From Good Old Dorchester by William Dana Orcutt. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, UP, 1893, p. 385:

"It is, perhaps, the bronze statue of Dr. Bowditch, which Mr. Hughes executed to be placed in Mount Auburn, that will stand as the most certain evidence of the artist's skill; for its material makes it secure from the ravages of "Time, the great Destroyer." Praise was received from all sides. "As a work of art," said one paper, "it deserves the highest praise." Another said: "The artist possesses the highest order of genius in his peculiar art." All united in pronouncing it well worthy of the noble subject represented. "

    From The History of American Sculpture by Lorado Taft. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1903, pp. 97-98:

"But, for all his training, Ball Hughes's significance in American sculpture is historical rather than artistic. Not only did he carve what may have been the first marble statue made in this country, but he certainly modelled the first statue to be cast in bronze. This was the above-mentioned portrait of Dr. Bowditch, the astronomer, whose effigy is conspicuous at Mount Auburn Cemetery. It is a seated figure, upon a massive granite pedestal of Egyptian tendencies, surrounded by an iron fence. One approaches the "first bronze statue cast in America" with curiosity not unmingled with reverence. It is not an insignificant work. The scholarly doctor has a fine, intellectual head, in which the physi­cal has small share. His face is kindly, dreamy, almost smiling. He is attired in knee breeches and what looks like a quilted dressing-gown of ample folds, and is seated in a small but heavy chair, the sculptural solidity of which is cleverly enhanced by a curious fringed valance filling the spaces between its square legs. On the right knee the amiable student supports a large volume in a vertical position, his hand resting upon it. The left hand reposed in a somewhat deathlike fashion on its edge upon the other knee. Beside the chair is a large globe and a sextant; the base bears the inscription, "Executed by Ball Hughes, 1847." On the other side are more books and -- a discovery! After all our emotions we read here in impudently large letters, "Recast by Gruet Jeune., Fondeur, Paris, 1886." So this is not the original bronze, after all, and we might better have contented ourselves with examining the original plaster cast in the Athenaeum. Inquiry at the office of the cemetery brings out the fact that the family had felt that the old cast was not good enough, so had boxed it up and sent it over to Paris to be translated into worthier form. Let us hope that they were satisfied, while we mourn the loss of that precious relic which was doubtless broken into fragments after serving as a model, and disappeared forever in the insatiable melting-pots."


"In character Dr. Bowditch combined a spirit of strong determination with great sweetness of nature which resulted in a very winning personality; and his absolute integrity in all his dealings with the world endeared him to the many with whom he came in contact, both in social and business relations. Tributes of respect for his scientific knowledge came from every part of the civilized world, while in the community in which he lived and in his own immediate circle he was regarded with the deepest affection. After his death, when the statue by Ball Hughes which now stands in Mt. Auburn was carried through the streets of Boston to Cambridge, it Was placed for a time, at the hour of high 'Change, in State Street as a mark of respect by the business men of Boston, and a poem entitled "The Bronze Statue" by some unknown author, signed "Maurice," commemorative of this event, appeared in the columns of the Boston Courier in 1847, nine years after his death."
Statue of Dr. Bowditch For Sale


The Hall, 1905

Entrance Hall to Boston Athenaeum

As it looked in 1905

Plaster model of the Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch to the right



    The life-size plaster model of the Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch by Ball Hughes resides in the Boston Athenaeum. Dr. Bowditch was a supporter and trustee of the Boston Athenaeum.

    Watch the video lecture: Sculptors and Their Patrons at Mount Auburn, 1820-1870, presented March 1, 2007 by David B. Dearinger, Susan Mores Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum. Dearinger discusses American NeoClassic sculptors and their patrons that are buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. This lecture is part of the "Facets of Mount Auburn" celebration of the famous cemetery's 175th anniversary. Robert Ball Hughes Statue of Nathaniel Bowditch is discussed at about minute 30 of this interesting 47 minute video. Dearinger states that the original full-size plaster model was deposited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1851 and was used to cast the replacement bronze statue in Paris. Dearinger also discusses the Statue of Alexander Hamilton at about minute 29 of the video. See seven other video lectures by David B. Dearinger at Forum-Network.org. I have not watched the other videos yet to see if there are more references to Robert Ball Hughes. Please let me know if you discover any.


    From Wikipedia: "In 1903 Taft published The History of American Sculpture, the first survey of the subject and a work that Taft is better known for (except perhaps in Chicago) than his many sculptures. His revised version, published in 1925, was to remain the standard reference on the subject until Wayne Craven published Sculpture in America in 1968 (available at Amazon.com)."


Editors note: Taft, himself a sculptor, was somewhat critical of Ball Hughes for his lack of accomplishments in the field of sculpture.  He may not have had the knowledge of all of Ball Hughes work that we have available today. Craven was more thorough and more balanced in his review (DB). Wayne Craven, author of Sculpture in America, replied in March 2009 to an inquiry I made of him with these kind words: 

"Thank you for informing me about your website on Ball Hughes.  He was a favorite of mine when I was writing Sculpture in America, simply because he was by far the best, most gifted sculptor working in America during his era. It's a pitty America wasn't quite as ready for sculpture as it might have been and encouraged him more with more commissions... I'm glad you have established a website and I'll look forward to following it."

    See American Bronze Casting at www.metmuseum.org for timeline and information on bronze casting.

    Bronze Casting and American Sculpture, 1850-1900 by Michael Edward Shapiro. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985, pp. 6, 32, & 172.

View more pictures of the Bowditch Monument on Flickr.

See the Restoration of the Nathaniel Bowditch Statue in 2012. (new)


last update 9/28/2012

For noncommercial use, Copyright David E. Brown 2008-2012

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