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La Petite Pensee

Not on view

La Petite Pensee

Artist: Thomas Ball (American, 1819 - 1911)

Date: 1876
Medium: Marble
Dimensions:
Overall: 19in. (48.3cm)
Signed: On back of base: 'T. BALL. 1876.'
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Helen K. Squier
Object number: 81.14
Label Text
In his autobiography, "My Threescore Years and Ten," Thomas Ball recounted that "La Petite Pensée" was one of his most popular works. The subject was modeled after Ball settled in 1865 in Florence; near the home and studio of the most famous American expatriate sculptor of the day, Hiram Powers. Ball previously lived in Boston where he gained notoriety for his bronze statuette of Henry Clay, and the large equestrian statue of George Washington that was installed in the Boston Public Garden.

The Museum's sculpture initially would have been conceived by Ball in clay and plaster. The physical carving of the marble subsequently would have been carried out by Ball's Italian stone carvers, who used a pointing machine to copy his preliminary design. Any excess marble would have been removed from the block using variously-sized toothed chisels. The bottom and back of the Museum's sculpture show the characteristic parallel groves that such chisels leave in the marble. The flowers and leaves that adorn the piece would have been cut with a hand drill, and the parts of the marble that were intended to suggest soft flesh were given a soft mat finish. Whatever final touches the bust might have required before it left the studio could have been executed by Ball himself. Numerous copies of this work exist in public and private collections, but there is no record of how many versions of this work his studio produced.

In the hierarchy of 19th-century American sculpture, the sculpture belongs to the category known at the time as a "conceit" or "fancy piece." Such works, although thematically less ambitious than religious or historical subjects, had widespread appeal and oftentimes were whimsical depictions of children. The sweet melancholy suggested by Ball's plump-cheeked young girl with downcast eyes, bare shoulders and tightly-bound hair covered with a kerchief, doubtless proved irresistible to mid-century taste.

Several pansies are conspicuously carved above the wreath of leaves that discretely cover the upper edge of the young girl's bodice. The symbolism of these flowers provides an important link to the sculpture's title. The connection between pansies and thoughtfulness has an important source in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" when Ophelia says" "And there is pansies, that's for thoughts."

Soon after conceiving "La Petite Pensée" Ball fashioned a pendant work titled "Joy." The economic advantage of creating fancy pieces in pairs was previously adopted by other 19th-century American sculptors such as Harriet Hosmer and Edmonia Lewis, both of whom enjoyed success with paired sculptures of small children. Following their example, Ball's "Joy" embodies an alternative sentiment to the one embodied in "La Petite Pensée." He complemented the introspective melancholy of the Museum's sculpture by fashioning a work that depicts a bright, smiling young girl who engagingly gazes at the viewer. When displayed side by side the complementary attitudes of the two busts would have simultaneously reinforced the opposing sentiments embodied in each.

PDS, 2012
Copyright
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