Let’s Put The Jenny Lind Theory To Rest

by John Werry on December 10, 2009

Renaissance Sofa 1024x863 Lets Put The Jenny Lind Theory To Rest

I’m thinking that maybe a 16th century sofa can end this Jenny Lind rumor for us, but let’s review the ground we’ve covered on this topic for a moment.

In this first post (yes, long ago), I announced a contest asking everyone for their own theories on the female heads carved into Renaissance Revival furniture.  The question is, who was this imagery intended to depict?  You had many theories centering on Greek mythological figures such as Athena, Columbia, and Helen as well as Lady Liberty.  I did a post that analyzed the Jenny Lind theory in detail and I then explored the theory that the arms depict Helen of Troy based on a parlor set with some family history to that effect.

An interesting discovery that kills the Jenny Lind theory for good (for me) is evidence of these female busts occurring 400 years ago in true Renaissance-era furniture.  The left image is from the sofa arm in the above photo and the right image is from the back of a Victorian-era Renaissance Revival bedstead.

Renaissance Goddess Lets Put The Jenny Lind Theory To Rest

The image is of an Italian Renaissance sofa from the 16th century as depicted in an article from an original 1877 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The article in which the photo is shown is titled, “Furniture and it’s decoration in the Renaissance”. It has several very detailed images of Renaissance-era carved furniture (not 19th Century Revival-era).  The presence of the female head on the arms of furniture in the 1500s also dispels any thoughts for me that she is Columbia, a much later personification of America first appearing in 1738.

For more clues I consulted the book, “The United Symbolism of America” by Robert Hieronimus.  There is an entire chapter on the Statue of Liberty which discusses the personification of America itself evolving over time and being inspired by Greek and Roman Goddesses.  However, I didn’t get anything from the book that I could hang my hat on with respect to identifying our furniture figure.

I consulted James Stevens Curl, architectural historian, who wrote the book, “The Egyptian Revival.  Ancient Egypt as the Inspirations for Design Motifs in the West“.  He is the author of several other books on Victorian, Classical, and Landscape Architecture, among others.  Here is what he had to say about my direct query to him regarding these figures:

Classically-inspired female heads similar to these are not uncommon, and are found on many pieces of furniture, etc. I very much doubt if Jenny Lind was the Onlie Begetter of these items: one can find similar heads that are of nobody in particular, yet are attributed to X or Y on very flimsy grounds. The female Classical head was much admired (still is, in the few remaining outposts of civilisation that have not succumbed to vulgar popularism and vile crassness), and turns up in thousands of instances and guises. Helen of Troy was of course an important stimulus to art, as an ideal: so idealised females are often associated with Helen of Troy and other mythical beauties (the Daughter of Dymas, for example). There was, of course, The Egyptian Helen….but that’s another story…
So, in essence, cobblers to Jenny Lind: the figure is simply a Classical Ideal…. We, who were weaned on Catullus, Virgil, etc., know of these things…

I think there were cases where a particular manufacturer marketed a parlor set as having a figure of Helen of Troy, for example, in the cases where she is accompanied by a male counterpart (maybe Paris), but I just think that is marketing since we see the same figure used, as-is, without the male warrior profile.

I’ve compared hundreds of images of all the goddesses and each has her own defining features – a certain hat, a bow, a staff, a certain helmet – that without it, the unique identity fades away.  With the Renaissance figure, we have no defining feature that is consistent and links her to a particular goddess.  As James says, I think all we have are classical heads of nobody in particular – a “Classical Ideal”.

I think I owe someone a book as promised in the first post. Not that I’m the final arbiter on this whole carved arms topic, but I think Joe came closest to my thoughts in his guess here, so the long-overdue awarding of the book will go to him.

I think there were cases where a particular manufacturer marketed a parlor set as having a figure of Helen of Troy, for example, in the cases where she is accompanied by a male counterpart (maybe Paris), but I just think that is marketing since we see the same figure used, as-is, without the male warrior profile.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

james conrad December 11, 2009 at 5:39 am

Yaaaaaaaa Hoooooooo, we gotta winner, congrats Joe.

I had a feeling it was going to go this way, no definitive evidence on who these carved heads represent. There has been much discussion on P. Follansby blog about the origins/meaning of relief carvings found on 17th century english/american furniture forms. Considering the interest, (there were 23 comments on that initial post “Jenny Lind She Ain’t”) one would think there would be some good quality info/research on this subject but to my knowledge, there is none.

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Mark MacNish December 21, 2009 at 5:48 am

When I purchased furniture many years ago, it was more likely that dealers called women adorning furniture “Caryatids”. It seems recently Jenny Lind has become a generic term for women adorning furniture. I agree with you in that I think this is probably at least 95% incorrect.
Caryatid as generic term probably encompassed more of the furniture and was correct at least 40% of the time.
Women on renaissance revival furniture were women dressed in the style of renaissance ladies (as in ladies in waiting) as in the example you have from the bed. I get this from the way they wear the scarf around their neck and the headpiece, and they are probably not a specific woman at all, but an adornment they felt made the piece look more like it was in a renaissance style. I have 5 renaissance revival chairs with the exact same head on it and have seen the same woman on many, many pieces, as I’m sure you have too.
Women on furniture show up on Victorian furniture from other periods as they were fond of allegorical figures (as well as creating new ones) gods and goddesses and mythology, and not just Greek and Roman. Looking for other clues on the furniture could help you narrow down who the woman might be, but will not always give you specific answers. (for instance, a woman’s head found with a carving of a quiver and arrows could indicate that she is Diana, goddess of the hunt, or an amazon. Just as a woman’s head found with musical instruments could indicate she is Jenny Lind, but it is probably much more likely she is Trepsikhore or any one of 8 other goddesses of music, song and dance.)
I would think that to call a carved figure Jenny Lind you would have to have some sort of accompanying documentation, such as an original ad or tag, or her actual name carved into the piece.
In Jenny’s time P.T. Barunum used her image and name to sell, sell, sell, just as antique dealers are using her name today. They learned from the master.

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Tamara Glise June 2, 2010 at 10:33 am

Thank you all for this article and your comments. There seems to be little information available on this figure, and I have found your information very interesting.
I have recently purchased a Renaissance Revival bedroom suite, and all the pieces feature this carved head. I purchased it in part because I thought the woman resembled queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was such an influential woman in her time. Would any of you happen to know if there has ever been a suggestion that the bust could be fashioned after Eleanor?
Thank you.

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Lora Lee Harlan July 21, 2010 at 10:43 pm

I have a Victorian Jelliff? platform rocker with carved heads on each arm, but they are a warrior type man with a helmet. ?? The chair is signed (can’t read it, isn’t Jelliff) across the front bar. Chair needs upholstery and I hate to cover it up without finding out just who/what it is……?

any info is greatly appreciated…….Thanks LLH

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susan perun February 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Many of the Jelliff heads are in fact victorian men( not the obvious male heads he also did, with beards), even though they look like women. I have several of his chairs. The women have distinct busts and bigger cheeks and softer features with pretty noses. The men that look like the Jenny Lind heads have a straighter nose and no bust shown. He has these feminine male heads on most of his furniture. Very few women.

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Mary March 3, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I have a victorian couch with a female head on the very top of the couch. Any ideas of how to research this?
Thanks
Mary

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