The oldest American sculptures in French public collections are portrait busts. They are dated significantly later than the earliest paintings. Sculpture as a medium is inherently less portable than painting and more expensive to produce; perhaps as a result, America produced few sculptors in comparison to painters during the colonial period. By the mid 19th century, however, travelling exhibitions of sculpture were drawing large American crowds, and American sculptors travelled abroad in substantial numbers to receive artistic training and solicit patronage. Some specialized as portraitists, but even sculptors who produced the bulk of their work in other sculptural genres made portraits as well. Most sculptors relied on commissions as painters did not, and portraits in marble and bronze were one of the most reliably available forms of sculptural work.
The Philadelphian William Rush, one of the first major American sculptors, demonstrated a preference for specifically American themes. In the early 19th century he sculpted American luminaries such as George Washington, Joseph Wright, and Samuel Morris, rendering these recently minted heroes in an austere neoclassical style that invested them with the appearance of timeless significance. Gibert Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, was one of the few foreign figures who found their way into Rush’s pantheon. His Bust of General La Fayette exists in several copies and is preserved today in the French national collections.
After Rush, Jo Davidson is perhaps the most significant American sculptural portraitist represented in French public collections. In the early 20th century, Rush completed bronze busts of famous Americans including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The latter work was donated to the French state. Most of Davidson’s sculptures are executed in a conservative style; his portrait busts appear naturalistic, but they are also suitably idealized to please official taste. However Yvonne, a memorial portrait that he executed in 1934 of his wife, the fashion designer Yvonne Davidson, shows that he could work in more adventurous, contemporary styles as well. This bas-relief portrait is rendered in delicate, incised curves that recall the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau sculptural design.
In the 20th century some American sculptors continued working in traditional commemorative styles, while others adopted modern methods and materials. John Henry Bradley Storrs was a contemporary of Davidson who also made sculptural portraits. However, he worked in a much more modern style. His marble Bust of the Artist’s Mother, one of many works that he left to French collections, shows the influence of Cubist sculpture in its strong, radically simplified lines.