The Definitive Dwiggins no. 41—A Christmas card for Mrs. Foster

In several previous posts (nos. 3, 13, 25, 34 and 37) I have explored the sources that W.A. Dwiggins relied upon for his illustrations. In his work for The Merrymount Press these sources were often provided to him by his client, Daniel Berkeley Updike. A rare instance of Dwiggins discovering an historical source on his own for an illustration for a Merrymount Press job is the portrait of a Madonna and Child that graces the exterior of a 1908 Christmas card designed for Mrs. Francis Foster, a blue blood who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Christmas card for Mrs. Francis Foster, 1908. Illustration by W.A. Dwiggins; typography by Daniel Berkeley Updike; printing by The Merrymount Press. Courtesy of Martin Hutner.

Christmas card for Mrs. Francis Foster, 1908. Illustration by W.A. Dwiggins; typography by Daniel Berkeley Updike; printing by The Merrymount Press. Courtesy of Martin Hutner.

Updike commissioned Dwiggins to provide an illustration for Mrs. Foster’s card on 19 November 1908, telling him that he could not pay more than $5 for it. [1] Six days later Dwiggins sent a drawing “based on Della Robbia” to Updike. [2] Did Dwiggins work from an existing image in order to reduce his time on the project and thus accommodate Updike’s skimpy budget?

The Della Robbia Madonna that Dwiggins used as a model for his illustration appears to be Madonna and Child with Cherubim (c.1485) in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. It is a terracotta sculpture by Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), nephew of Luca della Robbia.

Madonna and Child with Cherubim. Andrea della Robbia. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Madonna and Child with Cherubim. Andrea della Robbia. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

As a side note, this Andrea della Robbia terracotta was used, minus the elaborate gilt frame, for a 1978 United States postage stamp celebrating Christmas. It was the first of twenty-one depictions in a row of the Madonna and Child to grace Christmas stamps.

Andrea della Robbia Madonna and Child illustrating a United States Christmas postage stamp

Andrea della Robbia Madonna and Child illustrating a United States Christmas postage stamp

Although the National Gallery of Art della Robbia looks like Dwiggins’ model, there is a question of how he knew about it. According to the NGA’s provenance for the terracotta it was not purchased by The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust until 1936. Prior to that it was in Paris. [3]  The terracotta is not reproduced in Luca della Robbia with Other Italian Sculptors of the XV and XVI Centuries by Leader Scott (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1883), Les Della Robbia, leur vie et leurs oeuvres by Camillo Jacopo Cavallucci and Émile Molinier (Paris: Rouam, 1884), nor in Luca and Andrea della Robbia and Their Successors by Maud Crutwell (London: J.M. Dent & Co., New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1902). A nearly identical Madonna and Child with Cherubim in the Bargello (Florence) was shown in Luca della Robbia und seine Familie by Paul Schubring (Bielefeld and Leipzig: Verlag von Velhagen & Klasing, 1905), p.112 but it is highly unlikely that Dwiggins was aware of this book. [4]

Madonna. C.S. Bache Collection, New York. From Della Robbias in America by 1912, fig. 18

Madonna. C.S. Bache Collection, New York. From Della Robbias in America by Allan Marquand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1912), fig. 18

J.S. Bache (1861–1944), the principal of J.S. Bache & Co., a leading New York brokerage house, owned a Madonna similar to the Mellon one at the National Gallery of Art. See figure 18 in Della Robbias in America by Allan Marquand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1912), pp. 45–46. The provenance for the Bache Madonna is not known, however.

The solution to the question of how Dwiggins knew about Andrea della Robbia’s terracotta lies in the once vibrant world of plaster cast reproductions of art. Item no. 8384 in Catalogue of Plaster Cast Reproductions from Antique, Medieval and Modern Sculpture: Subjects for Art Schools (Boston: P.P. Caproni & Brother, 1901),  p. 188 is the Andrea della Robbia Madonna and Child with Cherubim. [5] Was Dwiggins familiar with Caproni & Brother in 1908? There is no evidence indicating he was, but he may have been since eight months later he worked on a job for Updike that involved plaster casts provided by the firm.

Cast no. 8284 from Catalogue of Plaster Casts of Ancient, Medieval and Modern Sculpture: Subjects for art School (Boston: P.P. Caproni & Brother, 1901), p. 188.

Cast no. 8384 from Catalogue of Plaster Casts of Ancient, Medieval and Modern Sculpture: Subjects for art School (Boston: P.P. Caproni & Brother, 1901), p. 188.

[1] See Letter 108:243, D.B. Updike to W.A. Dwiggins 19 November 1908 in The Merrymount Press Business Records, the Huntington Library. The job ticket for Mrs. Francis Foster’s Christmas card is no. 5416. The job was begun on 17 November 1908.
[2] See Letter 108:249, W.A. Dwiggins to D.B. Updike 25 November 1908 in The Merrymount Press Business Records, the Huntington Library. Dwiggins completed the job by 2 December 1908 when his invoice was paid.
[3] http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.129.html#provenance
[4] Dwiggins made his first and only trip to Europe in 1908. Although it included a visit to Florence, there is no evidence that he visited the Bargello or saw its Andrea della Robbia terra-cotta.
[5] In the catalogue the terracotta is described on p. 39 as Madonna and Child with no indication of its source. It is not present in the firm’s 1902 and 1909 catalogues.