In 1863, Washington banker and philanthropist William Corcoran purchased this unattributed bust in Rome for $300. Corcoran must have been spellbound, as later generations have been, not by a famous name but rather by the carver’s manipulation of hard marble into soft, raised folds that suggest the forms of a face beneath, while leaving its exact appearance and expression to the imagination. Although the title The Veiled Nun had become attached to the bust by 1874, the subject is probably a woman of the world or an allegorical figure. The veil’s fine eyelet border would not belong to the habit of a nun, nor would a woman in a religious order have sported the fashionable hairstyle visible through her veil.
This bust belongs to a tradition of veiled marble figures carved to virtuosic effect in Italy since the 18th century. Prominent examples were made by Antonio Corradini (1668–1752) and Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720–1793), both for the Cappella Sansevero in Naples, and by Innocenzo Spinazzi (1726–1798), active in Florence. In the 1850s Raffaelle Monti (1818–1881) of Milan made statues and busts of a Veiled Vestal, an ancient Roman priestess, which may have inspired the title The Veiled Nun for this bust. Monti’s works contributed to the popularity of this sculptural type and were often copied for sale by carvers whose names are not recorded.
From 1939 to 2012 the Corcoran bust was ascribed to the Milanese master Giuseppe Croff (1810–1869), based on observed similarities to an engraving of a veiled bust exhibited at the 1853–1854 New York World’s Fair with an attribution to that sculptor. By 2012, however, scholars agreed that differences from the engraving, together with the wide popularity of veiled busts in the mid-19th century, cast doubt on the Croff attribution for the Corcoran bust. It consequently received a new attribution to an unidentified Italian workshop.
In 19th-century practice, sculptors would produce clay models with their own hands and have them cast in plaster. If an exhibited plaster met with success, marble versions could be carved by expert craftsmen who used measuring systems to render its form in stone with great fidelity. Corcoran must have understood this when he acquired his veiled bust as an anonymous “copy,” as it was called in early catalogs. Other busts apparently derived from the same model, but with the sides and bottom cut as a block rather than curved, are at the National Museum in Belgrade and Laurier House, Public Archives, Ottawa. Neither is signed. The identity of the artist who created the original clay model remains as mysterious as the lady herself.
Purchased March 1863 in Rome by William Wilson Corcoran [1798-1888]; gift 1873 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Catalogue of the Paintings and Statuary of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1874: 6, no. 3 in Octagon Room.
- "Home and Foreign Gossip." Harper's Weekly (February 7, 1874): 131cd-132a.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1881: Octagon Room, no. 4.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 63, Octagon Room, no. 4.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 71, Octagon Room, no. 4.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art Catalogue. Washington, 1892: 88, no. 2019.
- "Chit-Chat of Society: There's Veiled Statue Here Too." Fort Worth Star-Telegram (February 11, 1945): 2, sec. 4.
- Badder, Susan. "The Veiled Nun." In A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Edited by Eleanor Heartney. London, 2002: 21, 46-47, repro., as by Giuseppe Croff.
- Finn, David, with Susan Joy Slack. Sculpture at the Corcoran: Photographs by David Finn. New York and Washington, 2002: 38-39, repro., as by Giuseppe Croff.
- Richard, Paul. "From the Collection: Washington's Prize Possessions." The Washington Post (March 31, 2002): Arts sec., repro.
- Strong, Lisa. "'The Veiled Nun' Unveiled." In [email protected] School, posted 13 June 2013 at http://unveiled.corcoran.gwu.edu/blog/the-veiled-nun-unveiled/ (accessed 10 May 2017).