Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Portrait of a Songbird
QUESTION: I have this bust of a woman and was wondering if you can tell me anything about it. It's approximately ten inches high and appears to be made of marble. The name “Patti” appears under the bust.
ANSWER: Your bust isn’t made of marble but is a fine example of Parian Ware, a bisque-type porcelain invented to simulate marble so that upper middle class 19th-century homeowners could decorate their homes with beautiful things much like the wealthy. The woman depicted in this late 19th-century bust is the renowned opera singer Adelina Patti.
First, let’s take a look at the bust’s material. Unlike marble, which is a stone, Parian is actually a form of ceramics made of white clay and feldspar. Minton, one of England’s leading ceramics makers, named it in 1845 for the Greek island of Paros, renowned for its fine-textured, white marble of the same name. Copeland, another leading ceramics manufacturer, called their version Statuary Porcelian. Parian’s advantage over marble was that it could be prepared as a liquid and poured into molds, cutting production costs and making it cheaper to buy.
Used mostly for figurines and busts, Parian at first simulated famous classic sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome. But later on, after it caught on, artists sculpted busts of famous persons of the times. This bust of Adelina Patti is one of hundreds produced during the peak of Parian’s popularity.
Although eight primary English manufacturers produced Parian, Minton and Copeland were the largest and produced some of the finest examples.
Born on February 10, 1843 in Madrid, Spain, the last child of Italian tenor Salvatore Patti and soprano Caterina Barilli, Adelina Juana Maria Patti was a famous 19th-century opera singer. She first sang in public as a child in 1851, and gave her last performance before an audience in 1914. Along with two other songbirds, Jenny Lind and Thérèse Tietjens, Patti remains one of the most famous sopranos in history because of the purity of her lyrical voice. The composer Giuseppe Verdi, writing in 1877, described her as being the finest singer who had ever lived.
She made her operatic debut at age 16 on November 24, 1859 in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Academy of Music in New York. When she was 18, she appeared at London’s Covent Garden Opera House in the role of Amina in Bellini's La sonnambula. She had such success at Covent Garden that she purchased a house in Clapham and, using London as a base, went on to conquer the famous opera houses of Europe.
In 1862, during an American tour, she sang John Howard Payne's “Home, Sweet Home” at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Lincoln. Moved to tears, the Lincolns requested an encore of the song in honor of their dead son Willie. Patti later performed it many times as a encore at the end of her concerts.
Patti had a tremendously successful career. She sang not only in England and the United States, but also in Europe, Russia, and South America, receiving critical acclaim wherever she went.
She last sang in public in October 1914, taking part in a Red Cross concert at London's Royal Albert Hall that had been organized to aid victims of World War I. She lived long enough to see the war end, dying on September 27, 1919 of natural causes at Craig-y-Nos Castle, her private residence in Wales. In her will, she requested that she be buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to be close to her father and favorite composer Rossini.
When she was a child, her parents moved the family to New York City where Patti grew up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. Patti sang professionally from childhood, and developed into a coloratura soprano with perfectly equalized vocal registers and a surprisingly warm, satiny tone. Patti learned how to sing and gained understanding of voice technique from her brother-in-law Maurice Strakosch, who was a musician and impresario.
For more information on Parian Ware, read my article in The Antiques Almanac.