Joseph Nollekens – British sculptor who became a great artist

William Beachy. Portrait of Joseph Nollekens, 1822
William Beachy. Portrait of Joseph Nollekens, 1822

British sculptor who, contrary to fate, became a great artist and a very wealthy man

Joseph Nollekens is a famous British sculptor of the second half of the 18th – early 19th centuries, an outstanding master of portrait and mythological genres. Joseph Nollekens is widely regarded as one of the finest neoclassical sculptors in European art. The best masterpieces of the great master’s work today adorn the halls of museums in England and Italy, and his biography is a vivid example of a worthy career as an artist.

Joseph Nollekens was also a highly successful art dealer and skilled restorer. According to the testimony of his contemporaries, he was distinguished by incredible frugality and by the end of his life he had amassed a solid fortune on the sale of works of art.

Joseph Nollekens, Bust of Alexander Pope, 1783
Bust of Alexander Pope, 1783

Biography of Joseph Nollekens

Joseph Nollekens was born on August 11, 1737 in London into the family of a Flemish artist who emigrated to England four years earlier. His father Josef Fransis Nollekens, his uncle Jan Nollekens and grandfather Jan Baptist Nollekens were also talented painters.

Since childhood, Joseph wanted to become an artist, but he had to overcome many difficulties in order to realize his dream. At the age of eleven, the boy’s father died, and his mother remarried. His stepfather absolutely did not encourage his stepson’s passion for art, but he showed enviable persistence and in 1750 got a job as an assistant in the workshop of the sculptor Pieter Scheemakers.

Joseph Nollekens, Bust of Charles James Fox, 1792
Bust of Charles James Fox, 1792

For 10 years, Joseph Nollekens worked conscientiously in the studio of his mentor, at the same time comprehending the basics of sculptural art. After that, having saved enough money, in 1760 he left for Rome to get acquainted with the work of the great masters of antiquity and the Renaissance.

At first, life in the capital of Italy was very difficult for Joseph, no one wanted to buy the sculptures of the young artist, and it was almost impossible to find wealthy customers for an unknown author. But Nollekens did not lose heart and began to make a living in other available ways. He traded in antiques, was engaged in the restoration of old statues, made copies of works by famous masters. Despite being very busy, the artist also found time for creativity, creating marble busts and sculptural compositions in the neoclassical style.

Joseph Nollekens, Bust of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, 1805
Bust of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, 1805

In the end, the 10-year stay in Rome was not in vain for the young sculptor.

Thanks to his hard work and talent, he achieved recognition, several of his works were bought by compatriots traveling in Italy. English tourists brought home the work of Nollekens. And these works made a strong impression on critics and the public.

Upon his return to London in 1770, Joseph Nollekens received a warm welcome from British high society. In no time he became the most sought after sculptural portrait painter in England and created many busts of dignitaries. In terms of popularity, he was in no way inferior to the famous painter Joshua Reynolds, and the British king George III was an ardent connoisseur of the sculptor’s work.

Diana the Huntress, 1778
Diana the Huntress, 1778

From that moment, Joseph Nollekens could no longer worry about his own material well-being and created for his own pleasure. He had many wealthy customers, his works were constantly exhibited at exhibitions, in 1772 the leadership of the Royal Academy granted the master the title of honorary member of this prestigious institution.

Juno, 1776
Juno, 1776
In the center of London, the sculptor opened his own spacious workshop.

In addition to creating his own works, the artist continued to make copies and restore ancient masterpieces. He married a girl, Mary, the daughter of Justice of the Peace Saunders Welch, and lived happily with his wife until her death in 1814, but they had no children.

Over the years, Nollekens amassed an extensive art collection, which after his death was sold at Christie’s. In old age, after the death of his wife, the artist developed serious health problems, he suffered from partial paralysis of the joints and senile dementia. And on April 23, 1823, Joseph Nollekens died in his own home at the age of 85. The great sculptor was buried in the Parish Church of Paddington, which is located in the central part of the English capital.

Minerva, 1775
Minerva, 1775
The most famous works of Joseph Nollekons

The brilliant British master created many beautiful masterpieces in the neoclassical style. And yet, the most famous works of Joseph Nollekons include:

  1. Venus (1773) is the statue of the Roman goddess created in classical ancient traditions. Venus appears in front of the audience in the image of a young naked girl with perfect female forms.
  2. “Diana-Hunt” (1778) is an image of an ancient Greek goddess, gracefully shooting out of the bow. The artist has a heroine in subtle clothes, emphasizing the advantages of her young body.
  3. “Vera” (1788) is an allegorical composition created by the author on the order of Lord Henry Howard (Hoenry Howard) and installed on the grave of the sophisticated spouse of British Velmazby.
  4. “Bust William Pitt” (1807) is a classic sculptural portrait of the late period of the master’s work. The outstanding politician of Britain is depicted in the image of an antique ruler dressed in Roman Togu.
Vera, 1788
Vera, 1788

Joseph Nollekons was an unusually targeted artist, which despite everyday difficulties stubbornly moved to recognition and success. And in the history of British art, he will forever remain a great master of classical sculpture.

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