In 1962, the sculptor Bryant Baker used nineteenth-century images of George Wythe to create a marble bust of the jurist. A gift to the State from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is displayed in the Virginia State Capitol.
Wythe was a well-known Virginia lawyer and politician. Born probably in 1726 near what is now Hampton, Virginia, he received his early education from his mother and studied law under his uncle, Stephen Dewey. Wythe was admitted to the bar in 1746. Throughout his career as a lawyer, Wythe tutored pupils such as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Wythe was active in Virginia's politics before and after the American Revolution. First elected to the House of Burgesses in 1754, he was appointed clerk in 1768, and remained a member until 1776. He was also twice acting attorney general of the colony. Elected to the Second Continental Congress, Wythe signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He continued his political career and became Speaker of the House of Delegates in 1777.
Wythe left his position at the House of Delegates when he was appointed a professor of law at the College of William and Mary in 1778, making him the first law professor in America. In 1778 Wythe also accepted an appointment as a judge of Virginia's High Court of Chancery. In his later years, Wythe was opposed to slavery and freed several enslaved people. Wythe was allegedly poisoned by his nephew, George Wythe Sweeney, in 1806. Sweeney had also been forging checks from Wythe's accounts. After lingering for two weeks, Wythe died and was buried at Saint John's Church in Richmond, Virginia. Sweeney was never tried for Wythe's murder because the African American witnesses could not legally testify in court against a white person.
This sculpture of Wythe is a portrait bust depicting Wythe's head and shoulders and extending into the upper chest. The use of a portrait bust to honor a person dates to antiquity With his focus on realism, Bryant Baker shows Wythe in contemporary clothing.
Percy Bryant Baker was born in England on July 8, 1881, into a family of carvers and sculptors Baker studied at the London Royal Academy of Arts and came to the United States in 1915 or 1916. Throughout his career, he sculpted statues and busts of many famous Americans and Europeans such as Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, and Prince Olav of Norway. Baker died in 1970.
1. What is a bust?
2. How did George Wythe die?
3. How is Wythe depicted in this bust?
1. Compare this bust of George Wythe, created more than a century and a half after his death, with Houdon's bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, created from life. How are they different or similar? What were the motivations of the sculptors for creating each bust?
Boyd, Julian P. "The Murder of George Wythe." William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 12 (1955): 514–542.
Opitz, Glenn B., ed. Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, & Engravers. 2d ed. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Apollo, 1986.