Thomas Ball had already earned recognition as a painter when he decided in 1850 to devote himself primarily to sculpture. His early pieces were small “cabinet” busts, and Ball’s great admiration for Daniel Webster led him to make such a bust of the great orator. Finding the effort unsatisfactory, he destroyed it. Soon afterward, in 1852, he modeled a life-size plaster bust of Webster. While working on this ambitious sculpture, he had his only actual glimpse of Webster when the statesman passed through Boston. Ball stood at his studio door “to have a good look at him.”  Otherwise, the sculptor was dependent on photographs or paintings for the likeness. Shortly after Ball completed the bust, Webster died, and there was an instant demand for plaster casts of Ball’s work. The artist attested that “this bust . . . is the one I have used, without alteration, for my several statues of the great man.” 
When plans for a publicly commissioned full-length, life-size statue of Webster were rumored, Ball believed he had no chance of obtaining the commission. Therefore, he decided to instead make a statuette that could be replicated to meet the continuing popular demand for Webster images. His first attempt, hastily modeled using an umbrella stick as an armature, collapsed. Everything but the head was broken. Ball started again with an iron armature, and produced the clay statuette of which the Senate’s statue is a bronze cast. For Ball, and apparently for others, “there was something in it, I hardly know what it was, that hit hard.” 
On the first day the statuette was exhibited, Ball received an offer of $500 for the model and the reproduction rights. He accepted “with avidity,” and the patent was subsequently assigned on August 9, 1853, to George W. Nichols of New York City. Nichols, an art dealer, must have profited greatly from the statuette. Ball, content with the recognition, never regretted selling the patent.
To produce the series of bronze replicas, Nichols engaged the J.T. Ames Foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Ames was the first foundry in America to produce bronze statues, and Ball’s Webster is perhaps the earliest statuette to be patented and cast in bronze in a large edition. Nichols’s first initial, as it appears on the base of the statuette, has often been incorrectly read as C rather than G, and his first name seems to have gone undiscovered until now. The design patent (no. 590) issued for this figure clearly states that T. Ball is the assignor of the patent to George W. Nichols, of New York, New York. A drawing from the Design Patent Examiner’s Room at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office confirms the identity of the piece.
The truncated column beside Webster and the two books at the base are standard iconographic attributes. The books represent Rhetoric–-that is, eloquence–-in tribute to Webster’s formidable oratorical powers. The column stands for Fortitude and Constancy, in reference to Webster’s unswerving dedication to the preservation of the Union.
Lorado Taft, the American sculptor and historian, wrote appreciatively about Thomas Ball and his sculpture. Although acknowledging a monotony in the surface treatment of much of Ball’s sculpture, Taft stresses the “essential nobility” of his “dignified and monumental” work, concluding that “in the whole output...there is not one hint of the meretricious or the commercial.”  Ball would seem the right sculptor to have captured Webster’s “essential nobility.” But the potent effect of Webster’s physical and psychological presence on his contemporaries is not easy to comprehend from most of the portraits of him, including (despite the acclaim it received) this one by Ball. Probably only modern motion-picture photography could have recorded Webster as his contemporaries saw him in action, for almost every painting or sculpture of him seems drained of his “measureless power.”
“I have seen men larger; but I never saw anyone who looked so large and grand as he did when he was aroused in debate,” wrote journalist Oliver Dyer in 1889.  But Ball’s bust presents a rather stout, stolid Webster. The tailcoat stretches across his midriff and his pose is frontal and unanimated–-only the massive head conveys something of his intellectual force. Dyer recalled that “Webster’s head was phenomenal in size . . . and grandeur of appearance” and that “his brow was so protuberant that his eyes, though unusually large, seemed sunken, and were likened unto 'great burning lamps set deep in the mouths of caves.’”  Ball’s bronze captures this crowning aspect of Webster, and perhaps this was the “something in it . . . that hit hard.”
The commercial success of the Webster statuette encouraged Ball to model a companion piece of Henry Clay in 1858. In 1876 Ball returned to Webster, his favorite subject, modeling a 14-foot likeness. Cast in Munich, it was a modified enlargement of his earlier statuette. It stands in New York City’s Central Park on a prominent site near the entrance at Seventy-second Street and Central Park West.
1. Thomas Ball, My Threescore Years and Ten: An Autobiography (1892; reprint, New York: Garland, 1977), 137.
2. Ibid., 138.
3. Ibid., 142.
4. Lorado Taft, The History of American Sculpture (1924; reprint, New York: Arno, 1969), 141.
5. Oliver Dyer, Great Senators of the United States Forty Years Ago (1848 and 1849) (1889; reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1972), 252.