John Gibson’s “Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd” serves as a good example of artistic reproduction within the sculptor’s studio. This work was his most popular subject, with at least nine versions commissioned in marble by patrons. Gibson first began working on the subject around 1830.
Each repetition measures approximately 51 inches, making the god the height of an adolescent. He hides in his left hand behind him his ‘heart- piercing dart’ and his bow, the bottom portion of which rests against his calf. Four of the known repetitions of the statue show his right hand reaching outward, the fingers slightly curved. However, in the two earliest repetitions of the statue the hand was holding a flower. No documentation has yet explained this change in the outstretched hand.
In the early 1840s, a fifth version of the subject was commissioned by Richard Alison, a merchant from Woolton Hayes near Liverpool. This repetition is inscribed GIBSON FECIT ROMAE on the top of the tree stump. In 1873 Alison donated the statue to the Walker Art Gallery and it is now part of the collections of the National Museums Liverpool.
Nine repetitions and four reductions, all in marble, clearly demonstrate that Cupid Disguised as a Shepherd Boy was a popular work, and these versions do not include full-size plaster editions of the subject, at least one of which would have been in his studio, while another was exhibited in the Court of Modern Sculpture at the reconstituted Crystal Palace in Sydenham Park.
In no way did the reproduction and international marketing of this statue lessen its perceived quality, nor did its multiple forms create a sense that any of the later repetitions were less important than the first. This is because it was Gibson’s design, and not his specific handcrafting, that appealed to his patrons and enabled him to make numerous versions of a popular subject.
It is perhaps appropriate to argue that related sketches, clay models (small and large), and plaster casts associated with finished marble/bronze statues should all be seen as repetitions of disegno, the artist’s idea as much as his drawing.
The American painter Rembrandt Peale noted that Gibson had told him ‘he never touched his marble’ works, and the writer/engraver duo Henry Noel Humphreys and William Bernard Cooke reported that ‘sculpture, to [Gibson] who has won his way to fame, is now by no means a laborious profession, particularly at Rome’, because he had not touched the marble figures they saw in his studio.
Thus, a sculptor’s studio in nineteenth-century Rome, such as Gibson’s, was akin to a ‘reproductive continuum’, to quote sculpture historian Malcolm Baker, with works in multiple sizes in clay, plaster (models and casts), and marble on display, not to mention potential crossover into other media, such as drawings, prints, statuettes in porcelain and bronze, and photographs.
Reproduction was key to how Gibson worked, whether it was overseeing his own studio practice in creating drawings, plaster casts, and marble statues, or allowing for statuettes, cameos, and engravings to be made after his own designs. As such, he actively contributed to a world of art consumption in which buyers were encouraged to own multiple versions of the same subject in different media. Thus, Queen Victoria herself could, and in fact did, own Gibson drawings, bas-reliefs and statues, porcelain statuettes, cameos, and prints, all with similar subjects and/or designs, none of which suffered from a sense that there was a lack of originality to any of these reproductions.