Bust of Mary Baker Eddy by Luella Varney Serrao
One of the most intriguing likenesses of Mary Baker Eddy is this marble bust by Luella A. Varney (later Serrao: 1865-post 1935). It is the only sculpture for which Eddy posed.
The story of this marble bust of Mary Baker Eddy begins in September 1888, when Mary H. Collins of Denver, Colorado wrote to her. Collins and her husband Edward were Christian Scientists, and had taken a course in Christian healing and teaching from Eddy the previous year. She wrote:
Yesterday I was looking at your picture in S&H. [Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy] I remarked to my husband that I would like your bust in marble. He requested me to write and ask you if you will be willing to give us photos (a profile & a full face) with your permission to send them to Rome for modeling. While there we had our own made & are very much pleased with the work, which is by an American girl Luella M. Varney of Cleveland whom we taught C.S. [Christian Science] while she was home on a visit, and taking orders. This is very material talk but I want you to be assured that you will not be caricatured by a poor piece of art. It will be life size, in best Carrara marble & will cost $500.1
The high praise for Varney’s artistic skills apparently interested Eddy, for she sent photographs. In October Collins wrote Calvin A. Frye, Eddy’s secretary:
Your letter with Photos have been received. Please say to Mrs. Eddy we are delighted with them & thank her very much, but in order to get the form & correct measurements of the back of her head it is necessary to have a profile view….2
By the spring of 1889 Mary Baker Eddy had commissioned the artist to sculpt a portrait bust of her. Rather than using photographs, Eddy decided to sit for the artist. Arrangements were made to use a room in the building next door to Eddy’s 385 Commonwealth Avenue home as a studio. For two weeks Eddy sat for 1 to 2 hours a day (except Sundays). Ebenezer J. Foster Eddy, her adopted son, accompanied her at the sittings, and as she sat she worked on edits to Science and Health.
Eddy was very pleased with the artist’s finished clay model. She commissioned two marble busts: one bust for her home, and the other for the yet to be built Christian Science church edifice in Boston. Soon, however, Eddy canceled the order for the second bust, as she realized that having her likeness displayed in church could give rise to accusations of idolatry. One marble bust was shipped to her in the fall of 1890. By then Eddy had left Boston for the quiet of Concord, New Hampshire.
Ebenezer J. Foster Eddy writes to Ira Oscar Knapp in an October 27, 1890 letter:
I enclose to you a letter from Miss Luella Varney who is now in Rome, Italy, and who has completed Mothers bust and as she says started it for America. Will you please look after the matter and see that it is safely put up into 385 Commonwealth Ave.3
The bust, as reproduced in marble, proved to be a disappointment. Eddy felt that there had been changes made to the nose, the shoulders were too large, and she did not care for the classical drapery, about the shoulders, a touch very typical of the period. When Eddy heard that Varney, now Serrao, was visiting the United States, she invited her to visit Concord, NH, hoping the artist could make some changes to the sculpture. Serrao had other commitments and could not make the trip. The bust remained covered up and placed in a closet, never to be displayed.
The Library’s bust is not unique; there were at least five busts made of Eddy by Serrao. One was made for Mary and Edward Collins, later given to the Colorado State Historical Museum (and unfortunately destroyed in 1952 due to vandalism). Another was owned by Edward A. Merritt, a student of Eddy’s who gave his bust to the New Hampshire Historical Society in 1922. Yet another is owned by the Longyear Museum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. In 1935 Calvin and Frances Thompson Hill purchased a bust from Serrao, and in 1966 Mrs. Hill donated the artwork to the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum.
The Artist Luella A. Varney Serrao was a gifted artist who achieved success in an era when there were very few women sculptors. She created many notable works over the course of her career, including likenesses of notable Americans such as Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, Theodore Roosevelt, and Mark Twain. Serrao was born in Angola, New York, but moved as a young girl to Cleveland, Ohio. Even as a child she showed exceptional proficiency in drawing and working with clay. By high school she was taking lessons in painting and modeling, and eventually traveled to Rome, Italy, for further study, where she received a degree in art from the University of Rome. It was while she was in Rome that she met Mary and Edward Collins. She continued to work until she married Teodoro Serrao, an Italian lawyer; after his passing, she returned to the United States and continued working until her own passing.
Epilogue In 1932 a new biography of Mary Baker Eddy, Mary Baker Eddy — The Truth and the Tradition, by Ernest M. Bates and John V. Dittemore, was published. The book included a photograph of a clay likeness of Eddy that was described as a “life mask.” Naturally, the photograph raised a great deal of interest, and the question was raised, was a mold taken of Eddy’s face?
In 1933 Fredrick Remington, a dealer in Eddy memorabilia, and Clifford Smith, a Christian Science church official, set out to answer this question. Interviews with former Eddy employees confirmed that she had never had a life mask made, but the similarity between the “mask” and Serrao’s bust was noted. Initially, the artist was shown photographs of the model, and she was puzzled by what was depicted and said that although it was her work, it had nothing to do with the completed marble busts.
Remington located the clay piece in the summer of 1934 and it was turned over to The Christian Science Board of Directors. Due to the fragility of the clay the Board had bronze casts made of it. When Remington showed her one of the bronze casts to Serrao she knew exactly what it was. She wrote Remington and said:
That bronze could only have been made from the original clay which I myself modeled…. When an artist completes his work in the clay, he then proceeds to make a cast from this clay. After the cast hardens the clay is removed and quite often when removing the clay the facial features in front of the ears come out intact…4
Serrao went on to say that she never saved the clay removed from the cast because it tended to deteriorate and crumble. She was very surprised to learn of its existence.
This original clay piece remains in The Mary Baker Eddy Collection as part of the historic records documenting Luella Varney Serrao’s bust of Mary Baker Eddy, and the part of Serrao’s work that pleased Eddy the most.