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Stories Behind Statues: Hebe

The oldest assumed female statue in Oakland is an outlier; it was almost certainly not created as a monument to the dead.  The badly damaged marble statue on the Witt family lot in the Jewish section of the cemetery is called Hebe (goddess of eternal youth and cup bearer to the gods of Mt Olympus). The statue bears the signature of John Gibson, a master sculptor of 18th century.

John was a neoclassical sculptor who spent most of his life in Rome. Son of a market gardener, Gibson was born near Conwy in Wales and at age 9 his family settled in Liverpool — but for the intervention of his mother the family would have emigrated from there to America.
John Gibson
At age 14 he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker and managed to move into decorative wood carving. He later became dissatisfied with this though and, by going on strike, managed to secure a transfer to a marble works. After completing his apprenticeship there, he moved in 1817 first to London and thence to Rome, where he trained under Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen. He carried out commissions for the duke of Devonshire, Sir George Beaumont , Sir Watkin Williams Wynn , and other leading art patrons of the period. Most of the remainder of his life was spent at Rome, although he visited England in 1844 in connection with the erection of his statue of Huskisson at Liverpool, and again in 1850 and 1851 to model the statue of the queen, and subsequently in 1855.
His work was strongly influenced by classical tradition and by the Greeks, even to coloring his sculpture, and his most famous work, ‘ The Tinted Venus ,’ and two other tinted statues occasioned considerable discussion when they were shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862.

Gibson was elected A.R.A. in 1833 and R.A. in 1835; he exhibited thirty-three works at the Royal Academy between 1816 and 1864 . After several years of ill health he died in Rome on Jan 27, 1866 and was buried in the English cemetery there.

Oral history states that Oakland’s Hebe statue was purchased many decades ago from its earlier abode in a grand hotel lobby; current research is being conducted to discern the statue’s earlier origins.  While this piece was not created to rest in its current setting, it is appropriate as a representative of the classical revival of Greco-Roman forms and their applications in the physical manifestations of grief and memory. Next time you’re at a cemetery looking at a deteriorating statue, it could be from a famous sculpture.

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