William Rush (1756-1833) was the most significant American sculptor to emerge from the folk-art and figurehead carving tradition of the early years of the republic.
William Rush was born in Philadelphia. His father was a ship carpenter, and as a boy William occupied himself by carving ship models. He was apprenticed to learn the trade of carving, probably before the Revolution; his earliest known commissions for figureheads date from about 1790. As time went on, Rush became famous as a carver, and he employed a number of apprentices. He was the only sculptor to become one of the founders, in 1794, of the short-lived Columbianum, the first art organization in America; and he was also one of the first directors of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Probably because of his superior skill at figurehead carving, Rush was able to advance to a position beyond that of purely artisan work, and he received a number of significant commissions in the realm of "pure" sculpture. His first important works were the figures Comedy and Tragedy (1808) for the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. The following year he was commissioned to create what was probably his best-known sculpture, the Water Nymph and Bittern. In 1824, on the occasion of Lafayette's triumphal tour of the United States, Rush not only carved his portrait but also executed two monumental sculptures, Wisdom and Justice, which were placed atop a Philadelphia triumphal arch erected in Lafayette's honor. His last major works were two reclining figures, Schuylkill River Chained and Schuylkill River Freed (ca. 1828).
Rush executed a number of portraits. His subjects included Benjamin Rush, George Washington, Oliver Hazard Perry, Andrew Jackson, and Winfield Scott. Two of his finest works were portraits of himself and of his daughter, Elizabeth.
Rush was primarily a woodcarver, and the deep under-cutting, broad planes, and general columnar form of many of his statues bear witness to his respect for his medium. He never worked in marble. Some of his portrait busts exist in plaster and some in terra-cotta, mediums in which he was also proficient. Stylistically, he was closer to the decorative rococo tradition of the 18th century than to the prevailing neoclassicism of his own time. Yet his allegories were not unlike those carved by European artists of his day, and his Schuylkill River Chained certainly relates to statues of classical river gods. While some critics have claimed that Rush was the first American sculptor, he really represents the apogee of the artisan tradition of woodcarving, for American sculpture would develop in the future along the lines of neoclassic marble carving.
A biographical study of Rush is Henri Marceau, William Rush, 1756-1833: The First Native American Sculptor (1937).