Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition from the American Renaissance to the Millennium

Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition from the American Renaissance to the Millennium

by Donald Martin Reynolds


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558592766
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/1993
Pages: 275
Product dimensions: 10.42(w) x 12.35(h) x 1.05(d)

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Introduction: The Figurative Tradition

From earliest times, the human figure has symbolized the unknown forces that govern the universe and served as the vehicle for those powers mankind ardently reveres. In one form or another, the figure has been at the center of ritual throughout the world since prehistoric times and the medium through which the human and the divine communicated.

The human figure embodies the universe of human existence and experience. It personified all that is human and is, therefore, the one form in art with which we totally, uniquely, and immediately identify—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Its attraction lies in the fact that it is the complete expression of the beauty, mystery, and dignity of the human person, the quintessential form of life. "In figurative sculpture," the distinguished sculptor Walker Hancock says, "because we are human, we enter into the stone or bronze by empathy and share its formal strength or beauty."

The ancient Greeks were the first to establish standards of beauty for the human figure based on the perfection of its physical development. At first, it served to embellish the Greeks' temples, but when they freed the human figure from its role as an adjunct or embellishment to architecture, the Greeks imbued it through gesture, composition, and modeling with the wide range of feelings and emotions that we identify uniquely with human expression—which has not changed substantially since that time.

The body's physical design is a perpetual marvel of proportion, flesh, and organization. We wonder at nature's systems that coordinate the body's functions; the relationship of motion to the body's skeletaland muscular structures; the skin—our largest sense—through which we feel, love, and hate; reproduction—the thread to sustain life; and the nervous systems that maintain the internal environment of the body. Moreover, through modern medicine, we are constantly confronted with the indivisibility of body, mind, and spirit.

By the human body, and shining through it the human spirit, we are introduced to the glories and mysteries of humanity. Yet, even in our sophisticated age of science, the human capacity to create symphonies, poetry, and all forms of art and, through science, to pierce the cloud of unknowing that surrounds our universe remains a mystery. For a large part of the world since the Middle Ages, the human body has been a metaphor for the universal community of mankind. Medieval theologians audaciously taught that all human beings are united by divine grace-that is, the Creator's love for his creatures. When his creatures learned to express that love to each other through constructive acts, they enhanced the community of mankind, which the theologians called the Mystical Body. Through destructive acts, people cut themselves off from that community, thereby diminishing the body and, consequently, each of its members. Through that analogy of the human figure, those medieval thinkers taught respect for the human person, which was for them a conflation of matter and spirit, unique in the universe to human beings.

John Donne, in the early seventeenth century, contributed to the perpetuation of that medieval idea of a mystical body, in lines from one of his most beautiful Devotions: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promonotory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. John B. Flannagan extended the idea of communion to all of nature. He said in 1942, that his sculpture "partakes of [a] . . . kinship with all living things and [a] fundamental unity of life. . . ."

Mythically, the origins of the human figure go back to creation, when "The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground." (Genesis 2:7) On that authority, sculptors who model claim preeminence over those who carve! At the moment of creation, God also provided us analogously with the distinction between art and craft, for he breathed life into that first figure, "and so man became a living being." Life has always been the singular ingredient in a work of art that distinguishes it, essentially, from craft.

Historically, or to be more accurate, prehistorically, mankind's first images of the human figure are found in the art of the caveman. They are fetishes or fertility figures, and their union of naturalism and idealization are the earliest expressions of that trait possessed by humans alone—the ability to make symbols.

The history of figurative art records the pendulum's swing from naturalism to idealism. Sculpture that successfully balances those two poles of expression tends to have a longer life. Sculpture from the American Renaissance to the present is no exception. The full potential of figurative sculpture is realized when the dignity of humanity is expressed through the eloquence of the human figure. While few works become world-class pieces, many less ambitious works are worthy of study, not only because they are interesting as sculptural form but also because they are rich in the human element, which is the foundation of figuration. What is most important, they hold useful insights for those who will take the time to look within. Because that leitmotif is a unifying theme throughout this book, many lesser-known works of real worth are discussed. Moreover, while the contributions of the major masters of American sculpture have been well covered in monographs and biographies, I have included many other sculptors, whose works surround us and inspire us but whom we hardly know.

This book is an extensive chronicling of the figurative tradition from the American Renaissance to the present, not a balanced history of the period. I have, therefore, presented several hundred artists and works in a general treatment that begins with the great sculpture programs produced in the Beaux-Arts tradition around the time of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and have proceeded to the present to discuss both major and minor sculptors and their works within traditional categories of art history. Most of the sculptors discussed here were or are members of the National Sculpture Society, because most of the sculpture produced from 1893 until World War I was produced by them. Furthermore, the society has continued to be the strongest force for the figurative tradition in America.

The study begins with a discussion of the Beaux-Arts tradition, the single most pervasive force in the history of American art. And it shows how that force was rooted in the classical tradition, which is enjoying a resurgence in figurative art today. Through an analysis of major Beaux-Arts projects and programs, the principles of the tradition that shaped American sculpture at the end of the nineteenth century are clarified and illustrated.

It is most significant to American culture that the Beaux-Arts tradition gave form to America's public monuments, which are one of the primary means by which we communicate our traditions, beliefs, and values from generation to generation. In my discussion of public monuments, therefore, I have analyzed their foremost role as embodiments of human values. The examples I have selected show the enormous range and variety of America's monuments, illustrating their importance not only as works of art but especially as essential components of our culture.

The European influences that shaped America's portrait tradition are discussed to illuminate its foremost achievements from the American Renaissance to the twentieth century. I have analyzed America's historical portraits in bronze of the Beaux-Arts period as well as the intimate portraits that depart from academic models and which account for some of the most memorable pieces of sculpture in any culture. And I have explored the ongoing dialogue between Europe and America in the twentieth century and its effect on the variety of traditional and avant-garde approaches to portraiture in America.

Medallic art has been a much neglected medium, and yet it accounts for some of our richest sculptural treasures. The combination of a revolution in figuration and technological advances in medallic art in nineteenth century France produced a renaissance in the medium that attracted some of America's most gifted sculptors. I have tried to select the work of those expatriates and their followers that best illustrates the richness in variety and scope of America's medallic art. Moreover, I have shown that the roles of key benefactors, collectors, and organizations illustrate the importance of their continued support of medallists and their work today.

As an extant human link to our primordial roots, North American Indian cultures are of unique importance to American sculpture. To make that clear, I have presented a broad selection of Indian sculpture in different styles from the nineteenth century to the present, by non-Indian sculptors as well as by descendants of the first Americans, ranging from anthropologically accurate records of different physical types and Indian lifeways to romantic idealizations of the noble savage.

Although traditionally genre sculpture has not enjoyed the status of high art, few people today are convinced that that distinction is valid. The practitioners of genre, which is best described as everyday people doing everyday things, have often captured profound insights that are of value to all ages. The works I have selected illustrate the power of the genre tradition in American sculpture and express some of those timeless insights. Some of these works also show that the line between genre and categories such as portraiture and equestrian statuary is often unclear and sometimes even meaningless.

Over the years, scholars and specialists have shown that the tradition techniques of making sculpture, modeling and carving, underwent profound change at the turn of the century, and by the 1930s open-form metalwork contributed further to shaping sculpture of the twentieth century. Sculptors trained in the Beaux-Arts method were influenced by the works of ancient Greece and Rome, and the Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque periods. They modeled their figures in clay, which were cast in plaster to be then either cast in bronze or transferred by means of a pointing device into stone. The system involved a body of artisans, those who made the molds and did the pointing, casting, and carving. The successful American sculptors at the end of the nineteenth century were either trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris or learned from those who were.

The advent of direct carving in the United States in the second decade of the twentieth century eventually destroyed the Beaux-Arts studio system, and even though it opened up new avenues of sculptural expression, it drove a wedge between the human figure and figurative sculpture. Then casting figures from life, often fully clothed, further rejected anatomical integrity and the classical nude, which had been the linchpin of the figurative tradition since antiquity. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of modelers and carvers remained faithful to the anatomically conceived figure, and its members continue today to perpetuate that noble tradition in ever growing numbers.

I have concluded this study with a reflection on the fruits of a century of abstraction and a look to the twenty-first century as we approach the millennium.

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Figurative Tradition

Beaux-Arts Symbiosis: Architecture and the Human Figure

A New Perspective on the Nature of Public Monuments

Selected Monuments to the Great and the Small

Highlights of the Equestrian Monument in America

Sentries, Doughboys, and GI Joes

Insights into the American Portrait

The Art of the Medal

The First Americans Remembered

Everyday People Doing Everyday Things

Twentieth-Century Transfigurations

Notes to the Text


Photography Credits

Author Biography: Donald Martin Reynolds teaches at the School of Architecture, Columbia University, in New York City and is the author of many articles and books on sculpture, including Monuments and Masterpieces, which was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Reviews.

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