The American Hand

The accomplished, mostly small-scale works in “The American Hand: Sculpture from Three Centuries,” at Babcock Galleries in New York City (February 2–March 16, 2012), reflected not only their makers’ skills but also the milieu in which they were created. Take, for example, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s (1848–1907) Diana of the Tower (modeled 1899), a 2½-foot, dark-patinaed bronzed. Saint-Gaudens created the lithe figure, originally conceived as a finial, to be the crowing touch of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. Poised on the ball of one foot, the goddess of the hunt pulls back her bow as she prepares to fire an arrow. Her silhouette is as crisp as a weathervane’s, but this is a fully three-dimensional sculpture. A larger version, 8½ feet high in gilt bronze, is one of the delights of the Englehard Court in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The swift, slender goddess—Saint-Gaudens’s only female nude—embodies the stylish optimism of the American Renaissance.

Elihu Vedder (1863–1923) was another participant in that movement, contributing paintings and mosaics to a number of decorative schemes, at, for example, the Library of Congress. Best known as the illustrator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, he had a bent for mystical subjects that allied him with European Symbolists, as well as the international Aesthetic Movement. Like many artists of the period, he dabbled in interior design, believing that domestic life should be as guided by the principles of good taste as fine art was. The Soul of the Sunflower: A Fireback (1882), spread over three cast-iron panels, is a handsome bas-relief based on a theme Vedder had explored in a number of paintings and drawings.  The classical myth of Clytie and her unrequited love for Helios, the sun, is one source for the image, but Vedder’s design of a disembodied head radiating petals like a sunburst has its own bizarre beauty. The way the petal-flames extend across the three panels of the fireback creates a dynamic, almost-abstract pattern.

A very different vision of American life characterizes The Buffalo Hunt (c. 1876–86), a metal group by the German-born Theodore Baur (1835–94). Baur was a skilled animalier, and the genre was immensely popular at the time. The best known practitioner was the Frenchman Antoine Louis Barye, who specialized in violent confrontations between beasts, but Baur includes Indian figures that seem saddened by the impending loss of the wilderness frontier. Curiously, German artists and writers were particularly interested in the subject: Karl May’s (1842–1912) novels of the American West were a sensation on the Continent.

We tend to think of sculpture as a public artform, designed for memorials and the civic squares: the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln in Washington, D.C. But domestic-scale sculpture is a vital part of the history of connoisseurship. In early nineteenth-century America, the marble bust was a viable alternative to the painted portrait in paying tribute to some notable citizen or family member. Hiran Powers (1805–73) was the premier neoclassical American sculptor. Students made pilgrimages to his atelier in the Florence, and his Greek Slave was considered both an aesthetic and a philosophical triumph. But he was not above portraiture, as the sensitive marble Bust of a Gentleman (Portrait of William Murphy, Jr.), carved c. 1866, demonstrates. Marble largely gave way to bronze in the decades that followed, but a more recent marble work in the exhibition shows a fresh approach. William Zorach (1887–1966) always remained comfortable with figurative art, even against the rising tide of abstraction. His pink marble Young Woman (1956) has a modernist grasp of simplified volumes and planes, but his sensitivity to the texture of stone is timeless. Even a small work like Young Woman illustrates his belief that sculpture is inherently “monumental, something hewn from a solid mass, something with response, with inner and outer form, with strength and power.”

The exhibition includes many sculptors, famous and obscure, who maintained both a public and private presence. William Rudolph O’Donovan (1885–1920) enjoyed a respectable career and, collaborating with Thomas Eakins, worked on the bronze reliefs of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn (1892). His skill is evident in a low-relief bronze plaque from 1883, The Triumph of Time (Relief Portrait of Ella Dietz). The level of execution in this genre was very high at the turn of the century, with Saint-Gaudens, who had apprenticed to a cameo cutter, as the acknowledged master. O’Donovan is little known today, but another bronze sculptor is still widely recognized. Paul Manship (1885–1966) helped define outdoor sculpture in New York City, from his Prometheus (1934) at Rockefeller Center to the stylized animals and plants that grace the gates of many of the city’s parks. In his domestic-scale pieces, he draws on Archaic Greek models for the streamlined deities and nymphs that became a crucial part of the Art Deco dramatis personae. His 1911 Young Minerva (Marietta), a handsome bronze, is a good example of the genre. Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10019. On the web at www.babcockgalleries.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2012, Volume 29, Number 2