Bessie Potter Vonnoh

Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Allegresse, modeled 1920 probably cast 1930, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.One of the most successful women artists of her generation, Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955) specialized in accomplished images of women and children. At a time when the field of American sculpture was dominated by men creating large, public monuments, she designed intimate works for domestic interiors and gardens, elevating the quality and appeal of small bronze, marble and terra cotta sculptures. Launching her career in the time of industrialization, urbanization and the women’s rights movement, Vonnoh contributed to the dramatic transformation of American society. Yet, while she came to embody the “New Woman,” her characteristic imagery—blissful domestic life—supported conventional ideas of women as icons of beauty and moral guardians of the home. Vonnoh faded from public view with the onset of more modern styles. Recently, however, art historians and sculpture aficionados have been taking a fresh look at her work. Her renewed popularity with knowledgeable collectors is reflected in rising prices for her pieces at major auction houses. She is now the subject of an overdue retrospective, “Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women,” organized by Julie Aronson, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Showcasing thirty-five of her best pieces, the show is accompanied by Aronson’s outstanding, fully illustrated catalogue (287 pages, co-published by the Cincinnati Art Museum and Ohio State University Press).

At the age of fourteen, Bessie Potter began studies at the Art Institute of Chicago under noted French-trained sculptor Lorado Taft (1860–1936). After assisting Taft in making sculpture for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, she opened her own Chicago studio. Traveling to Paris in 1895, she visited Auguste Rodin, who greatly influenced her work. Returning to Chicago, she achieved fame with A Young Mother (1896), an animated, tabletop-size bronze of a woman cradling her infant, the only work by an American woman to win a medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Curator Aronson observes: “A celebration of youth and healthfulness,…[A Young Mother] elevated all that seemed right, in a time marked by runaway social and technological change.” Another characteristic image, Girl Dancing (1897), reflecting the vibrancy of Rodin’s manner, depicts a contemporary young woman dancing in a romantic, old-fashioned gauzy skirt.

In 1898, Potter moved to New York, and the following year she wed Impressionist painter Robert W. Vonnoh (1858–1933). During this era, most women artists who married gave up their careers to become homemakers. Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt, two outstanding painters who were Bessie’s rough contemporaries, stayed single in order to concentrate on their careers. Robert Vonnoh, recognizing the quality and potential of Bessie’s work, supported her independent career. In encouraging her appreciation of Impressionism, he influenced his wife’s concentration on contemporary subjects and vigorous modeling. For many years, the Vonnohs divided their time between France and New York City, with summers in Old Lyme.

Bessie Vonnoh, although she never had children of her own, specialized in portraits of youngsters. Hester (1901), portraying the four-year-old daughter of fellow sculptor Alexander Phimister Proctor, conveys the freshness and uncertainties of childhood. Two notable bronzes, modeled soon after the turn of the twentieth century, epitomize Vonnoh’s continuing commitment to images of motherhood. Enthroned (1902) shows a mother regally ensconced in a throne-like chair, with a “halo” behind her head and holding three children. Similarly, A Modern Madonna (1904) portrays Vonnoh’s close friend and Old Lyme neighbor, artist Helen Savier Dumond (wife of painter Frank Vincent DuMond), affectionately holding her infant son. The title suggests the ideal modern mother as a secular Madonna. For a few years, attracted by the potential of their pebbly texture and muted colors for suggestive effects, Vonnoh worked in terra cotta, creating sculptures from earth clays fired to make them hard. In line with tradition, she used terra cotta for intimate, spontaneous images, as in Young Woman Reading (c. 1910).

The Vonnohs became friends with Woodrow Wilson, his first wife, Ellen, a trained painter, and their daughter Jessie. In a substantial bronze (16-by-6⅛-by-7 inches), Jessie appears elegant and stately in a long Grecian costume. A little later, Vonnoh modeled a marble bust of the president’s daughter that delineated her fine facial features. Vonnoh was pleased when a number of her works were displayed in the Red Room of the White House. Meanwhile, Robert Vonnoh painted several portraits of the Wilson family. His 1913 group likeness of Mrs. Wilson pouring tea for her three daughters in the artist’s studio in Cornish is owned by the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington.

Seeking to tap into the market for sculpture to decorate the increasing number of large formal gardens, in 1913 Vonnoh made her first garden pieces, Water Lilies, depicting a slender, nude boy balancing on a rock, and The Intruder, in which a girl’s bath has been interrupted by a turtle. Vonnoh carried out two prestigious public garden commissions. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bird Fountain (1923–27), for a National Audubon bird sanctuary near the president’s grave at Oyster Bay, Long Island, shows a standing girl holding a basin for feeding birds and a seated boy feeding animals and birds from a bowl. The Francis Hodgson Burnett Memorial (1928) was a tribute in bronze to the author of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy for the Conservatory Garden in New York’s Central Park. It featured a reclining, Pan-like boy playing the flute and a standing nymph-like girl holding a bowl with a bird. Closely related to the garden pieces Vonnnoh produced in the 1920s were larger bronze sculptures, often featuring nude figures, such as the complex and compelling multi-figure work Allegresse (1920). The title is French for gaiety, joy or mirth. Based on poses of professional dancers in her studio and images of the Three Graces from antiquity, Allegresse won a gold medal at the National Academy of Design, which led to Vonnoh joining her husband as a full member—the first married couple to be so honored.

By the late 1930s, Vonnoh was faced with a shift in popular tastes from naturalistic sculpture toward modern, streamlined and abstract styles that were not to her liking. Nevertheless, she commanded respect as the grande dame of American sculpture and as the senior member of the National Sculpture Society. She worked sporadically until 1950, and died in 1955. Vonnoh made influential contributions to the field of American sculpture, notably in her work with bronze statuettes. She served as a role model in breaching institutional barriers to other women artists. The current comprehensive—and to many, revelatory—exhibition will go a long way toward reviving Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s reputation. After opening at the Florence Griswold Museum, the exhibition travels to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama (through May 10, 2009) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (June 6–September 6, 2009).

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2