Modeling Grace

Frederick MacMonnies, Cupid, 1898, Courtesy Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York CityOne can go to the sculpture of the last two centuries not only to marvel at the techniques these works display but to revel in, be appalled by, mourn and even recognize the sensibilities of their makers and viewers. Both technique and sensibility were revealed, at full strength, in “Modeling Grace: Two Centuries of American Sculpture,” a beautifully presented and ultimately inspiring exhibition at Hirschl and Adler Galleries (November 19, 2009–February 6, 2010). Over thirty pieces were included, by Thomas Ball, Thomas Crawford, Hiram Powers, Emma Stebbins, Randolph Rogers, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, Bessie Vonnoh, Thomas Eakins, Evelyn Longman and Paul Manship, among others.

Thomas Crawford, among the first American sculptors to seek training, inspiration and access to the antique in Italy, returned home with the ambition to produce American sculpture. He wrote in 1843: “We have surpassed already the Republics of Greece in our political institutions, and I see no reason why we should not attempt to approach their excellence in the fine arts, which… has secured undying fame to Grecian genius.” The intellectual and spiritual dilemmas of these artists are no longer ours, but their hard work, ingenuity and ambition are still essential American qualities and may be applied to our current attempts at personal and national self-definition in art. Closest to the sensibility of the movies, our most ambitious contemporary narrative art form, was Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii (after 1854) by Randolph Rogers, one of a pair of marble statues, with Ruth Gleaning. Nydia was drawn from The Last Days of Pompeii, a popular novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which she is described as “a very emblem of Psyche in the wanderings, of Hope, walking through the Valley of the Shadow.” This provides Rogers with a fusion of Greek mythology and the Bible that made the sculpture a commercial success, like the novel. Nydia is all action, vulnerability and dismay, draped in gorgeously carved, luminous swooping folds that glow against the gallery’s dark walls.

Most distant-feeling, because they solve a dilemma that no longer bedevils us—the use of female nudity to convey only moral messages—were two chastely beautiful marble busts by Hiram Powers, Charity (after 1867), part of a group of the three Christian Graces, and Clytie (1865–67), the nymph who loved (and lost) Helios and was transformed into a sunflower. They reveal Powers’s mastery of form, density and texture in carving marble, especially in the subtle contrasts between soft breasts and harder shoulder bones, or hair and forehead. There is mastery, too, in his balance of allegory and observation. Powers gave Clytie a neoclassical face of his own devising, with a specific cleft chin and flatter cheeks. Her classical severity is internalized, expressed as character, and complements her American straightforwardness. Charity’s features are in softer focus than Clytie’s, as becomes an allegorical figure rather than a specific, if mythological, character. Huge gilded mirrors, hung behind each bust, reflected views one could not get in a museum, and in general the exhibition’s intimacy encouraged close, surprising study.

The most remarkable object was a chryselephantine Cupid (1898) by Frederick William MacMonnies, 16 inches high, including a lapis lazuli sphere and elaborate pedestal, its wings enameled with an iridescent alloy of gold and silver and a gold wreath dangling from its tiny ivory forearm. Somehow Cupid’s dopey grin and trite admonitory gesture suit the preciousness of these materials much better than they do the 26-inch, all-bronze version exhibited nearby. It sold within a week of its first exhibition, for $6,000. MacMonnies, according to this gallery, later reported his family’s reaction: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” MacMonnies studied with Saint-Gaudens, but his work seems designed for a different, more trivial world.

The surprisingly poignant Écorche—Relief of a Horse (Josephine), about 1882, is by Thomas Eakins, who would later model equestrian bas-reliefs for the arch at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. This near-half of a standing, flayed horse somehow conveys Josephine’s patience. One of the most recent sculptures is another unusually realistic animal. Paul Manship’s bronze 24-inch-high Tortoise (1916, cast 1999), heavy and heavily modeled, stands tall on dumpy, lumpy legs, lovingly observed. Manship would later sculpt streamlined, symmetrical tortoises to support his gate at the Bronx Zoo (installed in 1934), his 1924 Armillary Sphere and his 1939 Celestial Sphere for the League of Nations in Geneva. This long-lived, well-defended animal supporting the world seemed an appropriate allegory for twentieth-century America. Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 535-8810. On the web at www.HirschlAndAdler.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2