Grant in Sculpture:
Part I  - The Context

 

President Ulysses S. Grant and members of his cabinet traveled to Concord, Massachusetts for the unveiling of a new statue in April 1875. It was a fairly common occurrence during a time when the commissioning and unveiling of public art received much attention. But Grant and his cabinet had no idea that on this occasion they would be encountering an object on the leading edge of a new wave of American art. The sculpture was the Concord Minute Man by 24-year-old sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Grant and the other officials joined in a cavalcade to the park site where the bronze tribute to American Revolutionary War heroes was unveiled. French's daughter, Margaret French Cresson, wrote decades later in her biography of her father that during the unveiling ceremony, the seat containing the president and the cabinet secretaries suddenly sank a few inches three times, slightly unsettling Grant, who didn't seem to mind.

The sculpture itself was more unsettling - in fact, it was stirring. The young sculptor had created something brand new on the American art scene: There was in the form a fresh, convincing "feeling of movement" as well as "specificity of moment and the potential for believable action," according to French expert Michael Richman. French was able to "strike a balance between the momentary and the timeless" that helped to infuse the work with "rather exceptional power and spirit," Richman wrote.


Concord Minute Man by Daniel Chester French (1874)
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons


Sculptor Daniel Chester French
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons

French was studying in Florence when the Minute Man was unveiled, but his surname was apropos - French's prime was during an artistic period characterized by the influence of Parisian Beaux-Arts academic tradition on the work of American sculptors, architects, patrons and tastemakers. It was a time in which many public statues of heroes such as Grant were commissioned, crafted and installed across the country.
The American Renaissance

More broadly, this period, called the American Renaissance, reflected the young nation's surge of economic, industrial, technological and nationalistic self-confidence. Many Americans saw a direct democratic and legal lineage from the United States back to Greece and Rome. There were corresponding aesthetic references such as in columns in American public buildings, great neoclassical entablatures and humanistic sculptural figures. There also were anachronistic combinations of idealism and gilded age crassness.

The most famous American of the age, President Grant, was on hand a few months after the Concord occasion for an even more significant aesthetic marker, when he officially opened the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. The exposition turned out to be the start of the American Renaissance movement. In Philadelphia, works by the new wave of American sculptors, including French and Augustus Saint Gaudens, were first gathered and displayed together, to great critical and popular effect. There was something new and exciting happening to American civic sculpture, which seemed to have awakened from the earlier influences of Italian Neo-Classicism here.

Leading sculptors in that tradition had depicted famous Americans essentially as half-naked Roman gods, as Horatio Greenough did in his George Washington (1841).

But as Philadelphia showed, tastes had changed by the nation's centennial. Wayne Craven wrote that Americans of the era yearned for "rich imagery" and sculpture that "put into three-dimensional form" "lofty ideals and concepts" that "reached to the core of (their) national pride, material achievements and philosophy." So during the American Renaissance, togas and fig leafs were cast off in favor of compelling figurative pieces more in tune with a bold republic looking outward and ahead. The pieces were convincingly anatomical, yet their sculptors selected and marshaled natural details strategically in order to tell a compelling story, say, of character, heroism or victory. There also was great variety.

Great Sculptors

The work of two of the masters of the era, Saint Gaudens and French, exemplified that variety. Saint Gaudens, for example, is often characterized as an exquisite portrait sculptor, while French tends to be classified as a crafter of fine idealized figures. In other words, Saint Gaudens created convincing depictions of figures like Abraham Lincoln, Admiral David Farragut and many others; while French created refreshingly individualistic personifications of concepts like exuberant life, nature and technology, and memory.


Augustus Saint-Gaudens, head-and-shoulders portrait by Cox, Kenyon, 1856-1919, artist.
Library of Congress. U.S. Govt. between 1908 and 1920 <http://www.loc.gov/>

But when both sculptors crossed over into the other genre, they created some of their greatest works of all: as in Saint Gaudens' Adams Memorial or the angel of victory leading Sherman near Central Park in New York, and French's gigantic masterpiece in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Karl Bitter, Lorado Taft, Evelyn Beatrice Longman, and Attilio Piccirilli also created exquisite figurative sculpture as the era unfolded.

The movement in sculpture that included the primes of these wondrous artists and others was cemented by the stucco neo-classical facades and figurative sculptures of Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Millions of visitors came away dazzled by the expo's gleaming architectural symmetry and grand profusion of ornament. They returned to their communities keenly influenced, and the City Beautiful Movement spread throughout the United States. Accordingly, neo-classical public buildings and monuments – including Grant's Tomb in New York City – were constructed at a brisk pace, creating a market and outlet for American architects, muralists, landscape architects, and sculptors, and drawing those from Europe.

 

Rise of the Abstract

There was an influx and mingling of ideas that split American art and sculpture between naturalism and abstraction. The watershed event toward the abstract in America was the Armory Show of 1913 in New York City – where Impressionism and Cubism, among others, made a big, controversial, even shocking, splash. It was the start of a new era for public art, including sculpture, in the United States.

Figurative sculptures of great public heroes and ideals continued to be commissioned for decades, with some Beaux-Arts sculptors like Frederick William MacMonnies continuing the tradition to increasing controversy and decreasing numbers of commissions as the years passed.



Joan Miró's Chicago
photo by Antonio Vernon
courtesy Wikipedia

Some sculptors expressed the tradition with interesting forms that showed more abstraction, as in Michael Lantz's Man Controlling Trade (1942) at the Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, D.C.; the architectural sculpture of Lee Lawrie; and the work of Paul Manship.

But the rise of the abstract was clear: Figurative sculpture was streamlined, joined to buildings, and gradually disappeared, seemingly absorbed into sleek, modern architectural facades in cities across the nation. In fact, the movement totally rejected figurative sculpture, as well as ornament itself.

 


Alexander Calder's Flamingo

Public sculpture did make a comeback that coincided with the urban renewal movement that gained traction after World War II.

But the forms that appeared tended to be highly abstract and removed from modern facades to stand apart in lobbies and plazas. Then, instead of a Lincoln, Grant or Sherman being honored in a public plaza, there was Joan Miró's Chicago (1967) or Alexander Calder's Flamingo (1973), also in Chicago .

These pieces aside, big abstract sculptures tended to be unsuccessful because they did little to humanize “barren urban spaces” where real estate values, not public life, were the modus operandi, according to writer Harriet F. Senie.

 

Dissatisfaction with strictly abstract sculptures spurred playful responses in the form of post-modernism. Examples such as Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976) in Philadelphia, or Barry Flanagan's Hare on Bell (1986) in New York City indicate the postmodernist tendency to produce forms, including those in public spaces, that may be recognizable, but with meanings not necessarily recognizable at all. The postmodern sensibility may or may not have taken history seriously, but never literally, and just shrugged at expressing collective memory and civic ideals.

It is easy after decades of hindsight to criticize such modern and postmodern works as non-communicative, self-absorbed, elitist and/or cynical. But modernists applied such terms to the Beaux-Arts traditions and the heroic figurative sculptures that modernism replaced, and post-modernists did likewise with the modernists they supplanted. And as with any aesthetic period, there were large movements at play – including in the case of modernism a turn away from a history that had brought world wars unprecedented in the scope of their destruction. Many artists and patrons likewise turned away from personifying exalted ideals with military heroes or any human forms at all

 


Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976) in Philadelphia
This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Calls for the Figurative

Still, there has continued to be a popular call for recognizable figurative sculptures in recent decades, calls that have intensified in the past 25 years or so. Quite often, those calls have been for figurative sculptures of lesser-known men and women who did notable things or who personify important events. Depictions of anonymous soldiers or war protestors, instead of military leaders, are one example, workers as opposed to wealthy businessmen another, people of color yet another. The achievements of such men and women were typically ignored in civic sculptures and many other venues for centuries.


Franklin Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Figurative sculptures of famous, more traditionally recognized Americans have continued to appear, as in, among many others, the work of Neil Estern at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (1997) in Washington, D.C., and recent depictions of Abraham Lincoln that have coincided with the construction of the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.


The Three Soldiers by Frederick Hart
This photo is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Frederick Hart (1943-1999) was an important figurative sculptor of the famous as well as the anonymous in recent decades. Among the best-known, and most compelling, examples of Hart's work are his Three Fighting Men at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial (1984) and his Creation Portals (1990) at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

American figurative sculptors today are expressing many things in many ways, including native cultures and traditions, notable men and women of color, religious motifs, Western and sports themes, to name just a few of many.

Even in their broad diversity, such depictions share an expression of both the human form and contemporary sensibilities. These important markers may help point a way toward public sculptures that are compelling and justifiable in the 21st century. Part III explores this topic further.

But now, let's turn to Part II, which describes and interprets extant sculptures created of the most famous American of the 19th century, U.S. Grant.

 

Grant In Sculpture Continued

Home

 

Links

Click here for a gallery of outstanding photos of figurative sculpture: http://www.sandstead.com/gallery.html

For photos of the work of Daniel Chester French: http://www.yeodoug.com/resources/dc_french/daniel_chester_french.html

For National Sculpture Society lists of the work of active figurative sculptors: http://www.nationalsculpture.org/nss/showcase/default.asp?view=list
http://www.nationalsculpture.org/nss/artists/links_list.cfm

And here for an international list: http://www.ilovefiguresculpture.com/masters/masters20.html

Sources

Bach, Ira J. and Mary Lackritz Gray. A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Craven, Wayne. Sculpture in America. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1984 edition of 1968 publication.

Cresson, Mary French. Journey into Fame. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1947.

Murray, Richard N., Dianne H. Pilgrim and Richard Guy Wilson. The American Renaissance, 1876-1917. New York: The Brooklyn Museum, Pantheon Books, 1979.

Reed, Henry Hope. The Golden City. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970 edition of 1959 publication.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. Masters of American Sculpture. New York, London & Paris: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993.

Richman, Michael. Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1976.

Senie, Harriet F. Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Wilkinson, Burke. The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1985.

Wolfe, Tom. From Bauhaus to Our House. New York: Pocket Books, 1981.