Sculpture In The 19th Century

OF ALL arts of the nineteenth century, sculpture is the one which longest retained and exhibited the influences dating from the later half of the eighteenth century. Only in quite recent years has it begun to shake off the imitative quality which the Greek Revival had stamped upon it. The reasons for this are obvious. The pre-eminence of the Greeks in sculpture is so unquestioned and the fame of their works so great, that all later art must bow before it.

When the influences of literary fashion and historic interest were added to the weight of the technical superiority and artistic value, the inevitable result, for for the time being, was imitation. This imitation being the rage in general, the art in which the Greek was most admired experienced the result most sensibly. Thus, to the period of Thorwaldsen, the imitation of Greek sculpture appeared to be a necessary consequence of its admitted superiority. The modern copyists overlooked, however, the point that the Greeks had not reached their greatness in sculpture by studying statues. Although they had idealized nature, they had always based their art upon it. One defect of the Greek Revival statuary was, consequently, a cold and formal quality resulting from the habit of studying statues as distinct from the study of living nature. It should be added, too, that little was known in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of the vigor and the life of original Greek art. The models followed had been mainly those of the Roman period. It was not till the year 1816 that the British government agreed to purchase the Elgin Marbles, although they had then been in London for nine years.

After the time of Canova the Italian sculpture sank into insignificance. The Greek School was meantime headed for northern Europe by the names of the English John Gibson and the German Dannecker. In both these artists we notice the deficiency of vigorous modeling peculiar to the imitative Greek School, Canova and Thorwaldsen included. The lack of differentiation in execution between details and bodily forms was also a weakness a weakness never found in the antique art which was supposed to be imitated. An over delicate finish of surface and refinement in representing textures have not been confined to the Greek Revival, and still impair the value of a great deal of more recent sculpture, but this deficiency appears most objectionable when the pretense of idealism is suggested. We must concede, on the other hand, to the modern Greek Revival, nobility of purpose, refinement of thought, and an absence of those glaring offenses to good taste in the way of extravagant and pretentious poses and conceptions which had been the almost universal rule in late Renaissance sculpture. This point will appear if the reader will compare its illustrations with those for Thorwaldsen and Canova.

On the whole, the German sculptors Rauch and Kiss represent the highest level of success for the first half of the nineteenth century. Both of these artists had risen to independent mastery of form and independent representation of it. Rauch’s great monument of Frederick the Great in Berlin is the finest of its kind in Europe. The Amazon, by Kiss, fronting the entrance to the Berlin Museum, is one of the most powerful of modern works.

In more recent years the credit of shaking off the trammels of imitative Grecianizing sculpture belongs especially to the artists of France, and in this movement the influence of the early Renaissance, as nearer to our own time than the Greek in its attitude toward nature, had no small share. Among these French artists we may mention Carpeaux, Falguière, and the isolated and powerful genius of Rodin. For uncompromising realism, sense of character, and powerful and bold summary of the essentials of form (as distinct from minute and over-anxious specializing of details) the French sculptor Barye has no superior in modern art. His devotion to the field of animal sculpture may be considered a limitation when the element of thought in art is given its place, but this colossal genius was able to find a field in animals which did not expose him to the prejudices and preoccupations of modern amateurs so long accustomed in figure design to the imitation of classic art. The name of Cain stands only second to Barye in the same field.

Among the most powerful and original English sculptors of the new school are Hamo Thornycroft and Sir Frederick Leighton. Sir Frederick Leighton’s statue of ” The Sluggard,” exhibited at the Columbian Exposition, must have been a revelation to all who have known him simply as a painter. It ranks among the very first works of modern sculpture in the last four centuries. The same must be said of Thornycroft’s “Teucer,” which is one of the treasures of the Art Institute of Chicago, and one of the finest works of foreign sculpture owned in this country. It is not, how-ever, advisable to enlarge the catalogue of works even at the risk of omitting those of men of genius. The main point is to state the tendency which the last twenty-five years have everywhere exhibited the tendency to learn principles of execution from the Greeks, without borrowing their subjects or imitating the exterior appearance of their art. Modern art for moderns, is the watchword at last.

To this tendency the younger sculptors of America have been especially influenced by the teachings of the best French masters, and under the inspiration of this tuition have risen to a point of greatness where they have become their worthy rivals. In fact, when we distinguish the technical ability in which the French have been especially eminent, from the thought, conception, and purpose of the art, the palm may even now be awarded to American sculpture. In this distinction we do not wish to imply any technical inferiority in the American School, but rather to refrain from asserting for it a superiority of simple execution and to claim for it by contrast the superiority of a more genuine, original spirit, and of a fresher and purer inspiration. We can only say that no opportunity has ever been offered modern sculpture like that assigned it in the statuary for the buildings and grounds at the Columbian Exposition, and that American artists rose to the occasion and were equal to it. Nor should we overlook in this assertion the foreign birth of some of the gentlemen who bore away great honors, or appear to be ignorant of their share in the great success achieved. We can at least lay claim to the honor that they have made America their second and adopted home, and that their genius found its recognition here.

In the earlier years of this century and the earlier days of American sculpture, the name of Hiram Powers long held sway as the leading one. To-day we must confess that our interest in him is historical and that he is the weakest of all Greek imitators who have achieved a name. That he was the first of American sculptors to make a name must be conceded. His ability did not go farther than that of making a weak imitation of the Medici Venus, with deviations of pose and attitude sufficient to allow of a new baptism. His “Greek Slave,” known in several copies, had a world-wide reputation about the middle of this century when critics were less exacting than they are today. The names of Crawford (bronze doors of the Capitol at Washington) and Palmer, possibly less quoted than Hiram Powers, will stand far higher. In the days following the Civil War the statuette groups of John Rogers had a popularity which they have not yet entirely lost. They do not claim to be more than pictures in clay, but, making all concessions to the humility of size and purpose, we must still refrain from awarding praise to these groups. Deficiency in dignity should not alone condemn a small and unpretentious group or statuette, but these works are a dangerous concession to the taste which looks to the imitation of textures and the representation of anecdotes and incidents by plastic art. The statue of Lincoln, by Rogers, seen at the Columbian Exposition, is a serious and important work of the first class. To judge from this statue, his little groups have been one of those concessions of the bread-winner to popular taste, of which modern art is, unhappily, so full. It is useless to criticise an artist in such matters, where only the public is to blame.

Toward the close of the third quarter of our century the names of Launt Thompson and J. Q. A. Ward were probably the most important. The dignity, reserve, and simplicity of Thompson’s work have been universally recognized. His portrait statues of Yale, at New Haven, and of Bonaparte, in the Museum of New York, will long hold their own. John Quincy Ward is the great father of recent American sculpture, and his bronze statue of Henry Ward Beecher, in Brooklyn, proves that his talent is still young in these later years. All of Ward’s works are careful, exact, and conscientious studies. His Beecher is an inspiration.

We come then to the latest, best, and youngest generation of American sculptors, headed by Augustus St. Gaudens, Olin Warner, and Daniel C. French, names of such distinction that to praise them is superfluous and to criticise them impossible or impertinent. What younger artists will wrench their laurels from them is uncertain, but Potter, Partridge, and Boyle, Taft, Rubisso, and Mac-Monnies, Dalin, Proctor, and Kemeys, Adams, Kitson, and Donoghue, Tilden, Wesseihoeft, Bartlett, Grafly, and Elwell are among the number of their rivals.

Of all modern portrait statues of authors the ” Dickens and Little Nell” of Mr. Edwin F. Elwell appears to me the most inspired. The thought of connecting an author with his favorite creation, of calling to life the phantom of the brain, of showing at once the author and his work in spiritual sympathy and union is an original and beautiful idea. Mr. Elwell’ s colossal Hancock, designed for the battlefield of Gettysburg, is one of the most important equestrian monuments of modern history.

Among the portrait statues of American Colonial heroes and statesmen there is surely none to rival the Hamilton of Wm. Ordway Partridge, in Brooklyn. As the ideal of an orator it appears to me the most successful work in modern art. It is the great fortune of Mr. Partridge to have a practical knowledge of the art of the dramatist and of elocution. The combination in his Hamilton of statuesque reserve with the suggestion of the spirited effort of a great spokesman is a marvelous success. The Shakespeare of Mr. Partridge, in Lincoln Park, Chicago, is a refined and dignified work of masterly detail.

In the preparations for the Columbian Exposition the supreme task was assigned to Mr. Daniel C. French a colossal statue of the ” Republic.” The failure would have been colossal, thé success must be equally rated. With every increase of dimension in statuary its problem becomes more difficult. To say that this problem was solved with beauty, with originality, with simplicity, and with dignity, is saying what no one can deny. For the given place and given architectural surroundings to which the equally balanced and equally uplifted arms exactly corresponded, this has proved the most successful colossal work of modern sculpture. Its most obvious rivals would be the “Liberty” of New Yorkharbor, the “Bavaria” in Munich, by Schwan-thaler, and the ” Hermann’s Denkmal, ” or monument of Arminius, near Detmold in Germany, and none of these can be called its equal. Mr. French’s relief for the tomb of a sculptor, called ” The Angel of Death and the Sculptor,” was exhibited in the Art Pal-ace at the Columbian Exposition. Since the tomb reliefs of ancient Athens the works are few indeed which could compare with it.

For the statuary groups of the Court of Honor, Mr. French and Mr. Potter have already received a tribute of appreciation to which I can only add my own. No similar works of modern history are deserving of equal place, and I can see no reason for suggesting that antiquity surpassed them. It should be added that their material, al-though perishable, was contributory to this success. The weakness of modern sculpture lies in its lack of constant practice with the chisel. The manual labor of cutting the block of marble has been so constantly assigned to subordinate workmen that the mastery of chisel technique is more or less wanting to the modern sculptor. It is when his own model can be directly transferred to cast in a material like “staff,” or actually worked up in this material, whose rough surface is favorable to large effects, that the genius of the modern artist best stands comparison with his rivals of antiquity.

In the application of statuary to architectural decoration the use of this material again allowed the artists of the Columbian Exposition to achieve a scale and amount of decoration hitherto unknown, at least since the time of the Romans, and again they were equal to the occasion. No works of the kind in modern art can be compared with those achieved by Mr. Carl Bitter and Mr. Martiny for the Administration and Agricultural buildings. The works of Mr. Boyle and Mr. Taft on the Transportation and Horticultural buildings are also deserving of great praise. The Indian of Mr. Boyle, in Lincoln Park, Chicago, is his great masterpiece.

In our account of the artistic triumphs of the Columbian Exposition we have also to mention the masterly animal sculptures of Mr. Proctor and Mr. Kemeys with which the grounds were filled. The Buffalo Hunt of Mr. Bush-Brown, which was a central piece of the Art Palace, shows him a finished master in the same specialty. Mention of the great fountain of the Court of Honor, by Frederick MacMonnies, may close our effort to do justice to the almost in inexhaustible list of master-pieces offered by the Columbian Exposition. The sea-horses surrounding its “triumph-al barge” have never had their superiors.

The most generally quoted masterpiece of Augustus St. Gaudens is the bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln in Linclon Park, Chicago. Its uncompromising and honest realism appeals to every eye. On the other hand, the reliefs of this master are of ideal and classic beauty. In fact it is hard to see where parallels can be found for the recent relief work of several American sculptors short of the fifteenth century. Several of them are unquestionably superior to Thorwaldsen, as being of fresher and more genuine spirit and not deficient in equal beauty of composition.

In the application of color to works of sculpture, Mr. Herbert Adams is foremost among American artists, as known to me. Since the time of John Gibson no important work has previously been done in this direction. That of Mr. Adams is tender and beautiful. In face of such work the prejudice against colored sculpture is des-tined to disappear rapidly.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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