Double take: A closer look at American bronze sculpture

From The Magazine ANTIQUES November 2006.

Bronze sculpture made in the United States between 1845 and 1945 was little studied and largely undervalued until it began to attract interest in the early 1980s. It now continues to gain attention from scholars, museum curators, and collectors. Broadening scholarship has brought recognition to the variety, quality, and importance of this field of American art, just as the market value of sculpture continues to rise. What is lagging behind this expanding appreciation by the public and in the marketplace is connoisseurship. This article is intended as a primer on how to look critically at bronze casts in order to judge them for quality and authenticity.

Bronze has been used to cast objects since ancient times. When skillfully employed, this simple alloy of copper and tin (sometimes with small additions of zinc or lead) will replicate a three-dimensional model with such exactness that details as subtle as the artist's fingerprints can be reproduced. Further refinements are achieved by chasing, when the metal, which is relatively soft, is hammered and smoothed of imperfections and details are enhanced. Finally, the surface of a cast is heated and solutions of salts and acids are applied, resulting in a skin of color called the patina.

The ideal way to understand the fairly complex processes of casting is to visit a foundry. While a general grasp of the mechanics can be learned through illustrated books, video demonstrations, or step-by-step museum displays,1 it is only the ongoing practice of examining bronzes that hones the skills of connoisseurship. Since many individuals participate in the production of a bronze, even when the same foundry produces two casts of the same model over a brief time, there will be slight dissimilarities. These are usually small variations by workers who quite naturally employ individualized techniques in casting, chasing, or patination. Examples of the same model made years apart will have more conspicuous distinctions, primarily in chasing and patina. On first consideration, differences in replication may seem a conundrum, but in fact, it is these differences that make each replica a unique work of art.

Bronze casting technology arose in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Established mostly by French and Italian immigrants, foundries specializing in art casting developed simultaneously with the decline of the prevailing neoclassical style, for which marble had been the preferred medium. As early as 1849 Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) was casting small sculptures in his Brooklyn foundry with the assistance of two French workers. The preference for bronze had taken firm hold by the late 1860s when it was used to reproduce the burgeoning numbers of public sculptures, designed mostly for East Coast cities, to commemorate Civil War heroes. Compositions modeled in the more fluid and naturalistic style that predominated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were ideally suited for replication in a medium that allowed for greater complexity of design. Many sculptors-especially those who had trained abroad-alternated freely between American and European facilities in pursuit of the highest craftsmanship for the fairest price.

By the 1890s there were commercial galleries in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia showing bronze sculpture alongside paintings. While larger works such as fountains and garden sculptures were usually commissioned directly by patrons or their architects, smaller pieces were frequently sold from showrooms such as those of Tiffany and Company and the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Bronze statuettes enjoyed their greatest popularity as affordable domestic decoration at the turn of the twentieth century. For instance, between 1895 and 1918, there were 154 authorized casts of the iconic first version of The Bronco Buster by Frederic Remington (1861-1909). Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's statuettes of athletic female nudes achieved remarkable success; for example, her 12½-inches-tall version of The Vine, first cast in 1921, eventually reach­­ed an astounding 396 replicas.

A few essentials must be kept in mind when considering American bronze sculptures from this era. The only concrete means for determining the authenticity of a bronze cast is documentation of its ownership. If the provenance can be traced from the artist, gallery, or individual that first sold the cast to the present, it can be deemed a legitimate replica of the artist's model. In the instance of multiple casts of a model, called an edition, unless a particular cast is numbered or uniquely marked, it is difficult to distinguish one cast from its very similar siblings. Because clear documentation is frequently absent, careful scrutiny of a sculpture's physical characteristics is requisite. Necessary steps for judging the quality of a bronze sculpture include: determining how the cast was assembled from examining its seams and joints; inspecting its interior for clues about the casting method; feeling its thickness and heft to determine if it was made with the minimum amount of metal; noting how it is mounted to a base and whether anything is being intentionally hidden; scanning the surface to see how well it is chased; and knowing what to expect of original patinas on old bronzes.

A time-honored means for determining the authenticity of a bronze cast is to measure it for comparison with a known lifetime cast from the edition. If one or more dimensions are smaller in the suspect work, it may indicate it is a surmoulage, or "recast"-that is, a bronze made from a mold taken from another bronze. Because bronze shrinks slightly as it hardens, a surmoulage is smaller than the bronze from which its mold was made. The rule of thumb is that shrinkage in a surmoulage is about three-sixteenths of an inch (.476 centimeters) per foot in every dimension. While in theory taking measurements is a useful means to establish a comparison, it is ultimately an imprecise tool owing to the employment of various measuring techniques, the changeable height of an integrally cast self-base (which can be adjusted in the finishing stages), and differing production techniques, particularly when there is more than one foundry in­volved. Thus measurements can never be the sole means for determining the legitimacy of a cast.

Artists who were closely in­volved in the casting process believed in the individuality of the single cast within an edition. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) varied compositional details slightly, even in his larger-edition, commercial, bronzes. Frederic Remington constantly adjusted details from one cast to the next, repositioning limbs and remodeling clothing and animal hides to vary textures. Paul Wayland Bartlett individualized his bronzes by using a wide variety of finishes and colors. Patinas on his casts from the same edition can range from conventional black, brown, and green to innovative hues of red, yellow, gold, or blue. Frishmuth, on the other hand, opted for a more consistent patina, a soft-toned color that became the eponymous Frishmuth green.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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