Wild at heart: Rediscovering the sculpture of Anna Hyatt Huntington

Throughout Anna's career, she worked on every scale, from the monument to the medal. Monuments demanded aesthetic as well as technical prowess, but their surface could easily become perfunctory. Work on a small scale kept her attentive to the minute play of muscle under skin, and to the tactile pleasures of pieces that could be handled. They also sometimes revealed a certain sense of humor. Head-to-head combat between goats turned into bookends, with the goats butting their heads against the volumes; a jaguar ripping meat with his jaws became a letter opener in which the mail was the beast's next course (Fig. 7). While her work on a large scale was mag­nificent, many of her most appealing early pieces are less than two feet high or wide.

Paris had always posed the ultimate challenge for the American artist, a challenge Anna Vaughn Hyatt met in 1910 when she stunned the French at the Salon with her version of their most sacred subject, Joan of Arc. Hers was life-size, armored, and equestrian. The jury assumed that no wom­an could have accomplished such a project, but Anna had anticipated this problem, and had kept her studio off-limits to all artists, so that no one could question whether the sculpture was the work of her hands. The jury grudgingly awarded her an honorable mention. It was an impressive accolade for a young American woman.

Back in New York City, Anna's Joan made history. It had been spotted at the Paris Salon by J. Sanford Saltus, who happened to have Joan of Arc on his mind. He became the leader of a Joan of Arc monument committee, founded to promote Franco-American friendship, and lent new urgency when World War I broke out. In 1915 a bronze version of Anna's Joan was installed in Riverside Park at Ninety-third Street (Figs. 3, 4). It was the first public monument in New York to a real woman (as opposed to an allegorical figure, like Liberty). It was also the first public monument in the city by a woman, hardly a coincidence.

Encased in metal, sword raised high, astride a battle steed, the Riverside Joan is a super-hero, even among Joans. But for the second time, Anna's talent and originality raised the suspicion that a woman could not have accomplished a feat of this magnitude without help. When the Riverside Joan was installed, its armor became the main talking point for the monu­ment committee and for critics. They dwelt on how much influence Bashford Dean, legendary first arms and armor curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a figure of great prominence in New York, had had on its design. Anna herself did not mind the association with the powerful Dean, but new research proves that he contributed almost nothing to the sculpture, whose armor had hardly changed from her earlier version of 1910. (It was easy to forget what the 1910 armor had looked like because that sculpture seems to have been lost, and its photograph rarely published.)

The armor was indeed essential to Anna's Joan. Complete with helmet, it encases her from head to toe, rendering her genderless and invulnerable, both idealizing and denying an individual female body. The armor was also a reminder of the art of sculpture, because armor is itself a kind of sculpture, one that creates artificial bodies.

Joan was, of course, Anna's alter-ego. The subject could not have been a more heroic woman: visionary, military leader, king-maker, martyr. As scholars have noted, Joan of Arc was a symbol for both the most conservative ideas about women's potential, and also the most radical. Catholic French nationalists claimed her as their symbol, and so did suffragettes. Visually, Joan of Arc offered just about the only viable excuse for a woman to wear armor. Anna seized on that excuse. For a charity ball in 1917, she donned Joan's armor, rode a white horse, posed in front of an unfurled American flag, and dazzled the crowd.2

Twelve years after she first displayed her Joan at the Paris Salon, Anna shed the armor. In 1922 she made the first, and most beautiful, of several Dianas. It was life-size, gleaming bronze, and nude (Fig. 1). For a sculptor of animals, Diana, goddess of animals, was an obvious choice. And yet Diana is not just the goddess of animals, she is the goddess of wild beasts, and of the hunt. Anna said she picked the subject of Diana, like the subject of Joan, because she wanted to push herself to do a different version of a subject "hackneyed by time," and "a more difficult task" than her previous "animal subjects."3 What did different mean to her? Hers is not a striding classical Diana looking over her shoulder (the fourth century bc style Diana Chasseresse, or Diana of Versailles), not a majestic seated Renaissance Diana with ornamental stags (the Anet Diana, once attributed to Gougon), not an elegant floating eighteenth-century Diana (Houdon), not a Gilded Age Diana delicately poised on one foot (Saint-Gaudens), but a Diana for the 1920s, with a cropped bob of curls and a whippet gamboling at her feet, a sinuous Diana caught in the act of shooting her bow toward the sky. The poet Maxwell Anderson described it as "burnished air."

It was a commemorative medal rather than a life-size work that brought Anna Vaughn Hyatt together with Archer Milton Huntington in 1921. Archer, the erudite founder of countless museums, societies, and academies, had to cope with the ad­vantages and the drawbacks of inheriting a fortune from an unusual woman. He was born to his mother Arabella while she was probably the mistress of Collis Potter Huntington, a self-made railroad magnate. When Collis later married Arabella, he officially adopted Archer, but he left his money to Arabella and to a nephew, not to Archer.4 Arabella adored Archer, raised him, and supported everything he did. Archer's dubious parentage and showy wealth could not have been more different from Anna's descent on both sides from sturdy English families who had settled New England in the seventeenth century, a heritage of which she was proud.

Nor did Anna's and Archer's personalities seem alike. Archer expressed himself indirectly through patronage and scholarship, whereas Anna lived life creatively. Independent and remarkably strong, she worked tirelessly. This was a woman who made friends with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, wielded a ton of clay for her biggest sculptures, and at an advanced age was still walking four deerhounds on the leash. No subject was too fierce or too noble, no scale too daunting. Awards, commissions, prizes, and critical acclaim had already come her way. By 1912 she was reported to be among the most highly paid professional women in the United States, earning more than $50,000 a year. Actually, it wasn't quite $50,000, she pointed out when interviewed much later, but why spoil a good story?

What Anna and Archer shared-besides the same birthday and their exceptional height-was a love of art. When they met over his commission of the William Dean Howells Medal (Fig. 8), to be awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Let­ters (an Archer cause), they spent an evening dreaming of a grand sculptural program for his Hispanic Society of America. "I can't begin to tell you," she wrote him the next day,"how wildly enthusiastic I am to begin work, especially since seeing you and having your appreciative approval of the small drawings."5 He panicked, backed off, couldn't resist, commissioned another medal in late 1922, and then, in 1923-on March 10, their shared birthday-they were married. The wedding took place in her studio, and he described her in a telegram to his mother as "Ana [sic] Hyatt, sculptress."6

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All