Wild at heart: Rediscovering the sculpture of Anna Hyatt Huntington

El Cid Campeador by Huntington, 1925-1927. Bronze; height 16 feet 7 ½ inch­es, length 10 feet 2 ½ inches. His­panic Society of America, New York; photograph by the Media Center for Art History, Depart­ment of Art History and Archae­ology, Columbia University, in collaboration with the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. 

The artist who had become Anna Hyatt Hunting­ton developed into one of the most munificent twentieth-century patrons of sculpture. Now close to fifty years of age, she began to acquire and donate figurative American sculpture. With Archer, she founded Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, a gigantic outdoor sculpture park, the first of its kind and the best collection in America of work by artists such as Harriet Frishmuth, Carl Paul Jennewein, Paul Manship, and Carl Milles. If history has not remem­bered her contribution, it is only because the realistic art Anna and Archer favored was consigned to oblivion by the triumph of modernism.

It is also impossible to deny that unlimited wealth hurt the quality of Anna's later work. In the last phase of her early career, during the 1920s, she executed the splendid Hispanic Society program she and Archer had imagined: her magnificent equestrian El Cid is surrounded by four life-size male figures and an array of  life-size animals (see Fig. 6). Then tuberculosis struck, and she barely worked for almost a decade. Afterwards, her sculp­ture was never the same. What had been vital became grandiloquent. She was no longer obliged to deal with criticism, a market, or decisions about what to keep and cast. She could pay for countless bronzes, on any scale, and did so, into her early nineties. If many of them are inferior to those she had made before about 1936, we should remember that when she recovered from tuberculosis she was in her sixties. Not many artists do great work for seven decades.

Anna has been too often confined in the cate­gory of animal sculptor, but even there her work strains against the limits of its category. Her animals prowl, attack, and gnaw. Their energy also ex­presses itself in the struggle against the solidity and resistance of their materials. One jaguar's lithe form slithers up and over an inchoate mound of stone; another tears its meat as if it were ripping the metal out of its base. When goats butt horns, they form a molten arc of jagged bronze (see Fig. 10). In 1929, describing the excellence, spirit, and vis­ceral reaction to her work, a critic wrote: "Anna Hyatt Huntington displays some of her living ani­mals which are surpassed only by the great Helle­nistic masters of animal life. Every beast seems to have waited for this American lady to give it soul."7

Anna also fashioned an exceptional persona for a woman of her time. In presenting herself to the portrait painter, photographer, or film-maker, she invariably connected herself to her work. Her 1915 portrait by Marion Boyd Allen (Fig. 2) shows her dressed in an austere blouse and skirt, hair pulled simply back, and posing next to a lion bas-relief with both hands wrapped around an unfinished clay Joan of Arc. Her grip is gentle though she holds a sculptor's tool. The lion looks uncannily like an extension of her. Similarly, in a photographic portrait by the Misses Selby, she stands with one hand on her hip and holds a tool in the other. She is wrapped in a work apron, while a horse in the background seems to rise in a cloud out of her brain. Judging by the number of copies she stored in her archive, her favorite image of herself was a still from a 1936 film about stone carving, in which she goes head to head with a jaguar, her tool aimed at its face.

In anticipation of the one hundredth anniver­sary of the Riverside Joan of Arc's installation, Columbia University's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery is presenting an exhibition of Anna's work (January 22 to March 15). The exhibition reveals her early career through small sculptures, including a rediscovered trove from the Hispanic Society of America. In the spirit of Anna's fascination with the new media of her day, the exhibition experi­ments with digital methods for bringing public art inside a gallery. High-resolution rotational pho­tography, projected on the same scale as the ac­tual monument, allows visitors to feel as if they can fly around Joan of Arc, swooping in at will on details. In addition, a web catalogue connects the exhibition to permanently installed examples of her sculpture all over New York, bringing back to light the institutional network that made the city a cultural capital. After the exhibition ends, the website will continue to serve as a permanent re­source for the study and enjoyment of Anna's work and the public art of New York City.    

  1 Undated and unpaginated typescript, box 6, Anna Hyatt Hunting­ton Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, NewYork.  2 "The Festival of Fools," New York Times, February 27, 1917, p. 10.  This was discovered by Morgan Alba­hary and Sonia Coman, participants in the Columbia University Anna Hyatt Huntington exhibition project.  3 Unpaginated typescript marked "C," before 1932, box 6, Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.  4 To com­plicate Archer's sense of himself still further, his mother Arabella and her co-heir, his cousin Henry, married one another.  5 Anna Vaughn Hyatt to Archer Milton Huntington, September 11, 1921, box 37, Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.  6 Handwritten note and telegram, March 10, 1923, ibid.  7 Joseph Pijoan, "The Exposition of Contemporary Sculpture at San Francisco," Parnassus, vol. 1, no. 5 (May 1929), p. 11.

ANNE HIGONNET is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History, Barnard College, Columbia University.

 

 

Thank you for signing up.

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

» View All