The new collector: American bronzes
February 20, 2014 | The Italian Renaissance taste for classical art fostered a revival of bronze statuary, wealthy connoisseurs collecting both antique statuettes and new works by artists like Donatello and Verrochio. Likewise, the nineteenth-century fascination with Renaissance art created an even larger market for bronze sculpture. Post-Civil War American sculptors, many European-trained, followed suit.
Cupid by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937), 1895, balances gracefully on a globe while gesturing teasingly to lovers. Signed and dated "F. MacMonnies / 1895" on back of globe and with the French foundry mark on the base. Bronze; height 26 ¼ inches. $50,000. Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York.
Weighty and rich in appearance, bronze is primarily an alloy of copper and tin, sometimes lead or zinc. Because the alloys are stronger, have a lower melting point, and are easier to mold into intricate shapes, bronze is better suited to casting than pure copper. Ancient Greeks and Romans fashioned sophisticated bronze castings as did the ancient Chinese, the African Benin civilization, and native craftsmen of pre-Columbian South America.
THE CASTING PROCESS
Though sand casting and other methods are also used, since the third millennium, traditional bronze casting was accomplished by the cire perdue, or lost wax, method. Initially the sculptor modeled his composition in clay. Once dried, this clay model was encased in plaster of Paris to create a mold. From this plaster mold, a wax replica was made containing a fireproof core. The wax was fitted with an arrangement of wax rods (sprues) to act as vents for the next steps. Then the wax and its branching arrangement of sprues were encased in plaster. When dried, the wax-filled plaster mold was inverted and heated and the melted wax vented through the tunnels left by the melted sprues, thus leaving a narrow chamber where the wax had been, and a funnel at the top of the mold. This mold was turned right side up, and molten bronze poured through the funnel, filling the space where the wax had been. When cooled, the mold was broken away and the fireproof core materials dug out, leaving the hollow bronze casting of the original clay model bristling with bronze rods where the sprues had been. These were removed as part of the post-casting.
The surface of the bronze was then cleaned, the features and details finished and sharpened by hand engraving, chiseling, and other metal chasing. In rare cases, especially in modern bronze casting, the brassy gleam of the newly cast metal is simply polished. But the various rich browns and dark greens we identify with traditional bronzes are the result of patination, in which the surface was carefully treated with varnishes, waxes, ammonia, "liver" of sulphur, or other chemicals. This final treatment brought out the vivid character of bronze statuary.
Frederick MacMonnies's witty Cupid (above) illustrates his intention not just to capture the spirit and pose of the mythological god of love, but also the surface details that individualize his image. Academically trained sculptors such as MacMonnies prided themselves in their skill at representing a variety of textures-hair, flesh and muscle, intricate drapery, foliage, rocks and other secondary features. Here, the artist lavishes attention to those details-the roses in Cupid's hair, the finely textured wings, and the laurel wreath contrast with the boy's smooth, prepubescent musculature. But most telling is Cupid's face. Instead of saccharine prettiness, MacMonnies has enlivened him with the knowing grin and sly eyes of an adult.
Domestic bronzes embraced both sculpture such as Cupid and furnishing bronzes (bronzes d'ameublement), decorative works such as clock cases, lamps, vases, and the like. Maude Sherwood Jewett's Two Dancers flower holder (left) combines both genres. Jewett studied at the Art Students League of New York and was a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in an era that still separated genders. Her glowing, sensitive rendering of this adolescent boy and girl perpetuates the visual legacy of late nineteenth-century sculptors like Auguste Rodin and Adolf Hildebrand, striving to simplify the representation of the nude without compromising the classical ideal. At the same time, the faintly stylized composition suggests the influence of the burgeoning art deco. Poised on toe upon a mound, their heads thrown back, the dancers' flexed muscles, arched backs, and beautifully intertwined hands produce a composition mingling physical and erotic tension. And the surging energy of a fresh tulip or similar blossom lends a fountain-like appearance to the overall shape.
Two Dancers by Maude Sherwood Jewett (1873-1953), 1924, combines sculpture and decorative arts and suggests the influence of the burgeoning art deco style. It was cast by Gorham Company Founders. Bronze; height 10 ½ inches. $12,000. Ophir Gallery, Englewood, New Jersey.
Another pupil of the Art Students League-as well as the Paris École des Beaux-Arts-Edward Francis McCartan similarly perpetuated the grand tradition of his predecessors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. Like the former, McCartan was influenced by the French neo-Florentine fashion for shallow relief portrait sculptures, of which Adrian (left) is a late but noteworthy example. The handsome boy strikes a sporting pose popular among late nineteenth-century children's studio photographers. His head in profile, sleeves rolled up (right leg masterfully foreshortened), Adrian holds a longbow and arrow. McCartan's attention to the details of the belted knickerbockers, middy blouse, and heavy socks lend textural contrast to the polished surfaces of the boy's head and forearms, all of which are subtly emphasized by the superbly articulated browns of the patination.
Adrian by Edward Francis McCartan (1879-1947), 1920, emphasizes the variety of textures possible in cast bronze. Signed, dated, and inscribed "Adrian" along the bottom, "edward mccartan/1920" at lower right, and stamped "roman bronze works n.y." at lower left. Bronze; 42 ½ by 23 7 8 inches. $65,000. Hirschl and Adler Galleries.
Animals are among the most popular bronze collecting fields, from Antoine-Louis Barye to Frederic Remington. Yawning Tiger (left) by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington exemplifies her consummate understanding of anatomy garnered through years of studying animals in zoos and circuses [see the article on Huntington in this issue]. The gaping mouth, emphasized by the teeth and fangs, the knotted muscles and taut skin of this stretching tiger convey menacing power. And the patination articulates every detail of its supple physical presence.
Yawning Tiger by Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876 -1973), cast by Gorham Company Founders, 1915. Bronze and marble; height 5 ½, width 15 ½, depth 4 ½ inches. $12,000. Ophir Gallery.
Gutzon Borglum is best known for his immense Mount Rushmore (South Dakota) and Stone Mountain (Georgia) memorials. His mask from the sculptural group I Have Piped Unto You and Ye Have Not Danced recalls the emotional faces in Rodin's Burghers of Calais. The work suggests an unearthed fragment of ancient sculpture, a suggestion reinforced by the patches of verdigris patination within the beautifully varied browns overall. Underscored by the attenuated neck, the vigorous turn of the head and angled gaze convey startling kinetic energy, while the somewhat twisted ear, drooping eyelids, and heavy, open mouth suggest one who has experienced more than his share of pain.
This mask from the I Have Piped Unto You and Ye Have Not Danced group by Gutzon Borglum (1871-1941), c. 1912, recalls the emotional faces in Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais. Bronze; height 14, width 8, depth 7 inches. $28,000. James Graham and Sons, New York.
Max Kalish used his keen study of ancient classical sculpture to impart grace and dignity to his portrayals of American laborers. His figures of steelworkers, glass blowers, and jackhammer operators offer a riposte to the vivid industrial scenes painted contemporaneously by the American precisionists. His Steelworker, in overalls and gauntlets, works on the skeleton of a rising skyscraper (Fig. 6). Presumably easing a girder into position, he grasps the guide chain in his right hand, ready to grab the approaching steel with his left. Beneath his loose work clothes and jaunty hat, his contrapposto posture is that of a Grecian athlete. Typical of Kalish's work, the facial expression is full of character-is the man troubled or simply intent upon his task?
Max Kalish (1891-1945) used his study of ancient sculpture to impart grace and dignity to his portrayals of American laborers, including The Steelworker of 1920. Bronze; height 17 ¾, width 7, depth 7 7 8 inches. $48,000. James Graham and Sons.
Maude Jewitt's Two Dancers suggests the emerging flame of art deco, but the works of Paul Manship completely embody the stylized human forms that we identify with the neoclassical roots of this signature style of the 1920s. His Venus Anadyomene (left) began with a 1924 commission to create a fountain for the rotunda of Phillips Academy's Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. The name means Venus rising from the sea, the theme related to the goddess's birth, famously painted by artists from Botticelli to Picasso. Although most interpretations of this mythological theme show Venus standing or floating on the waves that have borne her, Manship's interpretation evokes the Hellenistic marble Crouching Venus, who has apparently been surprised at her bath. Manship's lithe, elegant figure crouches tightly, resting her legs on a cushion as she wrings the moisture from her luxuriant hair. The smooth surfaces of the compact ovoid composition are balanced at each end by the more intricate textures of the cushion and the cascading waves of her hair, the magnificent chiseling of the locks also suggesting the sea waves of her origin. After completing his original fountain in marble, Manship had an edition of twenty reduced-size examples cast in bronze, of which this is a beautiful example.
Venus Anadyomene by Paul Howard Manship (1885-1966), 1924. Signed "© / P. Manship." on base, left side. Bronze; height (not including original marble base) 8 inches. Conner-Rosenkranz, New York; photograph by Mark Ostrander.
Interested in learning more?
Bronze, ed. David Ekserdjian et al. (Royal Academy Books, 2012)
H. W. Janson, Nineteenth-Century Sculpture (Harry N. Abrams, 1985)
Tuck Langland, From Clay to Bronze, a Studio Guide to Figurative Sculpture (Watson-Guptill, 1999)
Thayer Tolles, Thomas B. Smith, et al., The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013)