The eminent American sculptor of domestic and feminine subjects, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, is the subject of a retrospective exhibition—long overdue—on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through September 6. Featuring some thirty-five pieces of her small sculpture and garden statuary from 1895 to 1930, most in bronze but a handful in terra cotta, as well as portraits of the artist painted by her husband Robert Vonnoh, Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women explores the range of her production and spotlights her conception of women as both icons of beauty and moral guardians of family and home.
Vonnoh began her formal training in 1886, enrolling at the Art Institute of Chicago where she took modeling classes with the French-trained sculptor Lorado Taft, whom she later assisted with the sculpture for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1895 she traveled to Paris where she visited Auguste Rodin, and, like many of her contemporaries, was inspired by the impressionist practice of taking modern life as subject matter for fine art. Maternal scenes, such as her 1896 bronze A Young Mother, and compositions of modern-day women and girls reading and dancing, as in her 1898 Daydreams, became her primary subjects. But while many painters of her day dwelt on the same themes, Vonnoh was recognized as the first sculptor in the United States to render such everyday subjects, earning her membership in the most prestigious professional societies, as well as awards, critical acclaim, and lucrative patronage.
When a solo exhibition of Vonnoh’s work was held at the Brooklyn Institute in March 1913, the museum bulletin proclaimed: “She has been doing in the statuette what Daniel C. French is doing in full size figures, and what Abbott Thayer has been doing in painting, using the fundamental and subconscious spirit of the classic masters, but interpreting the life of today in terms of its own individuality, language and character, giving to her figures strength, grace and beauty in their most admirable modern forms, and above all giving to her sculptures an intellectual refinement, a moral significance, and a spirituality that have been found in the art of no preceding period. In her work, sculpture is being freed from the imitative methods of the past and is becoming more and more an expression of modern life.”
Julie Aronson, a curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, organized the current exhibition and wrote the accompanying catalogue, which also includes an essay on connoisseurship by Janis Conner. In addition, the museum has mounted a small companion show of some twenty rarely seen prints, drawings, and photographs from their collection, Virgins to Vixens: Picturing American Woman, 1880–1930, to give visitors a fuller understanding of how Vonnoh’s work spoke to the times.
Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women · Cincinnati Art Museum · to September 6 · www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org
Images from above: Bessie Potter Vonnoh by Robert William Vonnoh, 1915. National Academy Museum, New York, gift of Bessie Potter Vonnah; Garden Figure by Bessie Potter Vonnoh, modeled 1928, cast 1930. Memorial Art Gallery of Rochester, gift of Edward, James, and Julian Atwater in memory of their parents and grandparents; photograph by Scott Hisey; A Modern Madonna by Bessie Potter Vonnoh, 1904. Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Harman Booth.