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"American Figurative Sculptors and Architects in the 20th Century"

keropian picture

Mr. Keropian working on model for a Patriot's Memorial.

A favorite subject of mine is the history of American Figurative Sculpture and the sculptors that created these works; their techniques and processes, their inter-relationship with each other, and the architects who they collaborated. After thirty years in the field I have learned a great deal, however I am always finding new and interesting information from conversations with my fellow artists, art historians and a number of books that I happen to come across.

There is very little information about these figurative sculptors whose work adorned the buildings and provided inspiration to the citizens of this country for over a century. As many of these men and women passed on so did much of their Beaux Arts Schooling.

My hope is to create a continued dialog with fellow sculptors, architects, collectors etc. and help to educate ourselves on the methods and skills learned by the masters of architectural sculpture.

There are many books written about art history, and many of the books on the subject ignore the continuum of creativity in figurative art throughout the past century. In fact many people have forgotten or have never heard about the American Renaissance. So I was inspired to write the following draft, a sort of work in progress if you will, of which the text and links will no doubt be modified in the future as thoughts, clarifications and references come to me or my corrospondence with others inspire me to add more information.

When one reads the many text and art history books that have been written in the past century, it can be commonly assumed that after the inspiring works of Rodin (late 1800's-early 1900's) the world of figurative sculpture simply disolved completely from the planet and all artists seemed to turn to a rebellious world of abstraction and anti-tradition. Unfortunately for historians who write such things in order to depict a simplified chonological order in the art world, this just wasn't true. There were certainly art movements that received much more public attention than others and artists that branched off from the traditional style, but there were always a wonderous number of figurative sculptors who continued to work in a fine figurative tradition throughout the 20th Century, and who's work graced the architecture, fountains and parks in our fine cities inspiring and stimulating generations of people who walked by.

If one looks back just prior to the 1900's you can see the true fruition of the American Renaissance with the World's Columbian Exposition 1893 in Chicago, where sculptor, architect and artisans worked together to create such an inspiring display of art and architecture this country has not seen since. This heightened quality of work did not happen overnight, rather it began with the many American Artist's who learned their craft in Europe. First in Italy then in France, and by 1805, the first art school in America opened it's doors, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Most of the school's instructors had studied in Italy and especially in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The latter schooling would have a dramatic effect on the sculptural figurative tradition here in America and French Tradition of figurative sculpture continues today at many of the art schools in America, whether they are aware of it or not. It is an interesting point as this style has continued throughout the many years while other styles like art deco are rarely taught or seen.

The Chicago Exposition in 1893 also called the "White City" was the first of a series of Expositions in America that would continue through to 1939.

Sculptors like Frederick MacMonnies, an assistant to Augustus St. Gaudens got their first opportunity to create heroic size sculptures for the exposition. St. Gaudens called this group who worked on the World's Columbian Exposition, "the greatest such collection since the 15th century".

St. Gaudens was the chief consultant for sculptural design at the Chicago Expo, Frederick Law Olstead landscaping and a large number of architects like Richard Morris Hunt, and McKimm, Mead and White. The buildings and sculptures were created only for the five month duration of the exposition and as temporary structures they would be destroyed after the exposition. Many of the sculptors were than hired by the above architects and continued their careers after the exposition.

The buildings facades and fountain sculptures where made of a "staff material" also later called "artificial travertine", a concrete/plaster/hemp mixture painted over with lead paint to preserve the works for the duration of the exposition. This material was applied to wood lathing, assembled onto a framework that bolted to the steel structures of the buildings. The enlargements on the monumental sculpture were generally pointed up directly in this material and many were created in a four month period. When one looks at the finished exposition it is difficult for us to believe it was a scene from America because of the many styles of architecture. Exhibitions from all over the world were displayed in these fine buildings.

The Austrian born sculptor Karl Bitter directed the sculpture work at the 1901 Buffalo Exposition, 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis, Missouri (The Lousiana Purchase Exposition), and the Pan-American Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Bitter grew out of a Classical /Naturalist Style, and was given numerous commissions through the architect Richard Morris Hunt. Bitter also was one of the designers of Central Park in NYC.

One of Bitter's students Lee Lawrie working with Cram and Goodhue would be one of the first to modernize figurative sculpture into what is now known as the Art Decorative Style. Sculptors like Leo Friedlander, and Paul Manship continued in this stylization and working with the architects of the time created some wonderful buildings which still give the viewer inspiration. The simplied forms of the figure sculptures worked wonderfully well with the architecture for that time. The only way this could have been achieved was in a close partnership with the architects.

A school called the Beaux-Arts Institute and Design (BAID) was created in NY City in 1916. The school provided an education to architects, sculptors and painters. These students worked together on specific projects each providing a key element in the design.

"The BAID set up a style of instruction based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. John F. Harbeson explains the features of this approach thusly:

* The division into ateliers.

* The tradition of the older students helping the younger.

* The teaching of design by practicing architects (and the judgement of the competitions by a trained jury of practicing architects).

* The beginning of the study of design as soon as the student enters the atelier.

* The system of the esquisse. (The working out of problems through timed sketches.)"

The BAID closed in the 1940's, and was never reopened. Architecture had also begun taking a more free form approach and found they needed less reason to adorn the buildings with sculpture or work with sculptors. This also changed the face of figurative sculpture forever, as the architecturally trained figurative sculptor began having no venue to incorporate it with architecture. Many of these trained sculptors started creating compositional elements for the new modern architecture. A number of these sculptors would work both abstractly and figuratively, and in many cases this was the only option to making a living with their art.

As well there were a number of sculptors who continued creating and earning a living in figurative sculpture. Many had achieved a following before the 1940's. The National Sculpture Society which was founded in 1893, was a hub for many of these sculptors, and in good degree those seeking professional figurative sculpture for monuments could contact the Society for a quality sculptor. Unfortunately in many cases the few rather than the many where privy to these commission opportunities, so sculptors found less opportunity to work large and resorted to creating sculpture for the gallery setting.

Art schools began teaching less and less about the figure and technique and more about theory. At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a number of students demonstrated by throwing some of the antique plastercasts down the elevator shaft. This anti-art mentality had a lasting affect on the next generation of sculptors who didn't learn directly from a valued apprenticeship of a master or the learning of design composition techniques from the Beaux-Arts tradition. Sculpture became designed more for the table top and decorative, rather than the side of a building or pediment. This lack of design and knowledge gave way to students gathering no basics in construction and composition of the figure in the schools across America. Soon Art in America was destined to become a fashion industry, where an artist was "hot" merely because of the reputation of a gallery in New York City. This also discouraged many sculptors to continue in the figurative tradition, some students chose to skip the basic study in form and technique entirely assuming it wasn't necessary, while others were discouraged from studying the figure, calling it passe'. A lack of respect developed for the figurative sculpture throughout the 50's and 60's, yet there were a number of unrecognized sculptors who continued to push on with their figurative work. Some of these masters would pass on some of the knowledge of compositional design and techniques through their sculpture works to those few who were interested. Unfortunately because of the lack of commissions in monumental figurative sculpture at the time, many of these sculptors could not afford to have studio assistants thereby not being able to pass along this knowledge to a new generation.

It wasn't noticeable until the early nineteen nineties that the figurative tradition had actually survived, the modern movement was becoming just another fad or psychological fallout caused by troubling times. Schools began classes devoted to learning the figure, and several of which base their teaching on construction and training the eye.

Today we can see a wide range of artwork from the free form and construction to the classical and photorealistic, yet what is lacking in all these schools is the combination or blending with architectural design. Very little if anything is taught about composition or collaboration with architects and designers.

Albert Wein said that "every good work of art is a good abstract composition" or could at least be represented by one. That the subject, devoid of details and pared down to only what is necessary to convey the "essence" of the composition is what really mattered in an artistic work.

In a free and healthy society it is so very important never to discourage or censor anyone from creating any form of art, whether it be an abstraction or in a traditional style. I do feel strongly however that to attain the highest quality in one's creative inspirations, a strong knowledge of technique and the study of nature is required. There are no short cuts!

Michael Keropian 2006

Here are two more links you may find interesting: The first a book related to Architectural Sculpture and the other a wonderful resource to Figurative Sculpture.



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