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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Bronze Casting

Bronze is an alloy consisting mainly of copper, with lesser amounts of tin, zinc, and lead. The centuries-old tradition of casting bronze into sculptural form originates from such geographically and culturally diverse regions as Greece, Africa, Mesopotamia, and Asia. This intriguing and complicated material has long been associated with great historical epochs—some of the most astounding Western bronzes were produced during the classical and Renaissance eras. Yet before the mid-nineteenth century, Americans did not possess the technology to cast bronze sculpture in this country. Protean attempts were made without success, while functional objects such as weathervanes were cast in the base metals of lead or iron. American sculptors either relied on European foundries or, more often, had their works carved in the preferred medium of marble.

By 1850, however, the prospect of bronze casting in the United States had taken on added symbolism—a medium that reflected America’s growing confidence and ambition as a world power while at the same time proclaiming its artistic independence from European sculptural models and materials. Between 1850 and 1900, the remarkable development of specialized foundries and the proliferation of trained labor and equipment enabled sculptors to work on native shores rather than abroad, as most American Neoclassical marble sculptors did. If not less expensive than marble, bronze was seen as stronger and more practical for both public monuments and domestic statuettes, and during the late nineteenth century eclipsed marble as the medium of choice.

One of the first and most determined advocates for the patriotic medium of bronze was Henry Kirke Brown. With the assistance of two French workmen and a little ingenuity, by the late 1840s Brown had established a foundry in his Brooklyn studio to cast his earliest bronze sculptures and utilitarian objects. As Brown’s ambitions and the scale of his work expanded, he developed a working relationship with the Ames Manufacturing Company in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Also a cannon and sword producer, Ames was the first foundry in this country to gain a proficiency in bronze casting, and worked with Brown on several major monuments and exquisitely finished smaller works (1993.13, 1992.372). The naturalistic aesthetic pioneered by Brown, and furthered by his former student John Quincy Adams Ward (1979.394), dominated mid- to late-nineteenth-century sculpture and was ideally suited for replication in the expressive and tactile medium of bronze.

Following a hiatus during the American Civil War (1861–65), the development of bronze casting expanded to several East Coast cities. Foundries such as L. A. Amoroux, John Williams, and Henry-Bonnard in New York, and Robert Wood in Philadelphia offered sculptors diverse choices beyond the exclusive working relationships between sculptor and foundry (such as Brown and Ames) in the pre-Civil War era. Artists were able to comparison shop for fair prices and select the foundries best equipped to achieve the technical results sympathetic to individual sculptural aesthetics. They were also able to choose between American and European facilities, and indeed certain sculptors, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederick MacMonnies, alternated freely between foundries at home and abroad, especially those in Paris, in pursuit of the highest quality craftsmanship.

While the act of modeling a sculpture was the creative decision of the artist, the final bronze was usually the shared responsibility of the sculptor and founders—mold makers, casters, chasers, and patineurs–who jointly made decisions regarding surface, color, texture, scale, and form. Some of the most remarkable American bronzes are the tangible products of symbiotic collaborations between a sculptor and a foundry. For instance, Frederic Remington‘s inclination to push the technical limits of the sculptural medium in his depictions of dramatic action (07.79, 07.80), coupled with his use of unusual patinas and remarkable surface texture and detail, rank his bronzes among the finest American sculptures ever created, in his case in partnership with the New York firms of Henry-Bonnard and Roman Bronze Works.

Before 1900, American-made bronzes were produced in the French sand-casting method. This method, through which a sculpture is produced using a firm sand mold, was simpler than the ancient process of lost-wax (or cire perdu) casting and especially efficient for the production of utilitarian objects. By 1900, Roman Bronze Works specialized in the lost-wax casting process, the first foundry devoted exclusively to this method; others, such as Gorham Manufacturing Company in Providence, Rhode Island, soon followed suit. Lost-wax casting, which depends on a gelatin mold, had such advantages as more precise replication of textural detail, the capacity for greater experimentation with complex compositions, and the ability to cast works in single pieces rather than assembling parts into a whole.

The turn-of-the-twentieth-century popularity of bronze statuettes as affordable domestic ornament was fueled in part by the proliferation of American foundries. Patrons eagerly purchased fountain and parlor pieces (06.967, 1996.561) through galleries and exhibitions, bronze showrooms such as Tiffany & Co. and Gorham, and of course through the foundries and sculptors. These commercial bronzes were often replicated in large editions during a sculptor’s lifetime—for instance, there were at least thirty casts of Bessie Potter Vonnoh‘s A Young Mother (06.306) and an astounding 154 of Frederic Remington‘s iconic Broncho Buster. As a means of expressing the artistic individuality of each bronze, some sculptors of this period experimented with surface finishing and coloration—patinas on casts range from more conventional black and brown to innovative red, yellow, gold, blue, and green (1994.501). Yet, after several decades of explosive growth and success, the progress of the American fine-art bronze casting industry was brought to a halt by World War II.