Held in Chicago between May 1 and October 31, 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition was a delayed quadricentennial commemoration of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 landfall in America. The fair celebrated technological, social, and artistic progress on a grand civic scale and heralded Chicago as a mercantile and cultural destination. Attracted by the city’s central location and railroad network, more than 20 million people came to the 633-acre fairgrounds on the shores of Lake Michigan. The fair represented a complex blend of mass cultivation, education, and entertainment during an era dominated by tensions over immigration, urbanization, race, class, and Euro-American westward expansion. Attractions ranged from industrial and scientific innovations to the enormous Ferris Wheel on the Midway Plaisance. The highly ordered plan for the central fairgrounds featured a Court of Honor with classicizing white-painted plaster buildings surrounding a grand basin (hence the fair’s moniker, “The White City”).
For the sculptors whose works were displayed outdoors on the fairgrounds as well as in the Fine Arts Building, the World’s Columbian Exposition was a professional and aesthetic coming of age. While the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 represented the swansong of American Neoclassical sculpture and the introduction of such young talents as Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Olin Levi Warner, the Chicago fair signified the full flowering of a naturalistic Beaux-Arts aesthetic by sculptors who had trained in Paris and New York. Saint-Gaudens served as sculptural advisor to architect Daniel H. Burnham, the fair’s director of works, as well as a juror for the Department of Fine Arts. So spectacular was the assembly of talented architects, sculptors, and designers that Saint-Gaudens excitedly remarked to Burnham at an 1891 planning meeting: “Look here, old fellow, do you realize this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!”
Saint-Gaudens used his influence to delegate career-enhancing commissions for monumental sculptures that promoted the exposition’s overarching theme of national identity. For this ideal city of sorts, Frederick William MacMonnies produced an imposing multifigure Columbian Fountain (1891–93), while Daniel Chester French created a colossal gilded Republic (1891–93), a female allegory of the United States; these two works were placed at either end of the basin. Saint-Gaudens’s student Mary Lawrence carried out a heroic-size Columbus (1892–93) that stood near the Administration Building designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Saint-Gaudens himself was represented only by the gilded sheet-metal Diana (28.101; 1985.353) atop McKim, Mead and White’s Agriculture Building, an 18-foot sculpture previously installed on Madison Square Garden in New York. He also embarked on a fraught commission for the fair’s presentation medal (1995.4), eventually issued in 1896.
The works for the ambitious outdoor sculptural program were executed in the impermanent medium of staff, a mixture of plaster of Paris and fibrous materials such as hemp fiber and straw. Buildings were decorated with sculptures—for instance, for the massive Administration Building, Karl Bitter created twenty-eight allegorical groups on the growth of civilization. Monumental animal sculptures—such as bison, elk, moose, and panthers—by Edward Kemeys and Alexander Phimister Proctor decorated the bridges over the fairground’s lagoon and canals. Proctor also completed outdoor equestrian sculptures of an American Indian and a cowboy, subjects readily recognizable as American icons. In fact, the exposition was a highly visible stage for American western sculpture, its subjects resonant within the fair’s larger agenda suggesting national unity from east to west.
Scores of up-and-coming artists were hired to assist in the production of more than 200 sculptures planned for the exteriors of fair buildings as well as independent works for the grounds. Temporarily based in the Forestry and Horticulture buildings, workers pointed up and enlarged small models by other artists, producing large-scale versions in staff. Among the sculptors working under the direction of Chicago artist Lorado Taft, the “Superintendent of Sculpture,” was a group of women that included Janet Scudder and Bessie Potter Vonnoh. They were dubbed by Taft “white rabbits” for their collective ability to nimbly ascend and descend the necessary ladders, all the while covered in plaster dust.
The Fine Arts Building (now the Museum of Science and Industry) was the only permanent building on the fairgrounds, due to the necessity of fireproofing for the art. In addition to completing outdoor commissions, artists vied for space in the Fine Arts Building, submitting work ranging from models for public sculptures to independent small-scale groups. The American art display was the largest assembled thus far in this country, and its organizers intended that it be assessed in a global context against works by established European artists presented in their own country’s displays. For some 150 American sculptures displayed within the building’s galleries, artists drew on a broad ranges of themes—from the requisite portraits of national heroes to depictions of modern history and contemporary life (91.14) to traditional ideal subjects drawn from allegory, mythology, and religion (98.9.5; 20.125; 27.65). Collectively these works—in marble, bronze, and plaster—were intended to place, and indeed showcase, American sculpture within a progressive continuum of Western art, ancient to the present. Daniel Chester French displayed a plaster model of his Angel of Death and the Sculptor (26.120) while Alexander Phimister Proctor displayed the bronze statuette Stalking Panther (1996.561); each became a signature piece within that artist’s oeuvre. Edward Kemeys exhibited twelve works, more than any other American. In this group of animal sculptures, which earned a gold medal, was the full-size Panther and Cubs (07.81). Likewise Beaux-Arts trained Olin Levi Warner was also amply represented, including incisive portraits ranging from artist friends (98.9.2) to Native American chiefs (06.313).
The Chicago fair represented a landmark with the presence of the Woman’s Building, with its program of architectural sculpture presenting modern allegories of womanhood by Enid Yandell and Alice Rideout. The guiding force behind this building was Bertha Honoré Palmer, president of the Board of Lady Managers and a prominent advocate for women’s standing in the arts. In addition to pieces displayed in the Woman’s Building, women sculptors were well represented in the Fine Arts Building.
For sculptors, their participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition had lasting impact beyond the artworks (in fact, within months of the fair’s closing, almost all of the outdoor sculptures were destroyed by demolition or fire). The collegial spirit among sculptors to bring about the ambitious outdoor sculpture program was an impetus for the founding later that year of the National Sculpture Society, an organization that established profession-wide standards for public commissions and promoted excellence in sculpture, in part through sculpture-only exhibitions intended to encourage patronage. Among its founders were Saint-Gaudens, French, and John Quincy Adams Ward, all of whom had juried sculpture selection for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Sculptors of the Chicago exposition became mainstays of the so-called City Beautiful movement, with White City–inspired buildings such as the Library of Congress and numerous state capitols embellished with sculpture inside and out. Other 1893 fair veterans, namely Karl Bitter and Alexander Stirling Calder, were instrumental in planning and participating in the extensive sculptural programs for subsequent American world’s fairs, including the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.