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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959)

Born in 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright grew up in an America still very much influenced by the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian society. In many ways, he remained throughout his life a nineteenth-century man, for, like Emerson and Whitman, he had a great love for nature. His abiding feeling for the land and his belief in man’s need for a direct relationship with nature were essential to his concept of an “organic architecture”—what Wright envisioned as an American architecture distinct from the classical and Renaissance traditions. His antipathy toward European design was matched by a love for non-Western art, particularly that of Japan.

Wright acquired his architectural education during the five years he spent with Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), whose office he joined as a draftsman in 1888. He opened an independent practice in 1893 and over the succeeding seventeen years was known as a rising young architect in Chicago.

In 1909, Wright left for a sojourn in Europe, and it was during this period that the two famous Wasmuth portfolios were issued. The first, printed in 1910, consisted of 100 beautiful lithographs; the second, which appeared in the following year, was illustrated with photographs of Wright’s executed projects. Their publication and an accompanying exhibition in Berlin brought Wright’s work to the attention of a younger generation of European designers and established his place at the forefront of the modern movement.

On his return to the United States in 1911, Wright was an international figure; but his real importance was little recognized in this country. His controversial personal life—the breakup of his first marriage; the sensational murder of Mamah Borthwick, the woman for whom he left his family; and his later relationships—made his position untenable in conservative Midwestern society, and the ensuing two decades were perhaps the most difficult years in Wright’s life. Part of this time was spent on the West Coast and in Tokyo with the construction of the Imperial Hotel (ca. 1916–22). At home, the economic constraints of the Depression compounded his professional problems, and few of Wright’s projects were realized during this period.

By the 1930s, however, Wright—then in his sixties—reemerged with a series of remarkable buildings and was once again an accepted leader in modern architecture. For the next quarter century until his death in 1959 at the age of ninety-two, he would build on an unprecedented scale. Although he enjoyed immense fame in his later years, Wright had few distinguished followers. His was a highly individual genius that provided a unique solution for each client and site.