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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937)

From humble beginnings in Brooklyn, Frederick William MacMonnies emerged as a leading Beaux-Arts sculptor at the turn of the twentieth century. The son of an imports dealer bankrupted by the Civil War (1861–65), MacMonnies left school at a young age, taking odd jobs to contribute to the household income. After an introduction to clay modeling by sculptor John Rogers, MacMonnies began work in 1880 as an assistant, and later an apprentice, in the Manhattan studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, then developing as the nation’s most prominent sculptor. From 1881 to 1884, MacMonnies’ routine consisted of assisting Saint-Gaudens during the day and studying art in the evening, including antique and life drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and clay modeling classes at the Cooper Union.

Like many aspiring American artists of the time, MacMonnies sought new challenges in Europe. Arriving in Paris in autumn 1884, he frequented the Louvre and sketched casts of ancient statuary in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s open classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. After completing life-drawing courses at Munich’s Royal Academy (1987.114.7), MacMonnies settled in Paris in 1886. In addition to private study with Antonin Mercié, MacMonnies trained in the atelier of Alexandre Falguière (2007.407) at the École des Beaux-Arts, which espoused naturalistic sculpture that projected a robust sense of vigor. MacMonnies had his first public triumph when his lifesize plaster Diana (1888–89; 27.21.9) garnered an honorable mention at the Salon of 1889. Taking on a subject celebrated since antiquity, he deftly echoed the graceful curves of Diana’s nude form in her arched bow, a characteristic attribute of the Roman goddess of the hunt.

Bolstered by Salon recognition, the artist won the 1890 competition for Nathan Hale (City Hall Park, New York; 50.145.38), a monument honoring the Revolutionary War hero who was hanged for treason against Great Britain in 1776. Standing atop a granite pedestal designed by architect Stanford White, MacMonnies’ nine-foot-tall bronze depicts a dignified patriot with a confident contrapposto stance, while his bound arms and ankles disclose his fate. At the same time, MacMonnies completed an overlifesize bronze figure of Brooklyn civic leader James S. T. Stranahan (1890–91) for Prospect Park. MacMonnies exhibited the plaster models for the Hale and Stranahan portrait monuments at the 1891 Salon, where he became the first American sculptor to win a second-class gold medal, the highest award available to foreigners at the esteemed French venue.

MacMonnies’ importance as a sculptor was solidified by his commission for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Held in Chicago in 1893, this fair celebrated the nation’s achievements in all disciplines. With support from Saint-Gaudens, advisor for the sculptural program at the Exposition, MacMonnies secured a $50,000 order for the massive Columbian Fountain (1891–93), placed in the fair’s Court of Honor. The boat-shaped base of the multifigure work stood in a large reflecting pool; this Barge of State was navigated by monumental representations of Columbia, Fame, Father Time, and eight female personifications of the Arts and Industries. Seen by millions of spectators and countless more via newspaper reproductions, the fountain’s success brought MacMonnies unprecedented fame.

MacMonnies consequently enjoyed a flood of commissions at the peak of the Gilded Age, a period when many prominent art patrons, with wealth fostered by post–Civil War industrialization, purchased works by Europe’s old masters and contemporary artists to display their cultural acumen. In an effort to attract this cosmopolitan clientele and earn international acclaim, many American artists studied and worked in European capitals. MacMonnies, who divided his time between Paris, Giverny, and New York, enjoyed private commissions from such patrons, who favored his bronze sculptures to decorate their homes and gardens. In addition to the often-replicated Diana, MacMonnies’ Young Faun with Heron and Boy and Duck exemplify this type. Young Faun with Heron (1889–1902; 27.21.8) was commissioned by Ambassador and Mrs. Joseph H. Choate for the grounds of their Stockbridge, Massachusetts, estate, Naumkeag. MacMonnies created Boy and Duck for the sunken fountain at Prospect Park’s Vale of Cashmere (1895–96; location of original cast unknown; see 22.61). Both sculptures feature a subject inspired by antique themes: a youthful male clutching a writhing bird where the play of textures between the smooth skin and coarse feathers yields a visually dynamic effect. MacMonnies enterprisingly produced commercial editions of reductions after these and other large-scale works. Cast in French and American foundries, these statuettes were sold by major dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel in Paris and Theodore B. Starr in New York.

MacMonnies’ expertise in rendering naturalistic surface detail is evident in his most renowned work, Bacchante and Infant Faun (97.19). Modeled in Paris in 1893–94, the lifesize group pairs a baby with a female devotee of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. The artist gave Bacchante and Infant Faun to the Boston Public Library as a gift to its architect Charles Follen McKim, who proposed its installation in the newly completed courtyard. When the work’s depiction of unabashed nudity and apparent drunkenness elicited an uproar, McKim withdrew his gift and instead donated the bronze in 1897 to the Metropolitan Museum.

Although most of MacMonnies’ works were conceived to be cast in bronze, the artist employed various media to achieve his creative goals. Whereas leading French artists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme and Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (2006.113a–c), experimented with a colorful range of materials in their sculpture, nineteenth-century American sculptors did so infrequently. MacMonnies’ major foray into polychromy was Cupid (1898; 2015.243a, b). Exhibited at the Salon of 1898, the tabletop sculpture is composed of ivory, bronze, colored stones, and other precious materials. MacMonnies formalized his interest in color in 1900, when it was publicly announced that the artist would concentrate on painting. Though he had occasionally engaged in portrait and ornamental painting, he presented an oil at the Salon for the first time in 1901, receiving an honorable mention for his likeness of a French actor, Monsieur Cardin (1900–1901; private collection). During a four-year engagement with this medium, MacMonnies completed approximately sixty paintings, the vast majority of which were portraits. An exception is Madonna of Giverny (1901; 1983.530), an autumnal-themed image of four angels adoring the Virgin and Christ Child in a verdant arbor. The painting’s blend of classicism and naturalism echoes the basic thematic parameters of MacMonnies’ sculptural oeuvre.

At the turn of the twentieth century, MacMonnies regularly tended to large-scale sculpture commissions, notably monumental bronze groupings for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, firstly Quadriga (1894–98), and then The Army and The Navy (1894–1900), which reveal an indebtedness to French sculptor François Rude. The final years of MacMonnies’ career were marked by monumental works for public sites, including the Pioneer Monument in Denver (1907–11); the Princeton Battle Monument (1908–22; Princeton, N.J.), featuring George Washington alongside his contemporaries and a personification of Liberty; two marble fountain figures, Beauty and Truth, for the New York Public Library (1909–21); and the 130-foot-tall Marne Battle Memorial near Meaux, France (1917–32). Civic Virtue (1909–20), a fountain for New York’s City Hall Park, presents a brutish male Virtue striding atop female representations of Vice so offensive to women’s groups and other constituents that the fountain was relocated to Queens Borough Hall in 1941; it was moved again to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery in 2012.

In 1915, MacMonnies returned to New York, where he lived the remainder of his life. He completed small-scale projects such as marble and bronze busts, including a lively depiction of his former Paris colleague James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1930–31; Bronx Community College), one of three portraits MacMonnies made for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, his final collaboration with Stanford White. Like other American sculptors, MacMonnies also turned to the production of medals. In 1931, he modeled a medal commemorating Charles Lindbergh’s heroic flight (33.152.8) for the Society of Medalists, a collector’s organization that encouraged the medallic efforts of illustrious sculptors. Distinguished on both sides of the Atlantic, MacMonnies was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a commandeur in the French Legion of Honour.