Modeling Grace: Two Centuries of American Sculpture
November 19th 2009 - February 6th 2010
I look to the formation of a pure school of Art in our glorious country. We have surpassed already the Republics of Greece in our political institutions, and I see no reason why we should not attempt to approach their excellence in the fine arts, which as much as anything, has secured undying fame to Grecian genius.

Thomas Crawford, 1843

Long considered the handmaiden to painting, sculpture enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence in America early in the 19th century. Thomas Crawford, Hiram Powers, and other aspiring American stone carvers made their way to Italy, home of raw material, talent, and historical precedent, and by the decade preceding the Civil War, their ideal figures in marble had laid the foundation of a native sculpture school. As Crawford had wished, these sculptures were the symbols that bound the American Republic to the democratic states of ancient Greece.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the ideal marble, which had enjoyed tremendous popularity in antebellum America, faded rapidly in the aftermath of the carnage of the Civil War. American sculpture of the Gilded Age now looked to modern Europe for inspiration. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, and Daniel Chester French worked their way through the écoles and ateliers of Paris and brought back the prevailing Beaux-Arts style to America. Their clientele—America’s new royalty of industrialists, railroad magnates, and politicians—commissioned bronzes and stone monuments for gardens, tombs, and urban sites. Sculpture honored the heroes of war, memorialized the deceased, and brought a touch of levity with conceits and follies that anchored many a garden, fountain, parkland, and exposition fairway from Newport to Manhattan to Chicago and beyond.

European sculpture may have led the way in the last quarter of the 19th century, but American sculptors surpassed their Old World counterparts thanks to lucrative commissions, bountiful venues for their work—not the least of which were the spectacular world expositions in Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904), and San Francisco (1915)—and innate genius. The Art Deco style may have had its genesis in 1925 in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, but one may argue that it found its purest sculptural expression in America in the streamlined works of Paul Manship and Hunt Diederich.

Modeling Grace: Two Centuries of American Sculpture broadly surveys the American plastic arts, with over thirty sculptural works in plaster, marble, bronze, and wrought iron from Jean-Antoine’s engaging Federal-era bust of bright-eyed inventor Robert Fulton, to a startlingly modern bronze Tortoise modeled by Paul Manship in 1916 but first cast in bronze in 1999, thirty-two years after his death.
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