Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009 with permission of Brookgreen Gardens. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Brookgreen Gardens directly at P.O. Box 3368, Pawleys Island, SC 29585: or:



 

The Fountainhead: The Genesis of American Garden Sculpture

by Lauretta Dimmick

with research assistance by Marie Adams

 

The history of statuary created for American gardens during the "Country Place Era" -- roughly the mid-1880s to the beginning of World War II -- has never been adequately studied.[1] Although there continues to be an abundance of books delineating the how-tos or the history of American gardening and gardens, little scholarly attention has been given to the sculptures that adorned many of the country estates built during this period.[2] The monumental industry of designing and building of these sometimes immense houses and gardens could have spawned an equally important chapter in the history of American sculpture, but it seems, from a preliminary search that the majority of statuary gracing these man-made landscapes were imported copies of European -- mostly antique or Renaissance -- figures.

Although this essay cannot fully address the phenomenon that American estate gardens were predominantly adorned with copies of European sculpture and the consequential negative impact this had on American sculptors, nor can it address the lacunae in the history of this genre within American sculpture, a few observations can be made. Several works in the Brookgreen Gardens collection offer the perfect foray into this largely uncharted territory.

Stanford White initiated the interest when he commissioned the young Frederick MacMonnies (1863 - 1937) to create a bronze statue to serve as a focal point in the vast garden complex of the estate known as "Rohallion" (Gaelic for "little red hill") which White and landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett, had designed for the New York banker Edward Dean Adams, at Seabright (now Rumson), New Jersey.[3] White, and his client Adams wanted a fountain figure for the center of a stone basin White designed, located at a driveway rond-point in front of the house. MacMonnies' delightful bronze Pan, a life-size standing figure of a young boy piping his double reeds, completed in 1890, was the inspired creation. The statue was so fashionable that MacMonnies made a tidy profit for himself by selling reductions of the figure at jewelry stores in New York City and Boston well into the 1920s. So popular was this first important American fountain figure that a photograph of it appeared on the title page of Guy Lowell's esteemed book, American Gardens, published in 1902. A reduction of Pan of Rohallion was placed in a small basin in Frank Squier's estate "Ashford" in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a photograph of this smaller fountain was illustrated in the even-more successful book, American Estates and Gardens, published in 1904 by Barr Ferree. Interestingly, the sculptor and sculpture were not identified in this latter book, perhaps suggesting that Pan of Rohallion and its maker were very well-known. At any rate, MacMonnies and White thus laid the groundwork for a new genre within the field of American sculpture.

Although Brookgreen Gardens does not own a Pan of Rohallion nor any of the other fountain figures MacMonnies created,[4] the collection does include a reduction of another MacMonnies figure, the infamous Bacchante and Infant Faun, which at one point became a fountain sculpture. Created during the height of his career, the Bacchante was neither fashioned for a commission nor as a fountain figure. Inspired by a particular model, MacMonnies sculpted this zestful figure and presented the original, over-life-size bronze to Charles McKim, one of Stanford White's colleagues in their incredibly successful architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White. McKim had lent MacMonnies money when the young sculptor first went to study in Paris many years earlier, and MacMonnies' gift of Bacchante was a later expression of gratitude. At the time, McKim, Mead & White, was just completing Boston's new Public Library in the neo-Renaissance style; an inner courtyard featured a basin waiting for a sculpture to be its focus. McKim offered to give MacMonnies' Bacchante and Infant Faun to the Library; the Library's Trustees accepted and the sculpture was placed in the courtyard fountain. Although it looked beautiful with jets of water splashing over it, an incredible brouhaha erupted over the fact that the statue depicted a "naked" (not nude) female who was an associate of Bacchus, the pagan god of wine. The history of the work's initial acceptance and the subsequent condemnation and disapproval is too long to tell here.[5] In the end, McKim withdrew the sculpture and in May 1897 gave it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Despite its travails in Boston, the sculpture, with its lightness and verve, had many admirers and MacMonnies found a ready market for reductions of it, just as he had previously with small-scale bronze replicas of the Pan of Rohallion. The work in the Brookgreen collection is just such an example, as would have been sold by Theodore B. Starr or Tiffany and Company in New York.

Although MacMonnies did create a few more sculptures for domestic gardens, and his Pan of Rohallion set the tone for many subsequent figures of fauns, Pan, and other mischievous children created by other sculptors for American estate gardens, MacMonnies' career followed the traditional pattern of working towards attaining commissions for large public monuments. We must look to one of his students, then, for a sculptor who epitomized the creator of domestic garden sculpture. Janet Scudder (1869 - 1940) was the American garden sculptor par excellence.[6] Hers is a rags-to-riches story, based on her talent, hard work, good promotion and commissions. Born to a poor family in Indiana, she eventually, by virtue of her garden sculpture, lived on her own at her villa outside Paris.

Working as an assistant in MacMonnies' Parisian studio, Scudder was one of the first American sculptors to note this genre within her mentor's work, and she would go on to make it her special theme. Another critical influence on Scudder's oeuvre was her trip to Italy during the winter of 1899 - 1900. In Florence she saw Donatello's Cantoria (1433 - 39) at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, popularly called the Singing Boys, and, perhaps most importantly, Andrea del Verrochio's Putto with Dolphin (c. 1470) at the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. This latter fountain, with its chubby canon of proportions, was to have enormous impact not only on Scudder's work, but on the entire subsequent history of American garden statuary. Upon seeing these Italian works and others, Scudder wrote:

I knew now what I wanted to do....I filled my brain and my sketch book...with all those gay pagan figures....My work should please and amuse the world....My work was going to decorate spots, make people feel cheerful and gay -- nothing more![7]

The stage was set for Scudder to epitomize the creator of fountain statuary for American estates.

After returning to her Paris studio, fresh with ideas gathered in Italy, Scudder attempted to capture what she called the "joyousness" of her Italian prototypes when she modeled her first garden figure in 1901, Frog Fountain, also titled Frog Baby, a reduction of which is in the Brookgreen collection. In Scudder's autobiography, she told the story of how this charming, life-size figure of a young boy splashing in water sprayed on him by three frogs at the base and with water lilies woven into his tousled curls, came about. In Paris, "a little boy of four," one of many young children who were constantly asking for modeling jobs, gained entrance to her studio:

He stood there timidly, looking at me though anxious, pleading eyes....He was so cunning and appealing [that I]...called him to me....How little I knew at that moment that he was Fate in disguise -- rushing straight into my arms![8]

The child was so happy to be given a sandwich and have the chance to model that he began dancing about, "chuckling delightedly to himself all the time." Scudder continues:

In that moment a finished work flashed before me. I saw a little boy dancing, laughing, chuckling all to himself while a spray of water dashed over him. The idea of my Frog Fountain was born.[9]

When the bronze cast was finished in Paris, Scudder eagerly sought MacMonnies' opinion about her newest work. He liked it and asked her what she planned to do with it. She replied, "Take it to New York -- and start out on my career of designing fountains for gardens -- for courtyards -- for terraces."[10]

She did take her sculpture to New York and awaited the chance to show it to Stanford White. She was very enterprising about this and never gave up although at times it seemed she could never get his attention. When by chance she literally bumped into him on a busy New York intersection, he said he had seen her statue, and "I like it. How much do you want for it?" She replied with all her courage, "a thousand dollars," and was stupefied when he said "I'll take it. Send it to my office."[11] White told her he planned to put one replica in "the Chapin house" and another on the grounds of the James L. Breese estate in Southampton, New York.[12] White, who later put a replica of the Frog Fountain on his own Long Island estate, also asked Scudder to design two other fountains. At the zenith of his career as the architect of public and private buildings -- and especially country estates -- White was the contact Scudder needed to launch her career. As she related, "When I eventually...became more or less the fashion in garden sculpture, my telephone used to ring from nine o'clock in the morning until ten at night."[13] Frog Fountain established her reputation and enjoyed continued popularity throughout her career. She was especially honored in 1906 when Daniel Chester French acquired a replica of it for the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After five life-size bronze casts were produced, she made multiple editions in three reduced sizes.[14] By 1919 at least fifty of these had been cast.[15] To give the contemporary reader some sense of the prices such sculptures commanded during the "Country Place Era," a bronze cast of Frog Fountain, complete with an electric pump and basin, could be had for $350.00; the figure alone sold for $200.00.[16]

MacMonnies created very important and seminal works for American garden statuary, but his career followed the traditional path of moving on to procure commissions for large public monuments. Scudder had no intention of doing the same, even very early in her career. Before her success with Frog Fountain she had been considered as the artist for a heroic statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to be placed in Washington, D.C. She said "It would be a crime to put up another portrait statue in Washington," and asked if she could execute a fountain to memorialize Longfellow, complete with benches for sitting amidst flowers and plants. Her would-be benefactor said she didn't understand -- he wanted a portrait statue. Scudder's response clearly conveyed her convictions:

Well -- I won't do it!...I won't add to this obsession of male egotism that is ruining every city in the United States with rows of hideous statues of men-men-men -- each one uglier than the other -- standing, sitting, riding horseback ­ every one of them pompously convinced that he is decorating the landscape.[17]

When Scudder found in Italy her métier for fountain figures, she recognized it and was satisfied. In so doing, she elevated the status of garden statuary and paved the way for other sculptors of her generation to work within this genre. Many works in the Brookgreen Gardens collection descend from the success that MacMonnies -- and especially Scudder -- established for this field and several works in the current exhibition are related to this phenomenon.

 

NOTES:

1. The "Country Place Era" is sometimes dated from mid-1880s to the years after the stock market crash in 1929. A recent study, however, extends the era to the beginning of World War II. See Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller, The Golden Age of American Gardens, Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890 - 1940 (New York, 1991).

2. Griswold and Weller, The Golden Age, has a good bibliography of books published during the "Country Place Era," as well as more recent studies of gardening and gardens. The only studies of which I am aware on the history of American sculpture created for these estates are Fauns and Fountains: American Garden Statuary, 1890 - 1930, (Southampton, N.Y.: The Parrish Art Museum, 1985) and Long Island Estate Gardens, (Greenvale, N.Y.: Hillwood Art Gallery, 1985).

3. For the most recent discussion of Pan of Rohallion see Smart, Mary, A Flight with Fame, the Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies (1863 - 1937), with a catalogue raisonné by E. Adina Gordon (Madison, Connecticut: 1996).

4. For information on the several fountain figures MacMonnies designed see Smart, A Flight with Fame.

5. Much has been written about the history of this sculpture; most recent scholarship includes Smart, A Flight with Fame, and Fairbanks, Jonathan, "MacMonnies' Bacchante: Its Trial, Condemnation and Restoration" Sculpture Review 43, no. 2 (second quarter 1993). In 1993, for the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Boston Public Library, a bronze cast of this sculpture was made for the Library.

6. For information on Scudder and her career see Rubinstein, Charlotte Streiffer, American Women Sculptors (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990) 99 - 100, 148 - 53; Conner, Janis C. and Joel Rosenkranz in Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893 - 1939 (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1989) 151 - 160 and Fauns and Fountains. Scudder's autobiography, Modeling My Life, (New York, 1925) is the source for all the subsequent quotes.

7. Scudder, Modeling, 165.

8. Ibid., 171.

9. Ibid., 172.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 187 - 88.

12. Ibid., 196 - 97.

13. Ibid., 190.

14. Fauns and Fountains, n.p.

15. Hill, May Brawley, The Woman Sculptor, Malvina Hoffman and Her Contemporaries (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 1984) 49.

16. Ibid.

17. Scudder, Modeling, 155.

 

About the author

Lauretta Dimmick is an art historian with a degree from the University of Denver and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation was entitled A Catalogue of the Portrait Busts and Ideal Works of Thomas Crawford (1813? - 1857), American Sculptor in Rome. She contributed to American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 1: Catalogue of Works by Artists Born before 1865; and The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760 - 1860. She is the author of Robert Weir's "droll" St. Nicholas: A Knickerbocker icon. She has been a curator at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where she organized a retrospective of the work of John La Farge, and curator of American art at the Denver Art Museum.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 26, 2009, with permission of Brookgreen Gardens, which was granted to TFAO on January 14, 2009.

This essay appeared in the exhibition catalogue American Masters: Sculpture from Brookgreen Gardens. The exhibition was on view at Brookgreen Gardens April 1996 - May 1998. It then traveled to Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, Texas (June 12 - August 16, 1998); Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (January 16 - April 18, 1999); National Sculpture Society, New York City (May 10 - July 30, 1999); and Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Florida (September 5 - October 31, 1999). The catalogue can be purchased from the Brookgreen Gardens shop: http://www.brookgreen.org/shop.cfm.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Robin Salmon and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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