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 New Symbolism

by Ilene Susan Fort


At the turn of the century, a number of American sculptors were hailed as dreamers, lauded for their creativity in inventing imaginative work of a new order. Metaphysical in nature, the art of George Grey Barnard, Charles Grafly, Lorado Taft and others explored the human condition.

Their art appeared during a period of cultural crisis. The nation was experiencing numerous and often contradictory transformations in response to growing industrialization, urbanization, secularization and immigration. Although nineteenth-century positivism and technological rationalization had encouraged the idea of progress, overcivilization undermined confidence. Some, sensing the loss of a religious foundation, searched elsewhere for authentic experiences of an emotional or spiritual significance.[1] The "New Symbolism" of Barnard and his colleagues was in response to this situation.[2] As William Howe Downes explained, their art went "to the very heart of the life of men and women" of their day, and it was "the sheer humanity of...[such] creations which...gave a fresh realization of the divinity of human nature, its boundless possibilities, and its glorious destiny."

American imaginative sculptors probed the communal psychic through the human figure. The body for them was not so much an ideal form to be extolled, as in Neoclassicism, but an expression of human emotions. Through pose, gesture and the degree of naturalism, a figure could convey a range of experiences, from the most personal dreams of the artist to universal situations. And it was the French aesthetics of Symbolism that encouraged the Americans to reject traditional allegory and look inward for a more truthful emotive art form.

Symbolism emerged in the 1880s as a reaction against the materialism of the era. Symbolist writers and artists, such as the poet Stephane Mallarmé, rejected the visible world, considering superficial details inconsequential, preferring to explore beneath outward surfaces to discover deeper truths within. Auguste Rodin was the most famous sculptor to exemplify the late romantic philosophy of Symbolism. Beginning in the 1880s with The Gates of Hell, he examined the unconscious and private world of people by focusing on such themes as dreams, the human mind, sexuality and sin. He shared the Symbolist anti-rational stance, striving to create an art of suggestion, rather than description. While still retaining references to reality, Rodin created a world of shadows and ambiguity. As the American critic Royal Cortissoz explained, Rodin "brings from behind the veil the very soul of war, of love, or misery, or joy."[3]

There were many parallels and connections between European Symbolism and American imaginative art. Beginning in the 1880s, Americans became familiar with Symbolist literature through translations and commentaries. Boston intellectual circles, at the heart of the New England imaginative literary tradition, were particularly enthusiastic. Although European Symbolist paintings did not appear in significant numbers until the 1913 New York Armory Show, the art of Paul Gauguin, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and others was known much earlier through illustrations and articles.[4] Publications on Rodin and his art were extensive, beginning as early as 1889 with the landmark series of articles by the American sculptor Truman H. Bartlett.[5]

The influence of Rodin on American sculpture was overwhelming.[6] Yet even before the 1890s, when he became a cult figure, hints of a more subjective strain appeared within the parameters of American neoclassical and academic sculpture. The endless repetition of harmonious, ideal nudes exemplifying great virtues and realistic portraits and war memorials had become sterile. A new spirit was inaugurated by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Although his Puritan began as a commemorative monument honoring Samuel Chapin, founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, it signified much more. The colonial deacon's erect posture and forward stride evokes his religious zeal. For a later reworking, Saint-Gaudens departed from his original faithful delineation to create "an embodiment...of the 'Puritan,''' elongating Chapin's face into a stern New England visage.[7] By transforming the portrait of a specific person into an emblem of morality and duty, the sculptor conveyed the human spirit behind the deeds.

Saint-Gaudens was frequently compared to Rodin, his contemporary. Each emerged as an artist of significance in the late 1870s and created his most imaginative and enduring compositions during the next two decades. Saint-Gaudens's knowledge of Rodin dated from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia; by 1887 he ranked Rodin one of France's most important sculptors and a significant influence on his own art.[8]

Later Saint-Gaudens numbered among the many who considered Rodin bizarre and offensive in his use of extreme emotionalism and departure from accepted standards of beauty.[9] The critic William Brownell differed in his opinion, understanding that Rodin regarded all aspects of nature as beautiful, his visionary imagination transforming even the seemingly ugly into something lofty.[10] Rodin's Balzac, grand in its erect stature and exalted spirit, initially caused controversy because it was thought to lack grace. Lorado Taft and Gutzon Borglum realized the statue was one of Rodin's finest, an excellent example of his potent naturalism. It even encouraged the expressive handling of Borglum's Nero. According to Symbolist philosophy, the mind is the center of a person's intellect and soul. The heads of both Balzac and Nero are craggy, glyptic forms modeled with deep recessions to create strong shadows. But Nero is no intelligent emperor a citizen should admire, but rather his fleshy, sagging face and terrifying, deep wide eyes indicate the madness that would culminate in his suicide after a life of murder.

Specific historic personalities did not exemplify the typical subject matter of American imaginative sculptors. Pre-modern themes and those of an eternal character with no time reference were sought. Usually the figure was nude, a generic any and every man, the bearer of life's experiences. The frailty of humanity thus became the source of many turn-of-the-century sculptures, as demonstrated by Paul Wayland Bartlett's Study in Bronze. Inspired by Rodin's The Thinker, the most famous motif from The Gates composition, Bartlett sensitively modeled a figure huddled in despair, seemingly defeated despite his strong body. The theme of a crouched or seated figure, contemplating his life or resting from his toils, would become popular with American sculptors.

Barnard and Taft shared with Rodin the ambition to create complicated, multi-figured projects, such as The Gates, on metaphysical themes. The destiny of humanity, represented by the life span of one person or the ages of mankind, was a frequent theme. Sounding like a mystic, Barnard explained that people had suffered enough in ignorance and darkness and the time had come to search for true knowledge by whatever means available, including art.[11] Barnard carved Maidenhood shortly after completing The Hewer, a heroic figure that was to be the first of an ensemble on primitive man.

American sculptors experienced difficulties in completing elaborate schemes just as Rodin had with The Gates: Barnard left unfinished his Rainbow Arch and Taft The Fountain of Creation. Taft explored imaginative works as early as the 1890s, but increasingly emphasized symbolic content during the following two decades. His Daughter of Pyrrha was created for The Fountain of Creation, intended as a pendant to The Fountain of Time (Washington Park, Chicago). According to Greek legend, Deucalion and Pyrrha were the parents of the human race, created from rocks, after the flood. Taft arranged the figurative groupings of The Fountain of Creation in a ring to reveal the sequence of mankind's physical evolution: first shapeless beings emerging from stones, then newly formed figures on their knees and finally fully developed, erect persons. Hands to her head, one of Pyrrha's daughters is just becoming conscious of her existence. The idea of a person awakening to various states of being -- life in general, sexuality, spirituality -- was a constant theme of Symbolists and one adopted enthusiastically by Americans.

Charles Grafly created perhaps the most enigmatic sculptures. Even though their meaning was incomprehensible to many, his symbolic sculptures attracted considerable attention. Taft wrote of Grafly's The Symbol of Life (1897), now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, "I could not fathom its meaning very readily," but went on to praise it.[12] Vulture of War was originally conceived as part of an ensemble of four figures about war, but was the only one completed. The personification is a scavenger in the process of gathering war's carnage. His face is brutal and his body menacing in its physical strength. Bending and slightly off balance, his pose heightens the psychological tension, making the figure even more threatening.[13] Grafly chose not to depict Mars, the traditional personification of war, nor a soldier, thereby rejecting contemporary belief in the heroism of battle. His sculpture deals with the reality of war.

American Symbolism was generally more positive and life affirming than European manifestations. Rodin relished exploring sin in The Gates but Americans were wary. Even Borglum found the intensity of his Nero disturbing years after he had modeled it. But horrific and decadent themes did appear. Henry Clews, Jr., was by far the American most fascinated with evil. Combining satire and cynicism, Clews created a bizarre vocabulary of distorted and exaggerated figures in the tradition of medieval grotesquery. Clews's Thinker, (1914) at Brookgreen Gardens, with its elaborate base, symbolized the institutions and attitudes that he considered to be the follies of pre-World War I: religion, socialism, materialism. Even Clews's own upper-class society was fodder for his attacks. The Duchess is a naked woman, her fan and string of pearls -- remnants of her pretentious lifestyle -- no longer able to hide her withered body and evil pride.

Rodin's belief in the emotive potential of the human figure revealed the power of sculpture as a tool for self expression. And the "New Symbolism" of American sculptors enabled them to turn inward, delving into their own psyches as well as the soul of the nation.



1. Lears, T. J. Jackson, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880 - 1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 32.

2. Downes, William Howe, "Mr. Barnard's Exhibit in Boston, Which Appealed to the Connoisseurs and the Crowd Alike," World's Work 17 (February 1909): 11268. Although Downes was referring only to the art of Barnard, the term could easily apply to other American sculptors creating symbolic art at this time.

3. Cortissoz, Royal, "The Work of Auguste Rodin," Current Literature 29 (December 1900): 705.

4. Eldredge, Charles C., American Imagination and Symbolist Painting, (New York: Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University, 1979), 18 - 24.

5. Bartlett, Truman H., "Auguste Rodin, Sculptor," American Architect and Building News 25 (January - May 1889).

6. For the most extensive examination of Rodin's impact on American sculpture, see the author's "The Cult of Rodin and the Birth of Modernism in America," in The Figure in American Sculpture: A Question of Modernity (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1995): 22 - 53.

7. Saint-Gaudens, Homer, ed., The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint Gaudens (New York: Century, 1913), I: 354.

8. Merriam Dictionary questionnaire, 1887, in R. W. Gilder Collection, Manuscript Division, New York Public Library.

9. Saint-Gaudens, 1913, II: 50.

10. Brownell, W. C., "Two French Sculptors: Rodin-Dalou," Century Illustrated Monthly 41 (November 1890): 29.

11. Barnard quoted in Armstrong, Regina, "The Sculptor of 'Pan': Mr. George Grey Barnard and His Work," The Critic 33 (November 1898): 356.

12. Taft, Lorado, "Charles Grafly, Sculptor," Brush and Pencil 3 (March 1899): 347 - 8.

13. Simpson, Pamela H., "The Sculpture of Charles Grafly," Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware


About the author

Ilene Susan Fort is the Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is the author of The Figure in American Sculpture (1995), two books on Childe Hassam, and several exhibition catalogues. Among her numerous articles and essays are contributions to Paintings of California, Sargent and Italy, and Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the West.


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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