Frederick William MacMonnies
(1863 - 1937)
Frederick MacMonnies was born in Brooklyn and recognized for his natural artistic abilities as a child. (1) At 17 he began to work in the New York studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), whose "David Farragut Memorial" (1876-1882) in New York City was about to set the standard for America’s golden age of monumental sculpture. MacMonnies also studied art in the evenings at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League before sailing for Paris in 1884.
In Paris, he studied with Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguiere (1831-1900) and Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié (1845-1916), both of whom had studied with Saint-Gaudens’ teacher, Francois Jouffroy (1806-1882). (2) He entered Falguiere’s Ecole des Beaux Arts studio in 1886, won the prix de atelier in 1887, and exhibited in his first Salon that year. He won honorable mentions in the Salons of 1888, 1889, and 1890, and another at the Exposition Universelle in 1889. That same year Saint-Gaudens awarded his constrained yet energetic portrayal of Nathan Hale the commission for the memorial to mark the site of the Revolutionary War patriot’s execution at New York’s City Hall. MacMonnies’ life-size plaster of Hale and another portrait figure of James Stranahan commissioned for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park won a second-class gold medal at the Salon of 1891—the highest award available to foreigners and the first won by an American sculptor.
Due to MacMonnies’ rapid rise to fame in Paris and his close association with Saint-Gaudens, the dean of American sculpture awarded him the commission for the piece de la resistance of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a twice-life-size Barge of State centerpiece for the Columbian Fountain. At the time of its production MacMonnies’ Paris studio employed twenty workmen. The $50,000 project was shipped to Chicago on time and on budget, but the project did not benefit the sculptor financially. It did, however, make his name in America.
For more than two decades a steady stream of statuary flowed from the artist’s verdant imagination and virile fingers. According to sculptor and historian Lorado Taft, “During the ten years of his greatest activity, Mr. MacMonnies not only created more good sculpture than did any contemporary, but more than most produce in a lifetime.” (3) His invigorated modeling of figurative forms breathed life into portraits, allegories, and genre sculptures. Critical acclaim and financial success followed.(4) In 1895, the critic Royal Cortissoz wrote a series of four articles in Harper’s New Monthly (which was widely quoted in newspapers), enthusiastically endorsing MacMonnies’ sculptures: “[they have] indescribable buoyancy and relish, a feeling of keen zest, that declares itself in many different ways—in the elasticity of his figures; in the easy, almost nervous flow of his contours; in the elan (I can find no better word) with which they stand in space.” He called the bronze reduction of the Bacchante with Infant Faun “deft, compact, a little triumph of concision, yet it has all the expansive grace, all the intimations of endless movement, which belong to a dancing figure.” (5)
The artist prospered until World War I drove him from Paris to New York. After the Great War he rallied to create successful sculptures, but never surpassed the pinnacle of his success in the 1890s when the scandal involving a nude nymph, "Bacchante with Infant Faun" ignited a firestorm of prudish resistance in Boston.
(1) The most comprehensive source on the life and work of MacMonnies is Mary Smart, A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937): With a Catalogue Raisonne of Sculpture and a Checklist of Paintings (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1996).
(2) Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the 19th-Century Paris Salons (Washington: National Museum of American Art, 1990), 183-184.
(3) Lorado Taft, History of American Sculpture (New York: Macmillan Co., 1924; Arno Reprint, 1969), 332.
(4) Beatrice Proske said, “His pagan spirit and impish sense of humor in conjunction with the sensual quality of his modeling and his challengingly baroque compositions alienated his American audience at the same time that his mastery of vibrating surfaces and easy handling of intricate design gave him a special place among his fellow artists.” Beatrice Proske, Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture (Brookgreen, SC: Brookgreen Gardens, 1943), 39.
(5) Quoted in Smart, 156.