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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frederick William MacMonnies

One might call it a hallmark of greatness.  Even the Bible speaks of a prophet not being respected in his hometown.  And when that respect does come, it's often recognition received belatedly only after an artist has left his roots and "made it" in the big time. Then, perhaps years later, when he or she is invited back amidst the obligatory parade down Main Street on a day named for him or her, to unveil a sign on a street named for him or her running in front of the house where the artist was born, the memories are often bittersweet, recalling both the jeers and the cheers of times less auspicious.  Sometimes the jeers outweigh the cheers, sometimes, as a result, the artist never returns. Sometimes being away has so changed the artist that he or she can't go back. For one such artist, being away even meant living most of his life outside his own country. He joined other Americans of his time such as James McNeill Whistler, and Mary Cassatt. They've since come to be known as the expatriates.

Bacchante and Infant Faun,
1890, Frederick MacMonnies
Frederick William MacMonnies was born in 1863 in Brooklyn. Unlike Whistler and Cassatt, he became a sculptor. Painting ran in his family though. His mother was related to another expatriate artist, Benjamin West. He was thus encouraged in his talent from a very early age; and from the beginning he worked with the best--Augustus Saint-Gaudens, everything from sweeping up the marble dust to studio assistant. At night he studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Moving on beyond the meager offerings of domestic art instruction, in 1884, he went to Paris where he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Except for brief periods to oversee various American sculpture installations and trying times during WW I, he lived and worked the rest of his life in France. Though classified as an American Sculptor, his work was so saturated with French influences, and particularly a love of the nude figure, that it was never popular in his homeland, especially among the Victorian  public.

In 1893, MacMonnies donated a French classical style statue to an old friend and client, Charles Follen McKim, of the architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White. It was a statue of, Bacchante and Infant Fawn (above, right). Some seven feet tall, cast in bronze, it was intended for the courtyard of the Boston Public Library, which McKim's firm was building at the time. However, when the dancing female nude figure was unveiled it incited such outrage among the straight-laced Bostonians, especially those of the Women's Christian Temperance Society (who cited it's "drunken indecency"), that the work was moved to storage; finally ending up in the less stodgy (but more prestigious) Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though MacMonnies received numerous awards, medals, and distinctions from the Paris art world; and went on to complete some other American pieces, including the centerpiece, Grand Barge of State (below) for the 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition, to many, he will always be remembered as the expatriate artist who was literally "banned in Boston."
Grand Barge of State, 1893, Frederick MacMonnies

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