Frederick William MacMonnies (1863 – 1937)
A sculptor of classical figures, American-born Frederick MacMonnies had fame in the United States and Europe in the later half of the 19th century and early 20th century. He occasionally returned to America but lived most of his life as in expatriate in France. He was especially known for his lithe bronze figures, especially ones titled Diana. The classical names of these figures allowed him the appearance of propriety but gave him the opportunity to model svelte nudes.
Frederick MacMonnies was one of the first American sculptors to recognize the potential market of the middle class. He copyrighted his works and then contracted with foundries to mass produce some of his figures such as Diana in smaller sizes.
MacMonnies was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was a child prodigy at carving stone. At age 18, he worked in the studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and then persuaded him to become his assistant, keeping models damp and covered, running errands, and cleaning the studio. Evenings he studied at the Art Students League, Cooper Union, and the National Academy of Design.
In Saint-Gaudens’ studio, he met many of the wealthy people who shared Saint-Gaudens Beaux-Arts based ideas that art and architecture should be unified in order to create public art in America equal to that of classical antiquity or Renaissance Europe. Among the men that MacMonnies met through Saint-Gaudens who later furthered his career were architects Stanford White and Charles McKim and John LaFarge, decorator of mansions of the wealthy including the Vanderbilts.
After four years of study and work in New York, MacMonnies left for Paris, opting for the more modernist techniques he could learn there over the more traditional sculpture teaching in Rome. One of his first teachers was Alexandre Falguiere, who had been an instructor of Saint-Gaudens and who injected a degree of contemporary realism into his classical figures. MacMonnies mingled with many upper class American expatriates and met his future wife, Mary Fairchild, a painter.
MacMonnies came home briefly to help Saint-Gaudens with a project and then gained admittance in Paris to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he did numerous classical figures inspired by the style of small bronzes of Renaissance Florence, Italy.
In 1889, he established his reputation with his sculpture of “Diana” at the Paris Salon. The execution of his nude sculpture was a challenge for a sculptor such as himself who strove for slim, well proportioned figures—the “aestheticizing of the nude”. (Katz 12) In those days, most of the female models were poor peasants who were stocky with poor figures, distorted feet and often unbathed. However, MacMonnies found Marie Caira as the model for his Diana figures, and she, from a professional family of models, had the figure and social stature that met his criteria.
Although he chose to live in Paris, many of his public and private sculpture commissions in future years, with the help of Saint-Gaudens and also architect, Stanford White, were in the United States.
At the recommendation of Saint-Gaudens, he successfully entered the “Nathan Hale” competition for City Hall Park in New York City and had work at the 1893 World’s Fair Exposition in Chicago. His work titled The Barge of State, a thirty-eight figure extravaganza, made him nationally famous. A bronze Bacchante of a female nude in riotous abandon caused a lot of controversy including being banned in Boston, but the attention brought him even more work.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Wendy Katz, “Frederick MacMonnies”, Sculpture from the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Edited by Karen O. Janovy, pp. 10-12.
Biography from the Archives of AskART