Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872- –1955) was an American sculptor who deserves more attention, her sculpture Dancing Girl was exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913. Despite the great obstacles a woman faced to become an artist she won numerous awards, critical acclaim, significant patronage in the early 20th century. In more recent times, Vonnoh’s work has been considered only in the context of collection catalogs. This is due to the fact that American sculpture remains marginalized within the field of art history. Because Vonnoh produced mostly studio bronzes and garden statuary, her work has not received the same level of scholar ship as her male colleagues. I consider this to be a grave error, her work should be accounted for within the context of Symbolism.
Although the theme of women and children were abundant in paintings, Vonnoh was recognized as the first in America to render domestic themes with great sensitivity. Many of her sculptures are akin to the paintings of Mary Cassatt.
Vonnoh accepted a public commission in 1909 to sculpt a bust of Vice President James Schoolcraft Sherman for the Senate Wing of the United States Capital. Although the bust is in no way as ambitious as Vonnoh’s garden statues, the commission was one of the most “prestigious” of her career. This is what I generally find, due to political reasons, work like Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore monument are given more attention despite the fact that there is little aesthetic and expressive merit. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said “It is easier to be gigantic than it is to be beautiful.”
Vonnoh had actually created more ambitious work earlier in her career. In 1895, after she had returned from Paris, Vonnoh was inspired to sculpt The Spirit of the Water. Vonnoh found a beautiful Irish girl of 12 to model for the sculpture, but had difficulty finding time to work on it, the sculpture was not completed until the following autumn. Unfortunately The Spirit of the Water is lost, it is known only through photographs of the clay model in progress. The sculpture was for the most part, well received, many critics of the time hailed it as the most important work Vonnoh had yet accomplished but today’s critics would likely regard the work as only decorative and sentimental.
When I began this post, I did an image search on the names of Vonnohs colleagues, William Partridge, Augustust Saint-Gaudens and Frederick MacMonnies, none of their work I found had the beauty and soul of Vonnoh’s work. Most of the sculptures I found were draped figures, it’s easier to hide the fact one can’t sculpt the figure well by hiding it under cloth, in the same way landscape painters hide the fact they can’t paint figures. The nude figures I did find, Saint-Gauden’s Diana and MacMonnies Pan were rather silly, since both figures have the appearance of balancing themselves on bowling balls. Due to her connections to Paris, Vonnoh’s work should be regarded within the context of Symbolism, as Cassatt’s work is regarded within the context of Impressionism.
Vonnoh’s Springtime of Life is a sculpture with a classical mood which seems familiar but it is actually unprecedented. Many sculptures of women are derived from the Venus Anadyomene pose, in which one arm is raised over the head. When I did research, I could not find one female sculpture in a pose similar to the Springtime of Life. The gesture of the arms has more in common with Greek sculptures of Apollo, which reflect grace, gentleness and benevolence. At the girl’s feet is a charming rabbit. The girl reflects more intelligence than what is often found in 19th Century sculpture. One wonders if the work could reflect a silent protest against the utilitarian attitudes regarding youth and beauty.
The last important commission Vonnoh received was the Burnett Memorial, she began work in 1926 but the sculpture was not erected at the site until 29 May 1937, making it in essence the last gasp of the Beaux-Arts style. The young nymph, with her nearly invisible wisp of drapery recalls the Three Graces of Botticelli’s Primavera.