Look inside Berkshire museums for wondrous sculpture
Photo by Paul Rocheleau
Decades ago when I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a colleague sat at the information desk in the middle of the Great Hall and answered questions posed by visitors from all over the world. “What’s new at the Met?” they would often ask him. What they really were inquiring about were the special exhibitions. “Is this your first time at the museum?” he would respond.
There are 18 curatorial departments at the Met, and each showcases a selection of its outstanding permanent collection in galleries throughout the museum. In the 1970s, Met director Thomas Hoving ushered in the era of the museum blockbuster exhibition and many people have since forgotten that museums own and exhibit art from their permanent collections. This is certainly true from the smallest to the largest museums in the country, no matter their collecting interests.
Berkshire museums and historic sites fit into that category, many holding important works of art in their permanent collections—including wonderful sculptures. Granted, during the summer months, visitors might be tantalized by temporary outdoor sculpture shows among the open fields and woodland walks—especially at places like Chesterwood and The Mount, where Sculpture Now is in its third season. But there are treasures on permanent view inside Berkshire museums as well.
At Chesterwood, a Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Stockbridge, Daniel Chester French’s recently rehabilitated studio features nearly 100 plaster models for his public commissions. French, famous for his seated figure of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was considered the “dean of American sculpture” after his artist-friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens died in 1907.
Yet first-time visitors to the artist’s former country retreat in the Berkshires are not necessarily aware that French created America’s most celebrated and beloved public monument until they step inside the sculptor’s work space and view the six-foot-high plaster model of Lincoln. What cannot be seen in the completed, 19-foot-high marble statue in Washington, D.C., carved in 28 sections, is the actual hand of the sculptor. But in his studio, tool marks are visible on the surface of the plaster model, creating a heightened realism with dramatic shading and textural elements throughout.
Daniel Chester French’s last work is the unknown masterpiece, Andromeda (pictured above). The marble statue, unfinished at his death in October 1931, resides upon a flat-bed car on a set of railroad tracks under removable sections of the studio floor. French designed the tracks to push his sculpture outdoors, allowing him to continue working on his full-size models in natural light. Andromeda represents the culmination of French’s career as America’s foremost figurative artist, the work exemplifying his fascination with the beauty of women and the ideal female form. (The model for Andromeda was Ethel Cummings, a Stockbridge resident whose parents never knew she posed for the sculpture, believing instead that she was employed only to work in the French family household.)
The mythological figure is depicted in a reclining position chained to a rock as a sacrifice to appease a sea monster sent by Neptune to punish Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, for boasting that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the Nereids or sea nymphs. Andromeda gave French the opportunity to prove to his critics that he was still quite capable of portraying ideal beauty in marble even as his reputation was waning in favor of modern, 20th-century sculpture.
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, founded by the local businessman Zenas Crane, includes works from antiquity to the early 20th century that Crane purchased for the community’s edification and enjoyment. The museum’s collections also include later donations, especially of Asian and contemporary works. Immortal Present: Art and East Asia showcases many of these extraordinary sculptures, including several images of Buddha, in a special exhibitionthrough early September. As you climb the stairs to the large Crane Room, the first sculpture seen on the landing is The Lost Pleiad (marble, 1874-1875) by American sculptor Randolph Rogers (pictured left.) The seventh sister of the Pleiades searches the heavens while shielding her eyes, trying to find her mythological family among the billowing clouds. Rogers completed this seemingly floating sculpture in Rome the same year that Daniel Chester French began his artistic training in Italy.
Inside the Crane Room, which is used both as an event and exhibition space, there are a number of 19th-century neoclassical sculptures, but one in particular deserves a closer look for its masterful carving. The Veiled Rebecca (marble, 1886) by the accomplished Italian sculptor, Giovanni Benzoni, is hauntingly beautiful in its depiction of biblical figure Rebecca presenting herself to her bridegroom, Isaac. Rebecca’s flowing shawl almost covers her entire body and hides the features of her face, which will forever remain a mystery (see pictures below.)
The galleries hold an intriguing variety of sculpture, including funerary portraits in relief from Palmyra, Syria (limestone, circa 150 AD), as well as an early, kinetic abstraction (without its motor) entitled The Arc and the Quadrant (painted wood, wire, sheet metal, 1932) by American artist Alexander Calder, whose first architectural installation of colorful shapes is featured in the museum’s auditorium. A late 20th-century abstract sculpture by Pittsfield-born sculptor Nancy Graves, entitled Riff (bronze with polychrome patina, baked enamel, steel, wood, 1987), reveals her interest in color, nature, and the use of found objects. (See pictures below.)
With great fanfare last summer, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown opened its reinstalled galleries containing the museum’s permanent collection of European and American art. At the entry to the galleries, there is an over-life-size, bronze sculpture entitled Venus Victorious (1914) by celebrated French Impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The voluptuous, female form is reminiscent of the paintings of nude, seated bathers on view in the gallery devoted to museum founder Sterling Clark’s great collection of Renoir’s work.
Clark also admired the work of American artist Winslow Homer. In the gallery featuring Homer’s paintings are several paintings and one sculpture, The Wounded Bunkie (bronze, 1896), by Frederic Remington (pictured left,) another well-known American artist. Remington came to sculpture late in his career, yet he mastered the depiction of movement in bronze as seen in this realistic portrayal of cavalrymen with all their gear, riding swiftly on horseback to seek medical assistance.
Capturing motion in art was also important to the French Impressionist Edgar Degas, another artist Clark admired and collected. Degas modeled wax figures of dancers to aid in his depiction of three-dimensional form in his paintings. At the Clark, you’ll find a set of bronze sketches of ballet dancers in various positions, originally modeled in wax and later cast in bronze. Degas exhibited only one sculpture in wax during his lifetime, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1879-81; bronze cast 1919-21), complete with gauze tutu and silk hair ribbon—the use of mixed media a radical departure in sculpture during that time period.
Hours could be spent at the Clark looking at excellent examples of European sculpture from the Renaissance, such as the exquisite bronze Walking Horse with Hogged Mane and Saddlecloth, circa 1610 by Giovanni Bologna (known as “Giambologna”); and from the 19th century, such as the intriguing recent acquisition, Daphnis and Chloe (marble, 1874) by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
While in Williamstown, plan a visit to the Williams College Museum of Art, where you will find sculpture in special exhibitions drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. A recent gift to the collection of George Segal’s large multi-media work, Couple in an Open Doorway, 1977, is a popular addition to the museum and visitors are discovering their own artistic expression by taking “selfies” in front of the sculpture.