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Paul Swan

 (1884 - 1972)
Paul Swan was active/lived in New York, Nebraska, Illinois.  Paul Swan is known for sculpture-figure, portrait painter.

Paul Swan

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following article is reprinted with permission from "Adirondack Life" magazine, volume XXXVI, no. 6, September/October 2005

"The Most Beautiful Man in the World" by Janis Londraville

"In his Adirondack tract Swan will Found a Greek Colony Where Beauty Loving Souls May Work Out Artistic Ideals." When the New York Sun attached this headline to a May 10, 1914, article on artist and dancer Paul Swan, his fame was growing. Just a year before, after Swan had performed at the Odeon Theater in St. Louis, Swedish-American literary critic Edwin Bjorkman wrote, "In one year, if nothing halts his progress, Swan will be the greatest dancer the world knows." Nor was his acclaim transient. A decade later he would be hailed by the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio as "Nijinsky's successor" after performances in several South American countries.

In 1914 theater impresario Arthur Hammerstein advertised Swan as "the most beautiful man in the world" when he hired him to perform aesthetic dances at the Victoria Theater in New York City. On October 27 a New York Evening Journal headline called Swan "The Prettiest Male in Captivity." He was an innovator in dance, the first American male to solo on stage, leaping to music by Percy Grainger, Cesar Cui and other contemporary composers. Papers reported that women and men alike fainted at performances, and "wild excitement" ran through the audience. Swan packed the house every night, and Hammerstein held his show over until mid-November.

Such accolades would seem sufficient for any man, but Swan was no less famous as a portrait artist. He had studied at the Chicago Institute of Art but never graduated. When he saw the actress Alla Nazimova performing Ibsen in Albany in 1909 he was inspired to paint her portrait from memory and send it to her as a gift. She liked it so much she commissioned five more, and with the money Swan headed to Greece and Italy, where he learned to paint and sculpt in an idealized style. In 1914 he exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery, in Manhattan, alongside notable artists Maurice Prendergast, Rockwell Kent, Arthur B. Davies and Robert Henri. A decade later New York's prestigious Anderson Gallery held a one-man show of his work. M. Knoedler Galleries, another dealer favored by collectors, chose Swan to be the first artist to exhibit in a new Chicago gallery in 1929. Shortly after, the Macbeth Gallery gave him a solo show in New York City. Then it was off to Paris and more triumphs.

Swan encouraged artistic risk. He told the Sun in 1914, "The type of worker whom we aim to interest in our colony is the honest laborer in the realm of the ideal who has something to express and is brave enough to express that something, even at pecuniary loss and in the face of ridicule." Establishing an artists' colony in the Adirondacks was another kind of risk.

Three years earlier Swan had married Helen Palmer Gavit, of Albany, whose grandfather was sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer. "I married the only man I could endure," Gavit told family members. She wanted to marry an artist and have children. Swan fulfilled both her wishes, despite his bisexuality.

The Gavit summer home, Skiwaukie Farm, near Stony Creek, became an Adirondack haven for Swan, who used an old barn on the property for his studio. Today owned by William and Caryl Hutchens, Skiwaukie reminded the artist of his youth. His parents' farm in Crab Orchard, Nebraska, was the site of his earliest artistic experiments. In one of his first childhood theatrical productions he dressed his little sister Harriet in a sheet to make her look like an angel. He cut a strip of tin roofing (without approval from his parents) for her crown and used burnt matches for makeup. He much preferred these pastimes to helping his brothers plow the fields. Later, at Skiwaukie, he felt at home again, inspired to create some of his most intriguing artworks-with only an occasional assignment to tend the garden.

At Skiwaukie he painted several watercolors (now in private collections), the oil Girl in a Canoe, with Lily Pad (which became the cover of a travel brochure for the Lackawanna Railroad Company), and made a series of sketches and oil portraits of naturalist John Burroughs, an old Gavit family friend whom Swan found to be "without imagination or whimsy, too scientific and not at all poetic. He looked at birds and stones and trees without becoming of them." In 1917 Swan's life-size bronze sculpture of suffragette Inez Milholland Boissevain, begun at Skiwaukie, would be placed at the entrance to Meadowmount, the Milholland summer home near Elizabethtown. (Unfortunately, Girl in a Canoe and the sculpture of Boissevain have disappeared. Photographs remain in Swan's scrapbooks, now owned by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, in Sarasota, Florida.)

How residents of Stony Creek reacted to artists and dancers traipsing around the woods is an open question. Papers often ran notices about the arrival of the Gavits. Swan's reputation as "the most beautiful man in the world" made for some interesting community speculation. Reports about his visits were positive, suggesting that the town was proud to have a world-famous artist/dancer (who was also an actor and published poet) in its midst. On June 12, 1919, the Warrensburgh News told readers that Swan used the barn at Skiwaukie to "paint pictures which are shipped from here each fall to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and other museums for sale and exhibition."

Stony Creek was already a beehive of cultural activity, encouraging the intellectual pursuits of residents and guests. During summer 1919 a visiting delegation of New York State librarians praised the local library for its impressive selection of literature -more than five hundred volumes of the world's great works (Warrensburgh News, July 10, 1919). An avid reader, Swan was a frequent visitor.

Local news stories about the art colony ceased in the early 1920s. It's unclear whether the project paled for Swan, or whether the practical aspects of dealing with other artists intruded. The place was large enough to house only about five visitors at a time, but his temperament was such that he may not have been inclined to share Skiwaukie or his studio for very long.

Swan incorporated the mountains into much of his work between 1912 and 1929, his last summer there. He produced his Adirondack tour de force in 1927, a large canvas called The Three Graces. Early that autumn, his oil Jeanne d'Arc (now in a private collection in Italy) was shown in the Exhibition of Independent Artists, held at the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York City. New York Times critic Caroline Beauchamp judged it the best painting in the show. Another admirer, art collector Albert Wielich, was so impressed that he commissioned Swan to do a portrait of his family.

Painted on heavy Belgian linen, the landscape in The Three Graces is filled with vibrant autumn colors. A patch of cerulean, leading the eye to the background and the mountains, complements the green tones of the forest. In the foreground are the graces: Wielich's wife, Beatrice, and daughters, Carmen (dark hair) and Dorothy. They suggest the original three graces-Thalia (fruitfulness), Aglaia (radiance), and Euphrosyne (joy). But these beauties are far from Greece, and the landscape belongs to the North Country. Wanting to be on site to capture the colors of the changing season, Swan made preliminary sketches at Skiwaukie as soon as the Waldorf exhibition ended. He returned to New York to finish the 69-by-101-inch canvas in his studio, where he had access to his models. The Three Graces is now for sale at Woodbury Antiques & Fine Art, in Woodbury, Connecticut.

Not many Adirondackers today recognize Swan's name. The State University of New York at Potsdam held a retrospective of his work in fall 2001, but the tragedy of September 11 pushed it into the shadows. The college's Gibson Gallery is now considering another exhibition, and the Stony Creek Historical Society is organizing a show for August 2006, with lectures and a tour of Skiwaukie.

Even though Swan had painted or sculpted some of the world's most prominent people-including British prime minister James Ramsay MacDonald, aviator Charles Lindbergh and presidents Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy-one of the most famous men in the world of twentieth-century art and dance has nearly faded into oblivion. He was praised in newspapers around the world, but his paintings were rarely donated to museums, kept instead in the families who commissioned them. A few publicly owned works include a bust of Willa Cather in the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a portrait of community leader Electra Doren in the Dayton Public Library, in Ohio. Swan's life-size oil of actress Nance O'Neil hangs at the Players, an actors' club on Grammercy Park, in New York, and is listed with the National Portrait Gallery. Princeton University has Swan's bust of James V. Forrestal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of defense. The Albany Institute of History and Art owns five Swan oil portraits of Gavit family members.

In 2003 seventeen of his paintings and drawings became part of the permanent collection of the Ringling Museum. Year by year more work is surfacing. As recently as March 2005 one of the few existing wall hangings Swan painted, Paolo and Francesca, was purchased in California by a European art collector. In the same month, his portrait of Anais Nin's brother, musician Joaquin Nin, was acquired by a collector in South Carolina. Recently the family of steam-governor inventor Junius Royal Judson notified the Ringling Museum that Swan's 1911 portrait of Mrs.
Judson is still safely in the family's collection in Rochester, New York. There are discoveries almost weekly.

My husband, Richard, first heard about Swan from Chestertown poet Jeanne Robert Foster, in 1967. We learned more about him in the 1990s while we were researching her biography. Swan and Foster, who met while Foster was an art critic for the American Review of Reviews, were friends for more than sixty years. With Foster, Swan could speak openly about his unconventional life without fear of being judged. Her quiet good sense and sympathetic ear made her a confidante to a man who loved his wife and two daughters but was conflicted by his bisexuality.

Curiosity led us to search for Swan's family. In Virginia we located Dallas Swan Jr., a nephew who had carefully preserved his uncle's scrapbooks and letters. Also in Dallas's possession was Swan's unpublished memoir. We were astounded when we discovered what an international sensation he had been.

When Swan moved to Paris in the early 1930s, he took the city by storm, both as a dancer and artist. Les Études Poetique (1937) called him an "incomparable virtuoso." His artwork was in the Paris salons every year. His sculptures, including salon medal-winner Maurice Ravel, were the talk of reviewers.

But fate disrupted his European career. On September 12, 1939, the impending war forced Swan to flee Paris. He grabbed as much as he could carry-a fraction of his work. What he left behind vanished. Recently, one of his landscapes was located in an antique shop near his former studio. But none of the sculptures has been found, and we can only hope that Maurice Ravel and the bronzes Petit Soldat Inconnu and L'opprimé survive in some secret collection. Only the photographs Swan kept in his scrapbooks provide a record.

Back in New York, Swan took over a studio in Carnegie Hall that had been used by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The world was a different place, changed utterly by the chaos in Europe, but still Swan produced. Montross Gallery held a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings in June 1940 that received excellent reviews. His oil of actress/dancer Lisan Kaye was pictured in newspapers as far away as Quebec.

Swan's weekly recitals at Carnegie Hall continued through the 1940s and 1950s. Artists and writers passed through his studio to be painted or to enjoy an evening of aesthetic dancing and art lectures. Among his admirers were musician Percy Grainger, writer William S. Burroughs, and artists Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Robert Barnes. Barnes and Duchamp donated money toward Swan's rent. Barnes told me that "the interest that Marcel, myself and Alex Calder had in Paul Swan was. . . in the capacity of collecting interesting and oddly representative characters, . . . in this case vanity. . . . Marcel-all of us-enjoyed entering into weird situations with unusual people without being judgmental. Swan was a benevolent egomaniac."

Those who remember Swan describe a sweet nature yoked to an unwavering conviction of his own magnificence. Once, when he was visiting his brother Dallas Sr., Swan announced that Dallas had not paid enough for a painting and he was going to repossess it-he was a great painter and deserved more money. After a heated discussion, Swan stormed back to his studio without the painting, feeling abused by his wealthy sibling.

The effects of aging were inevitable, and crowds for Swan's performances grew smaller. He was evicted from Carnegie Hall in 1961 and moved to shabbier digs at the Van Dyke Hotel, where pop artist Andy Warhol filmed him in stationary-camera avant-garde movies Paul Swan and Paul Swan I-IV. Swan also appeared in Camp, one of Warhol's better-known films. While living at the Van Dyke, Swan painted the young Rockefeller children Nelson Jr. and Mark, as well as writer Malachy McCourt. But his eyesight was deteriorating, and when he could no longer paint or care for himself, his daughters moved him into a nursing home in Bedford Hills, New York, in October 1971. He died there the following February.

In 1980 Swan's relatives bought a small gravestone to mark the approximate spot where Reuben Swan buried a coffee can filled with his brother's ashes in the Crab Orchard Cemetery, in Nebraska. Until 1999 no one knew about a cache of scrapbooks and letters that Swan's nephew kept. He gave them to the Ringling Museum in 2003.

Owned by collectors in Australia, England, Denmark, France, Greece and Italy, Swan paintings today are commanding high prices. Privately commissioned works long tucked away in family basements are now being restored by a new generation. Lost or stolen art is beginning to surface, such as sixty-six Swan paintings found under the floorboards of an old New Jersey house in 2002.

It would be hard to name a contemporary person so well known in so many artistic fields. One of the most important aspects of Swan's story is that of the extraordinary genius who found spiritual solace in the Adirondacks. Here he was able to incorporate a new element into his developing artistic philosophy. His final sojourn north was in the summer of 1929, but the influence of this place never left his art.

Janis and Richard Londraville's biography of Paul Swan will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in January 2006.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Once hailed as "America's Leonardo" and "the most beautiful man in the world," Paul Swan began his multi-faceted career by modeling for art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900.  Instructors quickly discovered his talent for drawing and arranged a scholarship.  While in Chicago, he studied painting under John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911) and sculpture under Lorado Taft (1857-1953).  Many of the figures in Swan's paintings show the influence of these two men.

Swan left Chicago within a year to try his hand at teaching high school in his home state of Nebraska.  After several more attempts at various jobs-tutor, frame painter, actor-he moved to New York City to become, as he wrote in his memoir, "a serious artist."  He worked for a year drawing heads and hats for the Butterick pattern company's magazine The Delineator to earn extra money.  He also executed several commissioned paintings in New York and New England.  His first published art work appeared on the cover of Putnam's magazine in December 1908-an idealized Greek youth who looked very much like Swan himself.

In 1909 he met the granddaughter of American sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer.  They married in June 1911 and had two daughters, Paula (b. 1914) and Flora (b. 1917). Although Swan was bisexual and had several male partners during his life, he and his wife always remained close.  Helen Gavit Swan died in California in 1951.

In 1910, when Swan saw Russian actress Alla Nazimova perform in Ibsen's Little Eyolf in Albany, New York, he was inspired to paint her life-sized portrait and send it to her as a gift.  She was so pleased that she commissioned Swan to paint four additional portraits.  With the money he was paid, he sailed for Europe, stopping first in Egypt and then Greece, where he studied with sculptor Thomas Thomopoulos.  A critic for Athens magazine Patrie wrote in 1911: "No foreigner since Lord Byron has ever received such public acclaim." Another journal called him "the reincarnation of one of our lost gods."

In Athens Swan began his aesthetic dance career, calling the art "sculpture in motion."  Although he was criticized in the press for dividing his talents, Swan always felt that dance improved his artwork by reminding him how the body moved, how the muscles worked, and how the inner spirit could be revealed.  He became Mikhail Mordkin's (1857-1944) first private pupil and in London (1912) worked with another Russian dancer, Andreas Pavley.  Swan and Pavley held dance recitals at Swan's studio in Roland Gardens.

During the same period, Swan came under the tutelage of Danish painter Baron Arild Rosenkrantz, known today as "the painter of the invisible." Goethe's concept of color, especially red as representative of the soul, played an important role in Rosenkrantz's work and was passed on to Swan. Jeanne d'Arc (1923), The Three Graces (1927), and Primitive Melodies (1931) and Nance O'Neil as Lady Macbeth (1944) show Swan's dramatic use of color.

In The Three Graces (1927), Swan painted the family of art collector Albert Wielich, placing Wielich's wife Beatrice and two daughters, Carmen and Dorothy, in an Adirondack setting that echoes Gainsborough's Robert Andrews and His Wife Frances (about 1748-50) and Thomas Gainsborough, with His Wife and Elder Daughter, Mary (about 1751-52).  The eerie graceful branches of the white birches are reminiscent of Polish-French artist Boleslas Biegas's work and have overtones of the French Fauves.  Swan danced at Biegas's Paris studio in the early 1920s.

A frequent traveler, Swan showed his work on several continents in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. Called "America's most eminent exponent of classic dancing" and continuously advertised as the most beautiful man in the world, Swan was spoofed by George and Ira Gershwin in their 1927 musical Funny Face: "As a Paul Swan, you are not so hot." During the same period, he was the subject of one-man shows at some of the best American galleries, including Anderson, Macbeth, and Knoedler.  One reviewer of a 1925 Anderson show wrote that Swan "has used symbolism so that it enriches design instead of interfering with it." Generally, Swan did not embrace what he called "the new art."

Swan painted and sculpted some of the twentieth century's most important figures, including President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, musician Maurice Ravel, singer Raquel Meller, aviator Charles Lindbergh, actor John Barrymore, and British socialite Lady Ian Hamilton (who was also painted by John Singer Sargent, one of Swan's favorite artists).  By the early 1930s, he spent longer periods of time in Paris, returning to the United States only occasionally. His work appeared yearly in the Paris Salons, where he won several medals.

Hélène de Colligne wrote in Diapaison that Swan was creating "extraordinary frescoes," "sculpture of a tumultuous harmony," and "very clever drawings of profound inspiration."  The article is one of many that Swan preserved in his scrapbook, now part of the collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (the State Art Museum of Florida), in Sarasota.  The Ringling also owns a copy of Swan's unpublished memoir.

Unfortunately, much of Swan's work from the 1930s is missing.  He left Paris in September 1939 because of World War II, and was never able to retrieve the work he left behind.  His scrapbook at The Ringling Museum, however, is replete with photographs.

At his Carnegie Hall studio in New York City, Swan continued to paint and dance (1940-1960).  Musician Percy Grainger and his wife commissioned him to do their portraits.  Writer Clare Booth Luce and actress Nance O'Neil were among his subjects.  Montross Gallery held an exhibition of his portraits in June 1940.  Swan's popularity continued, even during the difficult war years.  A friendship at this time with California artist Bennett Bradbury led Swan to experiment more with the palette knife, and he produced several landscapes using this method-a departure from his more linear style.  In much of his other work, Swan did not rely on piled pigment or impastos.  He agreed with William Hogarth's idea that variation of lines and curves (especially precise serpentine lines) are the key to pictorial beauty.

In 1961, when Carnegie Hall evicted him and a number of other artists because of impending renovations, he moved to the Van Dyke Studios and continued to perform aesthetic dances well into his eighties.  In his old age he became an eccentric character in New York City, visited by Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, and Roberto Matta, who admired Swan's unwavering dedication to his philosophy of art.

Although Swan painted Pope Paul VI and the children of Nelson Rockefeller late in his career, his eyesight began to fail. Pop artist Andy Warhol took an interest in Swan in 1965 and cast him in Camp, Paul Swan, and Paul Swan I-IV.  Callie Angell of the Whitney Museum's Warhol Film Project calls Swan "strangely impressive" in "Paul Swan", referring to Swan's determination to continue to perform at eighty-three.

Paul Swan died in a Bedford Hills NY nursing home in February 1972.  His biography, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan, from Wilde to Warhol, has been nominated for the 2007 Pulitzer
Prize and the George Freedley Theater Book Award.

Some of his publicly owned work includes a bust of Willa Cather on display in the State capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska; a bust of FDR's defense secretary James V. Forrestal at Princeton University; and a painting of Nance O'Neil as Lady Macbeth (listed with the National Portrait Gallery) at The Players in New York City.  When The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art acquired seventeen drawings and paintings by Swan, this neglected but important artist found a home in a major American museum.

A CAFE IN SPACE: THE ANAIS NIN LITERARY JOURNAL v. 4, 2007). "Paul Swan and Joaquin Nin-Culmell: An Artistic Connection, by Benjamin Franklin V. Pages 142-152, illustrated.

Submitted April 2005 and updated March 2007 by Janis Londraville, biographer of the artist and Professor; English Department, State University of New York-Potsdam

Copyright by Janis Londraville


Angell, Callie. Paul Swan. The Films of Andy Warhol, Part II. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994: 23.

Arendrup, Bente. Painting the Invisible: Arild Rosenkrantz. Video, Klampenborg, Denmark: Charioteer, Christiansholms Parkvej 4, DK 2930.

Biographical Dictionary of Dance. Edited by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Biographical Encyclopedia of American Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers of the U.S. Edited by Bob Creps. Vol. 2. Land O' Lakes, Florida: Dealers Choice Books, 2002.

"The Dance as a Way of Life: An Interview with Paul Swan." Dance Magazine (18 November 1944): 8-9.

Dictionary of American Artists, Sculptors, and Engravers. Edited by William Young. Cambridge, MA.: William Young, 1968.

Girst, Thomas. "A Very Normal Guy: Robert Barnes on Marcel Duchamp and 'Étant Donnés.'" Tout-fait. Issue 4, 2002: 1-7.

Jacobsen's Biographical Index of American Artists. Vol. 1, Book IV. Carrollton, TX: A.J. Publications, 2002.

Londraville, Janis. "Paul Swan: The Art of 'The Most Beautiful Man in the World.'" Prodigal Father Revisited: Artists and Writers in the World of John Butler Yeats. Edited by Janis Londraville. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill P: 331-347.

Londraville, Janis, and Richard Londraville. The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan, from Wilde to Warhol (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming 2006).

Mallet's Index of Artists. Edited by Daniel Trowbridge Mallett. New York: Peter Smith, 1948.

Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. Edited by Glenn B. Optiz. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo Books, 1983.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota FL.

Who Was Who in American Art. Edited by Peter Hastings Falk. Madison, CT.: Sound View P, 1985.

Biography from the Archives of askART
From Publishers Weekly, this is the first review of the book, The Most Beautiful Man in the World, courtesy Janis Londraville, co-author of the book with her husband Richard Londraville.

In 1965, Andy Warhol made a film in which the 82-year-old dancer and gay camp idol Paul Swan, once called "The Most Beautiful Man in the World," is shown trying to recreate one of his youthful performances, unintentionally making a mockery of his past grace. The authors (Dear Yeats, Dear Pound, Dear Ford) of this insightful and compassionate biography take account of this and other pathetic aspects of Swan's old age, but for the most part they emphasize the positive side of his life.

Raised on a Midwestern farm in a family dominated by a rigidly Methodist mother, Swan left home at 15, adopted a bohemian life style based on Oscar Wilde's dictum of art for art's sake, and became a successful portrait painter and sculptor as well as an actor, a poet and a leading exponent of classical dance. Bisexual, married and the father of two children, he was the quintessential eccentric, especially in his later years when he wore quantities of makeup, bathed in olive oil and stuffed his pants with socks to make himself appear better endowed.

The Londravilles don't focus on these oddities. Their book succeeds because they concentrate on Swan's considerable artistic achievements, especially his accomplished portraits.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Paul Swan was born on a farm near Springfield, IL in 1884.  Swan studied at the AIC under Vanderpoel and Taft and continued in Paris.  He was active in Los Angeles in 1922-23 as a portrait painter and dancer in the movies (under screen name John Randolph in the "Ten Commandments").  His was in NYC in 1925 and then spent the next 12 years in Paris.  He died in Bedford Hills, NY on Feb. 1, 1972. 

Exh:  Paris Salon, 1921; NAD, 1922; Kanst Gallery (LA), 1922; Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1923; Painters & Sculptors of LA, 1923.  Murals:  Kings Theatre (London); Edgewater Gulf Hotel (Mississippi).

Edan Hughes, author of the book "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
LA Times, 12-10-1922; AAA 1923-25; American Magazine of Art, July 1923; Fld; SCA; NY Times, 2-2-1972 (obit)

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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About  Paul Swan

Born:  1884 - Ashland, Illinois
Died:   1972 - Bedford Hills, New York
Known for:  sculpture-figure, portrait painter