(1873 - 1916)
Helen Farnsworth (Nellie) Mears was active/lived in New York, Wisconsin. Helen Mears is known for bas relief sculpture and portrait painting.
Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography of Helen Farnsworth Mears
Biography from the Archives of askART
by Mary Hiles
Farnsworth Mears was born in Oshkosh in 1871 and went on to gain
national recognition. Her works are in the Smithsonian (bust of medical
pioneer Dr. William Morton), New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art
(bas-relief of composer Edward MacDowell) and other national and state
collections. Her nine-foot statue of temperance leader Frances Willard
is the only sculpture of a woman by a woman in the Hall of Statuary in
the nation's capitol. "The Fountain of Life", the musical which
celebrates her life, is also the title of one of Mears's major works.
was the youngest of three daughters born to John and Mary Elizabeth
Mears. (The latter was a poet, author and Wisconsin's first native
playwright. In 1858, she wrote a play based on the life of the Indian
Chief Blackhawk, which played in Madison to great acclaim.) Helen was
closest in age and in temperament to her sister, Mary. Like her mother,
Mary pursued a career as a writer. She wrote four novels and numerous
articles and short stories, many published in national magazines. In
addition to pursuing her own craft, Mary devoted herself to her younger
sister's career as a sculptor, and after Helen's death in 1916, Mary
spent her life working to ensure that her sister's artistic legacy
would live on.
Helen's talent developed early. As a toddler she
is said to have sculpted human and animal forms from pieces of bread.
During her teens her Aunt Helen Farnsworth left her a legacy to pursue
her artistic studies. To honor her aunt, Helen, who had been christened
"Nellie," took her aunt's name. The money allowed both Helen and Mary
to go to Chicago, where Helen studied at the Art Institute. At the age
of 21 Mears was given her first commission, by the state of Wisconsin,
to create "an heroic figure" to be exhibited at the Columbian
Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Mears sculpted a dramatic full-sized
female figure draped in a flag with her hand cradling the neck of an
eagle. She was awarded a $500 prize by the Wisconsin Federation of
Women's Clubs for the work, which she titled "Genius of Wisconsin."
(The Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs have remained staunch
supporters of Mears. Since 1926 the organization has presented annual
Helen Farnsworth Mears Art Awards to 7th and 8th grade art students
throughout the state.)
Mears's "Genius of Wisconsin" brought her
to the attention of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most famous and
respected sculptor of the time. Mears went on to become Saint-Gaudens
first female assistant. She studied and worked with him in New York,
and later in Paris. Helen and Mary were part of the Cornish Colony-the
group of artists, writers and musicians who frequented Aspet,
Saint-Gaudens' home in Cornish, N.H. Mears's bas-relief portrait of
Saint-Gaudens is displayed at Aspet-now a national historic site. After
this apprenticeship, Mears decided to make her way independently--a
revolutionary decision for a female sculptor at that time. She and
Mary, returned to Oshkosh, then moved again to New York, where the two
worked side-by-side as artist and author.
Helen's work brought
her awards and recognition but not great financial reward. She died in
New York in 1916, reportedly in part as a result of malnutrition.
However, more than 125 years after her birth, she remains one of
Wisconsin's premier sculptors, and her life and work continues to be an
In Oshkosh, work by Mears is in the collection of
the Oshkosh Public Museum ("Dawn and Labor" and "The Joy Boy") and the
Paine Art Center, which has the largest collection of Mears's works
including a model commissioned by the State of Wisconsin for its
The website http://www.fountainoflifemusical.com has the
musical about Helen Farnsworth's life, which premiered fall, 2003 in Oshkosh,
Wisconsin. At the suggestion of Mary Hiles, writer of the book on which
the musical is based, the following
biography of the artist is below and is the same one as the one on the website:
Biography from The Parrish House Museum
"New Musical Explores Sculptor's Life and Art as Part of Oshkosh Sesquicentennial Celebration"
WORLD PREMIER at Oshkosh's restored historic Grand Opera House Oct. 31-Nov. 2 and Nov. 7-9, 2003.
Fountain of Life", a new musical featuring 17 original songs and seven
major production numbers, is based on the life of nationally acclaimed
sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears (1873-1916), a native of Oshkosh,
A Local Production: Oshkosh author wrote the book,
lyrics, and some melodies for "The Fountain of Life". UW-Oshkosh music
professor James Chaudoir oversaw the orchestration and arrangements
done by two of Chaudoir's former students-Jay Thomas and Erik Helm .
Chaudoir and Thomas also composed some of the music. Herb Berendsen and
Jennifer Henselin are directing the production, performed by public and
private high school student actors.
participation: Related events include a lecture series and exhibit of
Mears's originals and exhibit of the winners of the state-wide Helen
Farnsworth Mears's Art Award at the Oshkosh Public Museum and Mears's
exhibits at the Oshkosh Public Library and UW-Oshkosh and Mears's
originals on display at the Grand Opera House during the performances.
of Mears's sculptures: "The Fountain of Life" features four
reproductions of Mears's sculptures including a full-sized figure
"Genius of Wisconsin", done by UW Oshkosh sculpture graduates Charis
Congail and David Barnhill.
Production benefits school art
program: All proceeds go to Project S.O.A.R. (Special Opportunities for
Artists in Residency), which brings artists-in-residence to Oshkosh
Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Her first exhibit was at the age of ten when she exhibited a head of Apollo in the Winnebago Country Fair in Oshkosh which she had baked in her mother's oven. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later the Arts Students League in New York where she studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
She is credited as being his first woman assistant and executed a bust of Saint-Gaudens. Mears belonged to the National Society of Sculptors and was one of the Cornish Colony women who exhibited in the Women's Hall at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where she was awarded a medal. She also exhibited and was awarded a medal in the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 and in the San Francisco Exposition in 1914. Helen Mears created the statue of suffragist Frances Willard for the U. S. Capitol in 1900.
Many of her works are in the permanent collection of the Paine Art Museum in Oshkosh, WI and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately, she was not able to handle commissions and money well and died destitute of a combination of malnutrition and influenza.
Share an image of the Artist firstname.lastname@example.org.