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 Frederick William MacMonnies  (1863 - 1937)

/ mak-MUN-nees/


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Lived/Active: New York / France      Known for: classical religious and mythology sculpture, monuments, painting

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Frederick William MacMonnies
An example of work by Frederick William MacMonnies
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
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.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Note from E. Adina Gordon, Ph.D.

MacMonnies' own middle name was William.  He did have two brothers.  His father, William (1819-1896) immigrated to Brooklyn from New York, and he had come from Scotland and had at least one brother there.

I have written the Catalogue Raisonne of F. W. MacMonnies' sculpture, in short form in a book and in definitive, long form as a doctoral dissertation, as well as a Checklist of the Paintings of the artist.

Frederick never made any prints to my knowledge.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Frederick William MacMonnies, the son of a Scottish emigrant, was born in Brooklyn in 1863.(1)  As a young boy, he modeled small figures and animals in white wax.  Later, while barely in his teens, he took an ice pick for a chisel and carved an image of his pet frog from stone.(2)  Even though his parents recognized his precocious artistic gift, they did not have the financial resources to send him to art school.  As a result, he went to work in a jewelry shop. 

When MacMonnies was 18, he began working at odd jobs in the New York studio of the famous sculptor, Auguste Saint-Gaudens.  After a chance opportunity to make a couple of his own sculptures, Saint-Gaudens became aware of MacMonnies’ innate artistic ability and promoted him to the rank of assistant.  In the evenings, he supplemented these studio lessons with art studies at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League.  In 1884 he left to further his studies in Paris, where he entered Jean Alexandre Falquière’s sculpture class at the École des Beaux-Arts.  MacMonnies won the highest prize available to a foreigner at the school for two successive years - the Prix d’Atelier, which was second only to the Prix de Rome. 

At the Salon of 1889, MacMonnies achieved significant praise for his Diana, the original plaster version, which was awarded an honorable mention.  Following the success of the Salon and Diana, his fame increased and he received many commissions on both sides of the Atlantic. With this sudden fame also came criticism, especially with MacMonnies' 1893 statue of Bacchante, which eventually ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.(3)  He was identified with our country’s elite group of sculptors who created public statues during the American Renaissance, known as the Gilded Age, which occurred from the mid-1870s to the early 1900s. During this 30-year period, sculptors, architects and painters sought to create art that would refine the public’s artistic taste, by looking for inspiration from ancient Greek, Roman and Italian Renaissance art.  They revised mythological subjects and heroic allegories.  Sculpture during this period was buoyant, decorative and often highly expressive.  MacMonnies’ Barge of State for the Chicago World Fair (1892-93) was all of this and more.  This piece measured sixty feet long and contained thirty-eight figures.(4)
In 1896, MacMonnies received the Order of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French government.  By 1905, he had opened a studio/school in Giverny, France and married Mary Louise Fairchild of St. Louis.  However, the First World War had caused major disruptions to the economy and life in Europe, and in 1915, MacMonnies returned to America where he remained for the rest of his life.

MacMonnies died from pneumonia in 1937.  A victim of changing aesthetic tastes in postwar America, he never strayed from his Beaux-Art approach to sculpture, even though this style had been replaced largely by modern trends in the twentieth century well before his death.

1. Janis Conner and Joel Rosenkranz, Rediscoveries in American Sculpture, Studio Works, 1893-1939 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 123-131. Much of the biographical material on this artist is gleaned from this text.  As for the later copyright date, by 1894 MacMonnies had a better business command of his work and realized the need to protect his rights.
2. Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America, revised edition (New York: Cornwall Books, 1984), 420.
3. Apparently, this piece was modeled after a well-known entertainer in Paris, and was viewed by temperance groups as condoning wild, lascivious actions. After bouncing around several owners, it was donated to the MMA by Charles F. McKim. 4. Robert Hughes, American Visions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 212. Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum, Georgia

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Frederick MacMonnies is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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