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 Rhys Caparn  (1909 - 1997)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: abstract animal sculpture, illustrator

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Rhys Caparn
An example of work by Rhys Capran
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following, submitted December 2005, is by Oliver Chamberlain, cousin of the artist, is from an exhibition of work by the artist, curated by Chamberlain, for the Brearley School in New York City.

Brearley School ’27
Artist in drawing and sculpture, works in major collections
(superscript below indicates a photograph or other material shown in this exhibit)

Her Family

Rhys was born on July 28, 1909, at Onteora Park in the Catskills while her parents were enjoying some respite together with their daughter Anne, almost two years old, in that artistic resort away from the rigors of their work in New York City.

Her mother, Clara Howard (Jones) Caparn, taught singing in NYC with such success that by the time of Rhys’ birth (1) she was earning several times an average yearly salary.  Clara had sought divorce from an earlier marriage in North Carolina to George Claiborne Royall, which gave her two sons, to come to New York City to find employment for her skills in music.  From this first marriage of her mother, Rhys had two half-brothers: George Claiborne Royall, Jr., and Kenneth Claiborne Royall,  an attorney graduated from Harvard, General of the Army and Secretary of the Army, a Cabinet post, under President Harry S Truman; he was later managing partner of a New York law firm.

Clara's second marriage, to Harold ap Rhys Caparn, gave her two daughters, Anne Howard (1907-1971), a writer, and Rhys (1909-1997), an artist. "Besides teaching, she created “An Hour of Music,” an organization that supported and encouraged young musicians.  She taught until age 85 and died in 1970 at the age of 103.

Rhys' father, Harold Caparn, (2) emigrated from England and then established an office in Manhattan in 1902 as a landscape architect.  He was receiving sufficient commissions, that two years after her birth, he bought five acres up the Hudson River in Briarcliff Manor.  He of course immediately set about landscaping the property, which process would have lasting influence on the young Rhys.  The gardens of their family home at Briarcliff Manor, NY, are pictured in various landscape design references.  In 1912 he became the consulting landscape architect of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a position he retained until his death in 1945 at age 80.  He also designed portions of the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx, the campus of Brooklyn College, the grounds of the Office Building of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., Grant Park in Yonkers, Lincoln Park in Newark and other public parks and private estates.

Robert Beverly Hale, an instructor in drawing at the Art Student’s League and later Curator of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum, in his book (3) on Rhys’ work says that [Harold’s] “small daughter, watching [him landscape his property] early became aware of her father’s enthusiasm for designed space--the positive shape of a tree, the negative shape of the sky, the precise angle of a slope.”  Indeed, Rhys served, as she was growing up, as a model to give scale to some of her father’s photographs of this work. (4)

The sensibilities toward nature and the arts of her paternal grandfather, Thomas John Caparn, a horticulturalist and painter, of a cousin, William John Caparne, a horticulturalist and painter, and of both her parents no doubt contributed to Rhys’ formation and eventually to her lifetime work. (5) She also said “My parents both felt women were just as good as men.” (6)

Her Education and Training As An Artist

Rhys was educated at The Brearley School, beginning in 1918 and graduating in 1927.  In 1985 the Alumnae Association of The Brearley School cited Rhys for her accomplishments. (7)  Her work at Brearley led her to Bryn Mawr College, where she decided to follow art as a career. After two years at the college, however, she left to study in Paris with the animal sculptor Edouard Navellier at the École Artistique des Animaux.  There, with two young Frenchmen as colleagues, Rhys did drawings in the studio of a wide variety of animals, even a wild boar. Some of the animals became pets in the studio.  Her early drawings show animals in mostly realistic renderings of characteristic poses.

Returning to New York in 1931, Rhys studied at the Archipenko School of Art for another two years.  Alexander Archipenko, a teacher of sculpture in both Europe and America, called her “one of those rare artists who create lyrical poetry with pure form.” (8)

Over the years, travel and observation of fauna, architectural ruins and landscapes also formed part of the self-study that informed her art.  She visited England, France and Belgium in 1926, London and Paris in 1935, Warsaw, Prague, London, Edinburgh and Paris again in 1948, and Greece, Crete, the Greek islands and Italy in 1958.

Her Solo Shows

At the age of only 24, Rhys held her first solo show at the Delphic Studios in NYC in 1933; she again had a solo show there in 1935.  About this time Soichi Sunami, New York photographer, did a portrait photograph of the young artist. (9) These shows brought her a good response in critical reviews and lead to many more solo shows, among them: Architectural League, NYC (1941), New York Zoological Park (1942), Wildenstein & Co. (1944, 1947), Dartmouth College (1949, 1955), John Heller Gallery (1953), Art Colony Gallery, Cleveland (1953), Meltzer Gallery, NYC (1956, 59, 60), Riverside Museum (1961),(10) La Boetie Gallery, NYC (1970), Phyllis Neil, NYC (1980), Gallery Felicie, NYC (1984), “Caparn at 75” included about 30 works, many done in the 1970s and 1980s.

Group Shows

Over the course of her career, Rhys participated in many shows with other artists, among such shows were: New York Six, Petit Palais, Paris, 1950 (11)
Fifteen Sculptors, Museum of Modern Art Traveling Exhibition, 1941
Whitney Museum of American Art, Annual Exhibitions, 1941, 53, 54, 56, 60
Pennsylvania Academy of Art, 1951, 1953, 1960, 1964.
United States Information Agency Exhibits, Europe, 1956-57; Europe and Far East, 1957-58.
Museum of Natural History, NY, 1958.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1956, 1958.
Lowe Art Center, Syracuse University, Contemporary Sculpture, 1960.
Virginia Museum, American Sculpture Today, 1958.
IBM Gallery, NY, National Council of Women, 1960.
Claude Bernard Gallery, Paris, Aspects de la Sculpture Americaine, 1960.
Newark Museum, Women Artists of America, 1965.
National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1968, 1976.


On September 9, 1935, Rhys married Herbert Johannes Steel.  Johannes, as he was known, was an intellectual of Dutch-German descent, writer of anti-regime tracts in the years leading up to World War II and later representative to international peace conferences.  He was a syndicated writer on financial matters and radio commentator on political affairs.  In the year of her marriage, Rhys sculpted a bust of Johannes (12) that was first exhibited in the fourteenth annual Spring Salon of the American Art Association in New York City in May 1936, winning critical praise.

Johannes died in 1988 at age 80; Rhys died on April 29, 1997 at age 87.  After living many years in New York City, from 1968 they made their home in the rolling hill country of southern Connecticut, where Rhys maintained a sculpture garden and drew inspiration for many of her later sculptures. (13)

Teacher and Illustrator

Rhys taught sculpture at The Dalton School, NYC, for twenty-one years--from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1960 to 1972.  Rhys’ interest in nature combined with the same interest in Margaret Bartlett, science department coordinator at the school, in the publication in 1963 of “down the mountain” (14) a book for children about the breakdown of soil through the action of natural forces, observed in a walk down a mountain.

Her Work “Animal Form I” Causes Controversy

The New York Times, on Wednesday, December 5, 1951, announced that Rhys’ work “Animal Form 1” had taken second prize out of a field of 101 entries in a comprehensive competition of American sculpture. (15) Robert Beverly Hale, then Associate Curator of American Art, directed the competition, and said of it, “sculptors have been less willing than our painters to abandon realism, to relinquish natural form.”  The competition jury was made up of both representatives of the modern and classical approach to sculpture. Rhys’ entry, Hale’s statement, and the makeup of the jury, set the stage for a debate in critical circles in New York about the meaning of “modern” in art.  Hale would later, in 1972, write a book on the sculpture and drawings Rhys had accomplished in the forty years of her career to that date.

Her Mature Works Become More Abstract

In an interview in her hometown newspaper of October 19, 1984, (16) in preparation for her retrospective exhibition in New York at the Gallery Felicie, Rhys said that during the interim between periods of teaching at the Dalton School, she created Marsh Birds in the Moonlight, (17) a large sculpture which gives the suggestion of birds flowing through the air.  She said of it: “that piece changed everything. ‘Marsh Birds’ represented freedom, both for the birds…and for herself as an artist.”  She said later in a 1986 interview: “Birds are symbols of freedom and challenge and arches are passages to that freedom.” (17) She had over the years sculpted landscapes, architectural pieces and abstractions inspired by nature, the moon and space. She was, through them, reaching out for the universe, suggesting that man is a small part of the ever-changing landscape. (18)

Her Leadership
Over the course of her career, like her father, she was active in community affairs:
President, Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, 1944, 1963-1965.
Member, Citizen’s Advisory Committee, Office of Cultural Affairs, NYC, 1963.
Founding member, Harlem Cultural Council, 1964.
Member, Mayor’s Committee on Beautification of the City of New York, 1965.
Member, Sculptors Guild (19)
Member, American Abstract Artists

Honors and Recognitions of Her Work
Second Prize for Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, 195115
First Prize for Sculpture, New York State Fair, 1958
Medal of Honor, National Association of Women Artists, 1960, 1961
Named to Academia Italia with gold medal, 1979
Named as Life Fellow, International Institute of Arts and Letters

Her Work in Public Collections
City Art Museum, St. Louis, MO (Morton May Collection)
Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, OH
Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Wollman Library, Barnard College, New York
U.S. Department of State in embassies abroad
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, “Moonrise” given in honor of her father (20, 21)
Western Connecticut State University, “Marsh Birds,”17 and four other pieces
And others

Her Work in Private Collections
Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Simon
Mr. and Mrs. Norman Elson
Estate of Mrs. Anne Howard Moore (her sister)
Mr. and Mrs. Louis Beck
Harry Crowley
Estate of Clara Howard Caparn (her mother)
Mr. and Mrs. Michael Erlanger
Gaillard Collection
R. Sturgis Ingersoll
Morton D. May
Waintrob Collection
Dr. and Mrs. Richmond C. Hubbard
Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Chamberlain, Jr. “A Dream of Mountains” (19, 22)
And others

Rhys Caparn – A Brearley School Alumnae Recognition

1Photo, Rhys and her mother Clara Howard Caparn, unknown photographer, 1909.

2Photo, Harold ap Rhys Caparn, Zuven Studio, Pittsburgh, ca. 1900.

3Book, “Rhys Caparn,” by Robert Beverly Hale, Retrospective Press, 1972.

4Photo, Rhys in father’s landscape at Briarcliff Manor, NY, photo by Harold Caparn, ca. 1921

5A Google entry on the names Thomas John Caparn, Harold A. Caparn, William John Caparne and Rhys Caparn will yield further information on these family members.

6Interview, photos by Liz Wilson, The Newtown Bee, October 19, 1984.

7Plaque, “Rhys Caparn,” The Brearley School Alumnae Association, 1985.

8Alexander Archipenko, Robert Beverly Hale, “Rhys Caparn,” 1972, p. 5.

9Photo portrait of Rhys Caparn by Soichi Sunami, New York, ca. 1933

10Solo Show Brochure, “Rhys Caparn – Selections From Thirty Years – Sculpture and Drawings” The Riverside Museum, 1961, sculpture portrait (1935), “Johannes Steel,”
terra cotta; photo by Soichi Sunami, p. 5; “Marsh Birds in the Moonlight,” (1955), p. 7.

11Group Show Brochure, “New York Six,” six women sculptors, for the exhibit at the Petit Palais, Paris, 1950; including ten works by Rhys Caparn, of which two are pictured.

12Group Show Brochure, “Spring Salon – 1936” by the American Art Association,
at the Anderson Galleries, New York; first showing of sculpture portrait “Johannes Steel.”

13Photo, “Passerine, cast stone, 1978, by Rhys Caparn
Photo, “Landscape Formation,” bronze, 1962, by Rhys Caparn
Photo, “Hawk,” bronze,  1978, by Rhys Caparn

14Book cover, “down the mountain” written by Margaret Bartlett, illustrated by Rhys Caparn, photocopy; 63pp., cover and illustrated throughout with whimsical drawings by Rhys Caparn; pub. William R. Scott, New York, 1963.

15Article, “Prize Winners In American Sculpture Exhibition,” New York Times, December 5, 1951; photo of “Animal Form I,” densite, by Rhys Caparn.

16Interview, Liz Wilson, The Newtown Bee, October 19, 1984.

17Photo, “Marsh Birds in the Moonlight,” densite, Robert Beverly Hale, “Rhys Caparn,” pl. 32.

18Article on Rhys Caparn, The Newtown Bee, January 3, 1986, on her gift of sculptures to Western Connecticut State University.

19Sculptors Guild, cover “Sculpture 1966,” p, 13, “A Dream of Mountains,” bronze and rock, first showing.

20Photo, “Moonrise,” bronze, 1968, with Rhys Caparn, in the sculpture garden at her home in Newtown, CT; photo, 1977, by Oliver Chamberlain, Jr.

21Photo from Brooklyn Botanic Garden Report, 1980-1982; Rhys Caparn donates her
sculpture, “Moonrise” to the Garden in memory of her father, Harold A. Caparn, 1980.
22Photo, by Oliver Chamberlain, Jr., 2005, “A Dream of Mountains” in the garden at his home.
Materials assembled from the Caparn Family Collection of Oliver Chamberlain, Jr., cousin of Rhys Caparn. 

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rhys Caparn, is noted as an American sculptor, painter, educator, and former president of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. She is best known for her abstracts and animal subjects, as in her Drawing of a Cat, 1952, ink and wash, (signed in pencil lower right, 10 x 14 in.)  Her preferred medium was hydra-stone cast sculpture, but she was also an illustrator and painter.

Caparn was born in Onteora Park, New York and studied at Bryn Mawr College from 1927-29, the Ecole Artistique Animaux with Edouard Navellier in 1930, and with Alexander Archipenko from 1931 to 1933.  She was married to Johannes Steel, and for many years, she taught art at Dalton High School in New York City.

Caparn's work is in various styles, and in her sculpture she often created flattened relief forms directly in plaster, which were sometimes cast in bronze, that suggested weathered, natural, and architectural forms.  For Barnard College, she completed wall reliefs, fountain heads, and drawings in ceramic tile.  She was also an illustrator, and did the artwork for the book Down the Mountain a book for juveniles (1963) by Margaret Bartlett.

Her father was Harold A. Caparn, a noted landscape architect who died September 24, 1945, in New York City, aged eighty.  He had been born in Newark-on-Trent, England, studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and then came to New York, where he was a consultant to Brooklyn Botanic Gardens beginning in 1912.  He was former President of the New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The gardens of their family home at Briarcliff Manor, which is the name of the town in which the home was located in New York, are pictured in landscape books.

Rhys Caparn was a member of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group in the 1930s and 1940s. The group's exhibitions and publications added considerable fuel to the simmering discussion of "What is art?". The AAA was formed in 1936 to unite and exhibit the work of abstract artists in the United States and to promote a "new art form" that would veer away from social realism, then the accepted style for American artists. European artists had the corner on modernism.

The numerous members of the AAA, including Rhys Caparn, Ilya Bolotowsky, John Ferren, and others, were significant participants in the ongoing debate of the nature of art.  Through their efforts, recognition for synthetic cubism, geometric abstraction, neoplasticism, abstract biomorphism, and hard-edge was achieved, and the way was paved for the emergence of the New York school. The Peter A. Juley & Son Collection at the National Museum of American Art, includes photographic documentation of some of the group's work.

Writing about an AAA exhibition, Malcolm Vaughn, a reviewer for the New York American, was somewhat dismissive:  "The spacious galleries are well suited for such a display, as abstract art is a decorative rather than a fine art, seen to best advantage when the spectator looks at it from a distance after a close-up examination of its quality."  Some members of the AAA assertively defended their positions.  One such expression came from the painter Charles G. Shaw, who wrote: "Honest painting, regardless of its representational or non-representational merits, embraces certain patent fundamentals. One seeks, for example, rhythm, composition, spatial organization, design, progression of color, and many, many other qualities in an aesthetic work There is surely no earthly reason why a painting may not possess all such qualities and still be the most abstract picture ever painted. Art, since its inception, has never depended upon realism."

AAA member Ilya Bolotowsky said, in recalling that era, "The main distinction was this: there were people who would paint and abstract from nature, and there were those who dared to simply abstract without any nature at allWe could never get a definition to suit everybody and finally gave up the attempt because of the arguments that came out of it."

Caparn's work may also be seen in the sculpture courtyard of the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, among other locations.

Cynthia Mills, essay in North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century by Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from Alexandra Moore:

I am Rhys Caparn's niece and my aunt was the daughter of Harold and Clara Caparn.  She had one sister, Anne Caparn Moore, and two half-brothers, Claiborne Royall and Gen. Kenneth Royall.

Rhys spent most of her life in New York City before she and her husband moved to Newtown, Connecticut where she died of Alzheimer's disease.  Rhys was a great animal lover and learned to sculpt when she accompanied my grandfather on his landscaping jobs.  He would give her clay to play with and that is when she developed her abstract landscapes.  I have one of her pieces and a few of her sketches and there is also one of her pieces on my families' graves.

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