|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
you back to the man and his works"
A biography of Bela Lyon Pratt through his
letters and documents
The Civil War had barely ended when, on Dec. 11th, 1867, Sarah Victoria
Whittlesey Pratt, age 36, gave birth in Norwich Connecticut to her
fourth child, Bela Lyon Pratt. Sarah's father, Oramel Whittlesey, had
founded the first conservatory of music in New England, Music Vale
Seminary in Salem, Connecticut. Her husband, George Pratt, a graduate of
Yale University and a lawyer, was the son of the first Bela Lyon Pratt
of East Weymouth, MA.
As Sarah Victoria held her infant boy, Bela Lyon Pratt, in her arms, it
is doubtful she had any inkling that, by the turn of the century, he
would already have carved out a strong artistic reputation for himself.
However, given that she herself had been raised in an artistic
atmosphere surrounded by music and art, it was likely that she might
indeed encourage her child to follow such a path. By the time Bela was
five years old, she had recorded on a little piece of notepaper:
"One day after Bela had passed his 5th birthday our family physician chanced
to be at our house. On the stand in my mother’s room stood some tiny models of
a cat, dog, horse, a deer and other animals. The doctor picked them up and exclaimed: 'Who
made these?' My mother, rather impatiently said 'Bela pinches them out of beeswax.
I can’t keep a bit of wax in my workbasket. He always plays with it.'
Bela Lyon Pratt, was a quiet, unassuming family man. According to all reports,
he was renowned for his generosity, humor and kindness. His love of music lead
him to play cello, guitar and oboe much to his family's delight. He had a wry
sense of humor which often carried him through times of "blues" and
anxieties over finances.
'Why! Don’t you realize that child is a genius? He is a born sculptor!' announced
the physician, greatly to my mother’s astonishment.
I distinctly remember hearing her discussing the matter with my father in the
evening. Thereafter, Bela was allowed to 'play' with beeswax to his great delight.
As soon as he could use a knife, he began to carve various objects, which were
much admired by his playmates. There happened to be a neighbor on the next street
who heard of Bela's talent. She had taken some lessons in modeling and sent word
to Bela by one of the children saying she would give him some clay if he would
come see her. He went, received the clay and at once modeled a lion's head!"
Life for this busy man, who created more than 180 pieces
of sculpture in less than fifty years, circled around his home in Jamaica Plain
MA, his studio, his professorship as head of the Sculpture Department at the
School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. He frequently lunched at Boston's exclusive
Tavern Club. He golfed, fished, played billiards and even established the N.E
archery club, all this with his colleagues and wide circle of friends.
family often included brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, who spent summers
on North Haven Island, Maine, where, at his closest friend, Frank Weston Benson's
recommendation, he purchased property in 1903 on Bartlett's Harbor, a short walk
through the woods to Benson's home and studio. To round out this New England
Yankee's very full life of work and play, he eventually owned a sizeable farm
and several houses on and around the old family residence in Salem CT. There
he enjoyed farming activities such as raising chickens and cows. He even, as
a cash flow enterprise, planted pear and apple trees as well as vast crops of
His early death on May 18th, 1917, at age 49, sealed shut the solid reputation
he had built as a Beaux Arts, deeply American sculptor. He had helped form and
become a vital part of the Boston School of Art, but it had to move ahead without
his shining light.
Upon his death, his best friend, artist and educator Frank Benson wrote the following letter, dated May 21, 1917, to Helen Pratt, widow of Bela Pratt:
Dear Mrs. Pratt
You know very well how I felt toward Bela - perhaps you do not know that he was my very nearest friend though there are many older ones - something in him made him to me as if I had always known him and been with him. Probably it was because we had very much in common in our ways of looking at things but most of all on my part, for love of his great qualities. I can say of him what I cannot say of anyone else I know, that he was the truest, finest of men. You knew it of course but you will like to know that others felt the quality that he in his modesty never suspected about himself. I could not begin to describe to you what my relation with him has meant in the years I have known him and now that he has gone I find myself wishing that I had given fuller expression to them- but I have the satisfaction of knowing that he cared for me, and from knowing him so well I realize to some extent the depth of your loss.
What this means to you and the children and to his dear mother I do not dare to think. I only ask that if I can be of any use or help to you in any way you will call on me and let me prove how I feel for you. I thought it better not to come out to see you in the first day of your trouble but I should like to come very soon and see you if I may. Mrs. Benson joins me in kindest messages to you and the children.
Frank W. Benson
Neither exotic nor scandalous, Pratt's life cannot be characterized as "titillating"
as can be said of many of his contemporaries. His death came at a time when the
art scene was shifting away from European influence to a truly American School.
Although his sculptures reflected little of the more "modern" cubist school,
the character of his pieces was always clearly American in their demeanor.
Pratt's wife, Helen Lugarda Pray Pratt, also a fine sculptor herself, carefully
preserved quantities of photographs of his works, numerous articles referring
to his work, as well as historic letters and documents. Most fortunately for
us, she refrained from chucking his weekly personal hand-written letters, un-selfconsciousness
in their nature, which he had obligatorily written to his mother, Sarah Victoria
Whittlesey Pratt over the years. Within these letters are snapshots of the Beaux
Art period in Paris France and in America.. They tell of his colleagues, his
family, his struggles and successes, all the while defining what is now referred
to as "The Boston School of Art." They are a veritable treasure trove
of information, carved from his own hand.
Website of the artist, courtesy of Helen Lugarda Pratt, grand daughter of the artist
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|A sculptor, medalist and art educator, Bela Pratt had the distinction
of finishing first in his class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris
when he graduated in 1892. He then returned to the United States
and, at the request of sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, created two
large-scale sculpture groups for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
in Chicago. That year, he was appointed Professor of Sculpture at
the Boston Museum School of Fine Art, and held that position until his
death in 1917. |
He had many commissions for medals and medallions, and in 1908 produced
the quarter and half-eagle Indian Head gold coins for the Roosevelt
administration. 1909 was his most active year in medal
work. The bulk of his 180 works, however, were portrait reliefs,
portrait busts (such as the portrait bust of his good friend, Frank
Benson), colossal groups, statues, and ideal figures, and monuments
(such as his memorial to the —Titantic˜).
He was also known for his decorative architectural sculpture (for the
Liberal Arts Bldg., Buffalo Exposition and for Library of
Memberships included the National Sculpture Society 1899; Associate
member of the National Academy of Design 1900; Architectural
League, 1911; Guild Boston Artists, 1914 (founder); National
Institute of Arts and Letters and Letters; Connecticut Academy of
Fine Arts; Tavern Club, Boston, 1894; The Country Club, Brookline,
Massachusetts , 1910.
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
|** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.|
Bela Pratt is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915