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 Bela Lyon Pratt  (1867 - 1917)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Maine/Connecticut      Known for: sculpture, medallist, art educator

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Ad Code: 3
Bela Lyon Pratt
from Auction House Records.
Nathan Hale
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
"Leading 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.'

'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!"
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.

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.

His extended 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 potatoes!

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.
Yours sincerely

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 Congress).

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

Bela Pratt is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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