Frederick W. MacMonnies (1863-1937)

Frederick W. MacMonnies (1863-1937)

Frederick William MacMonnies was born in Brooklyn, New York, and took on odd jobs in his teenage years to help support his family, while attending evening classes at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. He became an apprentice to the renowned American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), cleaning the studio and eventually working as a modeler on select projects. Through Saint-Gaudens, MacMonnies made many important connections, most notably with Charles F. McKim and Stanford White of the architecture firm McKim, Mead and White, who would later help the young artist secure several important commissions.  After three years in Saint-Gaudens’ studio, MacMonnies traveled abroad to Europe for further study, first arriving in London before crossing to Paris and eventually Munich.  He returned briefly to New York before setting off again to Paris in 1886 and enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts under the tutelage of famed French sculptor Jean Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900). While living in France, MacMonnies married the American painter Mary Louise Fairchild in 1888, and the two soon began spending time in the artists’ colony at Giverny, while maintaining their Parisian home. In 1889, MacMonnies’ inclusion of a plaster model of Diana in the Paris Salon’s annual exhibition launched his professional career and generated a number of important commissions, notably a life-sized bronze statue of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, which resides in New York’s City Hall Park and was awarded a medal at the 1891 Salon. Two years later, he completed the central fountain decoration in the Court of Honor at the Chicago World’s Fair, a series of life-sized figures depicting Columbia aboard the Barge of State, surrounded by mythical and aquatic creatures rising from the waters. Over its months’ long duration, the exposition was attended by millions of visitors, who were especially drawn to the fountain, brilliantly lit at night with electricity, and carrying MacMonnies’ name even further into Americans’ awareness. 

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Having embraced the cultural richness and bon vivant attitude of Parisian life, MacMonnies continued to live abroad in France while securing commissions in the United States. One of the more controversial projects was Bacchante and Infant Faun. Longtime friend Charles McKim saw the piece in the 1894 Paris Salon and was gifted it by MacMonnies in return for McKim’s assistance of a loan at the very beginning of the artist’s career. Having designed the new Boston Public Library building in Copley Square, McKim intended to donate Bacchante and place it in the central courtyard. The piece was initially accepted by the Boston Art Commission, but upon its installation in the fall of 1896, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the New England Watch and Ward Society, along with several prominent citizens and clergymen, were angered by what they considered the figure’s blatant impropriety and drunkenness. Detractors described her as a “wanton woman” and “debauched,” and she was deemed “a menace to the Commonwealth.” In a New York Times extract on the protests, the Boston Methodist preachers implored the Trustees of the Library: ‘Being deeply solicitous for the purity, sobriety, and righteousness of the youths of our city, the Methodist preachers’ meeting of Boston hereby urgently protests against the placing of the now noted statue, ‘Bacchante,’ in the precincts of the Public Library.’” [1] By the spring of the following year, McKim was obliged to rescind the gift, which was soon after happily accepted by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where the original Bacchante and Infant Faun remains on display. Eventually, a full-sized replica was cast in 1901 and obtained by Bostonian George Robert White in 1910. Twenty years later, he bequeathed it to the Museum of Fine Arts, and in 1993, to right a centuries-old wrong, a casting was made of the Boston Museum’s version so that Bacchante could once again grace the Library’s courtyard fountain.

In 1909, MacMonnies and his wife divorced, and he married his second wife, Alice Jones, in 1910, and stayed in France until the outbreak of World War I. They returned to New York in 1915, where he established a studio on West Tenth Street and continued working on public commissions, including the Civic Virtue fountain in Queens, New York, the Princeton Battle Monument in Princeton, New Jersey, and the figures of Truth and Beauty at the New York Public Library.  In addition to the awards and honors he received at the Paris Salon, MacMonnies was recipient of the Order of Saint Michael of Bavaria in 1892, was declared Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France in 1896, and became a full National Academician in 1906. MacMonnies passed away in 1937 at the age of seventy-three, leaving behind a legacy of Beaux-Arts sculpture on display in many museums and private collections, as well as adorning public squares and buildings on both sides of the Atlantic. 

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1999; “An Interview with Frederick W. MacMonnies, American Sculptor of the Beaux-Arts Era,” by Edward J. Foote, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Volume LXI, July/October 1977, Numbers 3/4, pp. 103-123; Smart, Mary and E. Adina Gordon (Catalogue Raisonné), A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937), (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1996); Jonathan Leo Fairbanks, “MacMonnies’ Bacchante, Its Trial, Condemnation and Restoration,” Sculpture Review, 2nd Quarter, 1993, Vol. XLII, No. 2.

[1] New York Times, November 26, 1896

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