A final pass at the genteel tradition, before The Waste Land bursts upon us; worth making not only to extend the matter from literature and architecture and landscape design to art — sculpture in general and in particular the celebrated bronze of Bacchante by Frederick MacMonnies — but also in order to show how many and various are what I like to call the masks of gentility.
Thus I will argue here that not only was the controversial rejection of the original statue proposed for the Boston Public Library courtyard in Copley Square in the 1890s a victory for the repressions of the genteel tradition, so too was the equally problematic decision 100 years later in the 1990s to reverse course and install a modern replica of the statue where the original all to briefly reigned a century ago. Both times gentility — in the more recent case an aspect of it sometimes called political correctness — served us very ill indeed. It is not only generals who fight the last war. Instead of a brilliant piece of modern sculpture — a great Calder stabile or a small bronze Henry Moore — the library now has as its courts centerpiece a modern reproduction with a ghastly “greenie-bronze” surface at the sight of which , somewhere, sculptor Frederic MacMonnies is surely wincing.
And, oh my, what a very bad soap opera it has been. Yet it certainly makes for interesting reading should you care to have a nice lunch–the Catered Affair is always my choice–and catch a breeze in the BPL court.
Next time you do so, imagine away the Bacchante. Can you see instead a swan, a bronze swan? That’s what library architect Charles McKim was considering according to Mary Smart in the early 1890s as his masterpiece neared completion; a swan by Philip Martiny, who did a good deal of the sculptural work at several of Mckim’s New York buildings. That he decided instead to accept the gift of protege Frederick MacMonnies, an expatriate American sculptor in Paris, who like Martiny was an apprentice of another friend, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, has always seemed to me to signal clearly what side of the culture wars McKim was on: swans — swan boats — were quite the latest thing in Boston, Lohengrin-inspired grace notes introduced into the Boston Public Garden in the decade just before McKim began the library in 1888.
Culture wars? Our concept, really. McKim never spoke of such a thing. But it is hard to believe at a time of so many lively debates about art and gender (women’s role, for instance) and so on that McKim’s decision against the swan of one protege and for the dancer of another was entirely free of malice, so to speak. McKim was a Harvard graduate. He had married a Bostonian. Like I M Pei a century later, the BPLs architect was an East Coast cosmopolitan who knew his Washington (where he restored the White House) as well as he knew his Boston (where he invented the “Harvard brick” style still so popular) as well as he knew his New York, where he stamped his image so enduringly on that city. A man of the world, really, his was essentially a Hellenist view of things akin today, say, to Gore Vidal’s. Among the Hellenist virtues, loyalty looms large; McKim cherished his protege’s. Bacchante absolutely made MacMonnies. The work consolidated his triumph at the Chicago World’s Fair. No one today has ever heard of Martinys.
The controversary that arouse almost at once in connection with the statue was really the first high profile example of the soon-to-be notorious “Banned in Boston” idea in art — the 1882 supresssion of Leaves of Grass (despite its Boston publishing history) being the first example in literature — and it is hard to believe no one saw this coming among the early players in this melodrama, which is what it quickly became. “A controversary that turned Boston into a national joke,” one scholar has called it; as the Brooklyn Tribune in New York put it, “no piece of art in modern times has made so much stir.”
The opening salvo’s of the Bacchante furor certainly suggest H. T. Parker sensed future trouble. The Transcript’s undoubtedly very artistic and distinguished critic, chiefly of music and dance but plausibly of much else besides, writing from New York in mid 1895 announced to his readers in his column the coming benefaction of the statue in a manner clearly calculated to arouse Bostonian enthusiasm, not only by generally flattering its tastemakers and such, but by an appeal to their civic pride vis a vis New York, always a sure sign of anxiety on the part of whichever side raises it! “Despite many suggestions that [the statue] remain in this city”, Parker wrote, “it will become the chief part of the fountain in the court of the Boston Public Library.” To which, of course, the only answer was Amen.
Yet the city’s leading critic must have known of another letter, this time from Paris, which had appeared the year before in the New York Critic . And if Parker didn’t, McKim surely did. And MacMonnies must absolutely have had knowledge of it. In this letter critic P. L. Bion made a point of remarking that “MacMonnies knew that [Bacchante] could not appeal to the public”, and that even in artistic circles it had aroused conflicting emotions of “bitter criticism and warm approbation”. Feelings the sculptors marble version of Bacchante of 1894 in the Brooklyn Museum (with added lion skins) suggest MacMonnies was not entirely out of touch with even early on. Anyway, Bion’s was a prediction of trouble that turned out to be true, moreover, of more work by MacMonnies than just his Boston work, most notably his Civic Virtue, designed in the early 1920s for in front of New York’s City Hall but so controversial it was later removed.
That work by MacMonnies, in which compliant femininity is more or less treated as a faldstool to powerful masculinity, was “one of the first times when a group of women created a genuinely feminist protest around the image of womanhood,” according to California State University art historian Mary Kenon Breazeale, who emphasizes in her study that in light of the BPL furor over its figure of Bacchante the subsequent New York furor was “not the first time press debate about MacMonnies sculptures had engendered . . . angry questions about the artists’ portrayal of women.” Indeed, today the new witness and rather different approach of the field of Womens Studies to the matter needs to be taken account of in connection with the library’s famous artistic scandal.. Already that new approach has emphasized facts conventional scholarship has ignored; that, for instance, as Breazeale puts it, virtually all the pro-Bacchante figures were “writers and journalists, mostly art critics”. And, of course, they were all men. Men strongly drawn, moreover, in Breazeale’s words, to “unbuttoned sensuality” best defined, perhaps, as “titilating.” By way of another example, I am struck by the fact she points out that “several of the obituaries published [over 40 years later] at MacMonnies’ death claim . . . that the sculpture was sold [not given] to McKim” by the sculptor. None of the usual scholarly literature to my knowledge has ever touched on that possibility, which if true, reframes the matter utterly.
In Boston in 1896-97 that sale or gift certainly sparked what was to become a fierce civic contest, ending hardly even when MacMonnies statue was removed. So fierce I wonder if a knowing visitor of any historical imagination or dramatic sense to the BPL court today is not almost sure to feel the intensity of it even a century later if he or she stands midway between the rather absurd bronze reproduction Bacchante now in the center of the courts fountain and the so much better seeming bronze original by sculptor Richard E. Brooks of MIT President Francis Walker that is the centerpiece of the courts west wall, never mind the masterful Billings bronze by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on the courts north wall.
Although he later changed his mind, to his great credit, Walker was early on a virulent opponent of what he called the “drunken woman” and his influence in the matter lingered long. Still today his gaze seems to me fixed on on the dancer whose presence here ( if thoughts may be attributed to visages) can only surprise him: when he died in 1897 and MIT, then based in Copley Square, chose to memorialize him here, Bacchante had long since been expelled from this courtyard, change of mind or no, having been pronounced by one local newspaper and pulpit pounder after another as more or less what Walker called it in the first place: “a glorification of that which is low and sensual and degrading.”
A bacchante in Roman mythology is a votary of the god of wine, and it was no great leap to reach that conclusion of a figure holding aloft a bunch of grapes in a pose of joyous abandon, seeming to tempt an already eager child in the other hand, or so at least the Victorian precursors of Mothers Against Drunk Driving decided. And in fairness one must admit that if the figure does not absolutely urge the joys of wine, which I am bound to say I myself rejoice in, neither do its attributes counter such charges.
Joyous nymph or drunken women, what do you see? A hundred years later our universe of discoure has shifted so completely in such respects I doubt anyone really sees either anymore.
But there is no doubt at all what President Eliot saw, and the founder of modern Harvard, not as so many suppose various clergyman and pundits, was the leader of the movement to bannish Bacchante. Eliot was, of course, as has come up before here — it is a theme of Eliotic Boston — a philistine, “handicapped”, as Notre Dame historian James Turner once put it, “by the architectural equivalent of a tin ear”. Ditto President Walker. Harvard, for instance, barely survived Eliot’s taste in architecture, and Copley Square had its difficulties with Walkers. And the tin ear extended to art in general in both cases.
Equally important, however: both men shared, in historian Julia Rosenbaum’s words, the belief that “the act of looking had the power to transform human behavior”, and a consequent “confidence in the enobling and moral influnces of art.” They took art in many ways more seriously than we do today. The genteel tradition always did, does.
G A E L I C P U R I T A N / P U R I T A N B A C C H U S
Although I would argue that by far the most profound engagement of the Boston mind in the late 19th-century with another culture was with Asia — with Japan and with China and with India; indeed, as well with Buddhism — that is hardly noticeable in the popular history narrative that overwhelms Boston / New England studies in that era, in which the local engagement of native and immigrant, particularly of Yankee and Irish, is absolutely paramount.
History as sports ! And not only cable news and not only today. Almost everything, though the races and ethnic groups will vary somewhat from city to city, is seen through that prism in American history because we thrive so on conflict. But it is only one theme and not necessarily the most important one always. There is, for instance, more mutual understanding and useful dialogue than conflict in Boston’s engagement with Asia and with Buddhism, though there be some striking contrasts. But between Yankee Unitarian and Indian Buddhist, for instance, there is not the tension we have grown so addicted to in our story telling. So that theme, in some ways more important, goes largely untold.
That is too big an issue for us here right now. But the way ethnicity trumps many more important things — religion and class chiefly, which many don’t realize is what they are really talking about — is now very much upon us. Good story telling, it is often very bad history. And the Bacchante affair is a prime example of the distorting effect this perspective can have. However, in the work of Bard College art historian Julia Rosenbaum I discern a scholarship more open to discovery and thus in the end of more lasting value.
To be sure, the ethnic aspect of the thing is very evident in an early article of 2000 by her in which she focuses less on Brahmin opposition to the BPL statue in and of itself and more on the usual scenario of defensive Yankees generally, particularly temperance advocates, noting that in general, “the immigrant group that appeared to pose the greatest threat to [Boston’s] social hierarchy was the Irish,” and that the Bacchante affair should be seen against the background of how after the election of the first immigrant-Irish mayor in 1884, “Boston’s Anglo-Saxon elite had felt themselves and the values they believed in under assault;” temperance types particularly.
Not least of these values, Rosenbaum goes on to say, was “the [public] library’s role as antidote to the saloon”! And in that context the heart of the Bacchante fracas for many, she asserts, was how the statues introduction into the BPL court represented “the symbolic transfer of the saloon into the library.” The conclusion follows at once. From a temperance perspective this was deadly. “Middle- and upper-class ideals about leisure time and family life clashed with the circumstances of immigrant life,” of which, she obseves, the saloon was “a stronghold”.
However, this rather narrower view of the matter opens up to a much wider perspective in Rosenbaum’s book of 2006, Visions of Belonging, where altough she does continue to maintain that ultimately Bacchante was expelled because it was “held up by members of Boston’s elite as a symbol of potential social anarchy and the dangers posed by lower class, non Anglo-Saxon values,” she also goes on, in what becomes, really, a brilliant study, to be very alert indeed to the sort of rejoinder I would feel bound to make to her earlier and much more ethnic focus.
It being obviously the case that Boston’s then elite was Yankee, and that “lower class, non Anglo-Saxon values” must be those of immigrants, whether Irish, Jewish or Italian, I have to ask: did working class Anglo-Saxon’s not frequent saloons? And what of the values of middle- and upper-class immigrant families?
In the decade of the 1880s just before Bacchante’s decade, John F. Fitzgerald, (President Kennedy’s grandfather) was already upwardly mobile enough to be a student at Harvard Medical School next door to the Copley Square library; in the decade of the 1900s just after Bacchante’s decade the first Jew (so far as I can figure) was elected a trustee of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, businessman Abraham Shuman, in 1907; in the next decade another Jew, who I would call the first full fledged Jewish Boston Brahmin, Louis Kirstein, became a trustee of the Boston Public Library. Immigrant communities develop class structures with values just as clear cut as Anglo Saxons do.
Harking back to Rosenbaum’s comment on the election in 1884 of Boston’s first mayor of Irish-immigrant stock, another scholar, M. L. Bendroth, observes in her Fundamentalists in the City — as fascinating a study as Rosenbaum’s and which examines the temperence movement generally and particularly the Women’s Christian Temperence Union (never considering or perhaps knowing of what other historians have shown about the WCTUs leadership role in the anti-Bacchante crusade) — that the 1884 election actually illustrates that “the real story was a bit more complicated.” Bendroth goes to say that “in Boston, politics did not split simply along class, religious or ethnic lines,” and to quote from Geoffrey Blodgett’s excelent analysis, that the Boston political split then drew “on an incongrous, fragile alliance inside the Democratic party between an elite Yankee leadership minority and the leaders of a growing Irish working class majority.”
Blodgett calls this an “alliance between Harvard College and the slums” and asserts that it was a “dominant force in the city’s politics over the last quarter of the 19th-century, to which Bendroth is quick to add from her own perspective that “the alliance between Yankee elites and Irish Catholics spelled political problems for evangelical Protestants. In particular it doomed to failure their moralistic political agenda, which centered around the prohibition of alcahol. As [one evangelical leader] put it, ‘Beacon Street and the North End voted together’ ” every time the subject came up.
Nor was all this a matter of shifting political alliances. Readers of Dennis P. Ryan’s Beyond the Ballot Box, a too little read and pioneering study, will know of not just the vigorous crusades of Roman Catholic temperence activists, so often ignored, but as well of, for example, the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America and the St. Patrick’s Day “temperence banquets, where toasts to Ireland were made with sparkling water.” John Boyle O’Reilly, the influential editor-poet of Roman Catholic Boston was a leader in such activities.
Indeed, it has to be said scholars are altogther too quick to jump to conclusions in these matters, when, in fact, puritanical mores of the “banned in Boston” sort were actually the place where Calvinist-tinged Yankees and near-Jansenist Irish Catholics made frequent and common cause together. Although it is very difficult to retrieve such data — Catholic sermons were not paid attention to in the press the way Protestant sermons were — it is very likely for every Protestant pulpit- pounder demanding Baccchante’s banishment, there was a Roman Catholic cleric doing similar duty to the same point.
T H E A R T M U S E U M A S P R O V O C A T E U R
Georgraphy — city and suburbs, all of them — is an important part of this series constituting book one of Gods of Copley Square, this already-lecture series I began to develop last year at the New England Historical Genealogical Society on Newbury Street, and is now projected as my next book; e-book I suspect, or whatever is on offer in the digital age for to mid-list historians uninterested in textbooks or coffee table extravaganzas..
Thus far I have stressed the cities and towns of the metropolis, and thus as much the horticultural arcadia of the garden suburb of Brookline as the New World intellectual and cultural agora of the new civic center of Copley Square. Now, however, it is the geography of Copley Square itself which comes importantly into play.
We have already seen that the compelling dynamic of the bronze figures of the Bacchante and of President Walker in the BPL court is a relic of the fact MIT was then based where it was founded, across the square from the library; similarly, how President Eliot’s role in the controversary was strengthened by the fact that Harvard Medical School, the crown jewel of modern Harvard Eliot founded, was also in Copley Square in the 1890s, on the library’s other side.
We tend to forget this sort of geography, and as well that the world’s first purpose-built public art museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, also stood originally on the other side of Copley Square, where it too was founded, all these institutions still somewhat interlocked as a relic of those days, by the way, through their boards of trustees. So it should not surprise that the art museum played a role in the development of the Bacchante affair; indeed, a quite important one.
That role emerges almost at once the minute the analysis shifts from the ambiguous ground of ethnic conflict to the far more fertile realm of class values and ideology, which, to be sure, had at first an important ethnic component, but which — following Louis Brandeis’s biographer Philippa Strum’s lead — this series will show were being transmuted in this period increasingly into a more class-related vocational than ethnic component. Thus the first generation of Jewish Boston Brahmins, to whom — at the art museum as elsewhere — Yankee Boston Brahmins distinctly passed the torch.
At the center of the art museums role in this affair was the fact that Frederick MacMonnies’s Bacchante was a very different figure entirely than Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s The Puritan. Why does that particular statue come up? And in staking her claim that the fracas over Bacchante had importantly to do with “a claim by [Boston’s] social elites for New England’s cultural leadership and national authority”, Rosenbaum fixes on the two statues in a way that advances our inquiry here very smartly.
Again, there is ethnic undergrowth to clear away. The subject of Saint-Gaudens’s statue is Deacon Samuel Chapin, the Puritan founder of the central Massachusetts town of Springfield. However, the contrast Rosenbaum sets up — “for influential members of Boston’s elite, MacMonnies Bacchante came to symbolize everything New England should not stand for, while Saint-Gaudens’s work. . . The Puritan crystalized into the Bacchante’s opposite, a moral exemplar . . . of New England values” — had much more to do with class and , even more than that, with religion, than with ethnicity.
Key here is to notice that post-Civil War scholarship on Puritanism (by Yankees, of course) such as Charles Francis Adams’s Massachusetts history of 1893, and Van Wyck Brooks Wine of the Puritans, which we’ve seen here so influenced T. S. Eliot, repudiated the traditional pro Puritan stance of mid-19th century scholars like George Bancroft. And while it is true that Rosenbaum suggests that Saint-Gaudens, himself French-Irish in heritage, in the way he reworked The Puritan into The Pilgrim for Philadelphia, may have indulged in “a little ethnic satire” when he protested that the original statue’s face was, afterall, too “round and Gaelic”, that surely suggests more ethnic confidence than insecurity.
It is in that light that my own research in the Boston art museum’s records ought to be considered. Following Rosenbaum’s lead that “Saint-Gaudens’s Puritan/Pilgrim and MacMonnies Bacchante represented two sides of of the same coin”, and knowing of the great pride the museum — all art museum’s then — took in their plaster cast collection, it did not startle to discover that two months after The New York World is cited by Rosenbaum as publishing a sketch contrasting two statues, one of a Puritan, the other of a dancing nymph, and captioning the sketch “The Puritan for the Bacchante — A Way out for Boston’s Prudes”, the Museum of Fine Arts’ active quest of a cast of Saint-Gaudens’s Puritan came to a head.
It was in 1897 that the then MFA director, General Loring, wrote to Saint-Gaudens to say how glad he was that the sculptor was “ready at last to have us cast The Puritan” for the museum’s collection. Saint-Gaudens himself, moreover, confirmed this development in a letter cited by William E. Hagans to the sculptor’s Boston niece, Rose Nichols, in which he writes of “getting the Puritan ready to photograph and cast for the Boston Museum.” Museum accession records today document all this. Thus it was that in 1897, the year “Bacchante departed Boston in funereal state — through the Library’s front door in a flower-strewn crate, amid sighs and tears of staff women” according to Cummings — the Museum of Fine Arts across Copley Square installed its new heroic casting of Saint-Gaudens’s Puritan.
T H E A R T M U S E U M A S R E F E R E E
It is hard to believe that any such move , whether seen as provocative or calming, would ever have been made without the support, perhaps even the direction, of the museums most influential trustee of twenty years then (and in the end more than three decades), the august personage to whom — not to Presidents Eliot or Walker or any combination of pulpit orators or newspapers — one must assign the chief credit, if that’s what it be, of expelling Bacchante from the Copley Square library: Charles Eliot Norton. Harvard’s — America’s — first profesor of art, Ruskin’s own tutor, the most celebrated American cultural arbiter of the age, Norton didn’t like plaster casts very much; but he liked Bacchante even less, at the library that is.
To be sure he was on this as on all subjects thoughtful to the point of opacity. A New York Times report of November, 1896 quoted him as saying to his Harvard class, given over that day to a discussion of the sculptural adornment of the BPL court, that the skill of MacMonnies in the proposed fountain figure seemed to him “wonderful”. Indeed, it was not “the execution of the idea” he objected to; “it was the tone of the idea.” Similarly, although Norton admitted “there was nothing immoral about the statue” he found it “decadent.” Also, well, “sensational.” And so on. It was classic Norton. And if you are confused, beginning perhaps to form your own thoughts, it is surely because, after the best Harvard tutorial fashion, you are meant to be. The daily press, of course, was only befuddled. Baptist preachers were much more grist to their mill. Norton knew, furthermore, that he was dealing in the case of the library with a public institution, a quasi-political institution even then, and that he needed to tread more carefully than within the hallowed and very privately controlled halls of the art museum. When the president of the BPL board, Frederick Prince, affirmed he found the dancing nymph of MacMonnies “simply glorious, a beautiful work of art”, he added: “there was’nt anybody there who objected to it except Professor Charles Eliot Norton, and he objects to a great many beautiful things.”
Ouch. But it was not so much an insightful as it was a spiteful observation. Parsed carefully, Norton’s problem was with neither nudity nor the grape. His issue was where in Copley Square it was proposed to enthrone this work of art. Bacchante was, Norton declared, “a work of art that Boston might be proud to possess.” But then the art museum’s leading trustee added: “to me the art museum would seem a far more suitable place for it than the library.” Why was that? “I do think that a dancing Bacchante does not represent a realization of the ideals that the Public Library and its contents seek to raise up in the public mind. It is one of that class of figures which the artists very properly admire, but to a public who look not always from an atistic standpoint, more harm is apt to be worked than good.”
Norton would doubtless gladly have exchanged Art Museum Puritan for Public Library nymph, and for the same reasons undergraduates in Harvard Yard would doubtless have exchanged John Haravrd for Bacchante, which is very much the line Isabella Gardner might have taken, discreet as usual — ever Norton’s student — but dedicated to art as joy, not education, the inspirerer I have no doubt of her intimate, playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan, a chief antagonist of Norton in this matter.
The most persuasive of those antagonists to my mind was Joseph Chamberlain, who in his Transcript column, “The Listener”, mounted a most chilling rejoinder to Harvard’s professor of art: “happy wretch of a Bacchante,” he wrote after her banishment, “to be delivered from an existence in this place, where, so to speak, the world’s literature is kept on ice.” Much ahemming I’m sure. Is there anything worse that could be said of a library?
On the other hand, Norton’s point of view was actually better urged by others, notably Chicago editor Harriet Munroe, she of the radically modernist Poetry magazine, which played so vital a role in launcing T. S. Eliot’s career — in Chicago, mind, not in Boston. In 1896 in a piece for the The Chicago Herald Tribune, Munroe seemed in the first place, like Chamberlain, to take Bacchante’s side, wondering if MacMonnies, her creator-guardian, might not himself “feel that here his exquisite souless creature would be alittle out of sympathy with her sorroundings” at the library. She continued: “in any gallery of art [Bacchante’s] artistic beauty would be the only thing to consider.” Similarly, in any place of “public recreation and amusement [Bacchante’s] abandonment to physical joy would be appropriate.” But the library?
Munroe’s most telling point followed at once, shifting ground significantly: touching somewhat perhaps on my thought here about why, first, a swan, and then a nymph, and so on, she wrote: ” is not [McKim’s] taste, usually so discreet, at fault in this instance? From the solemn beauty of the [stair] hall, so inspiring with sacred memories, the visitor on the balcony, the student in the arcade, would suddenly confront the laughing impersonation of sensous ectasy, of unintellectual, unspiritual, physical delerium. Is there not a shock in the transition?” Munroe insisted. “Granted this is the place for a statue expressive of joy, should not the joy expressed be spiritual instead of sensuous, in order to be in keeping with the spirit of the place?”
I hope Norton read Munroe’s much better defense than his own of their joint and rather naunced position in a battle the strident and not at all naunced side of which everyone else then and most since have been sure was where the day was won or lost, meaning, of course, the pop press, the best treatment of which, by the way, is Walter Whitehill’s article, noted in the bibliography. But if one seeks the political bottom line here, I suspect crafty old Norton actually had a better grasp of it than anyone, and that his unrelenting desire for Bacchante in art museum and not library was not unrelated to Sullivan’s worry in his diary that “the sensational clergy were determined that their victory at the library [would set the stage for] a righteous crusade against the intolerable indecencies of the antique in the art museum”. And those Norton would have laid down his life to protect.
Then there was Norton’s own personal bottom line: no one notices, but he won. McKim in the end transfered Bacchante from library to art museum. Norton was no provincial; he had never said it had to be Boston’s art museum. A national, even an international figure, Norton, James Turner has written, “answered a yearning felt by more than college boys. Around 1870 art museums started to crop up in cities across the land: the Metropolitan in New York [and] the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston” being the first of many Norton’s work inspired. New York, Norton knew, as some people just cannot understand, is, historically, as much Boston’s partner as rival in many aspects of the evolution of the American experience. Indeed, Norton might even have preferred New York’s art museum for Bacchante ; in so close a community as Copley Square had McKim given the statue to Boston’s art museum it might have seemed a somewhat uncollegial slap in the library’s face.
Besides, thanks to Norton’s fellow art museum trustee, George Robert White, Boston’s museum soon enough had its own Bacchante. One can sense somewhat what a Nortonian coup it perhaps was in Walter Whitehill’s exultant report that “MacMonnies, Bacchante, having been banished from one side of Copley Square, settled on the other, remaining there happy and without scandal.” And who will fault Whitehill, having got the essence of the thing right, for having fumbled the dates. (The Copley Square museum had actually just closed when White’s Bacchante arrived in Boston, and the new art museum had already opened when the statue was installed for public viewing in June of 1910. Norton himself, moreover, also just missed what may have been a coup long mooted. He died in 1908.}
The donor, it is clear, was deeply invested in, as he saw it, righting a wrong, as was his sister and heir, who was one of the funders of the outdoor garden court of the new Decorative Arts wing of 1929 where landscape designer Arthur Shurcliff provided, in Whitehill’s words, for “the installation of sculpture,” which within three years included Boston’s Bacchante. The Transcript was thrilled, reporting in June of 1933 that “the new setting is particularly suited to the Bacchante. . . .The statue has been placed on a high pedestal between the fountain and the rear wall of the garden. An elongated pediment of white stone in the center of the wall makes an admirable background for the dark green bronze which reflects interesting highlights from the sun.”
That was MacMonnies so lovingly applied patina, the significance of which will energe shortly, for in Paris too Bacchante was always to be found in the Luxembourg gardens, in both places, in the Transcript’s words, “beautiful and desireable.”
T H E B I G T H R E E
If there is a sense in which what may be called a confusion of Bacchante’s may seem to have arisen here, so celebrated did MacMonnies work become, this much can be said with some certainty. There are only four full-sized (83″) bronze Bacchante’s known to have been cast under the direct supervision of the original sculptor, and each of what I call ‘the big three’ (the fourth casting has never been located; the sculptor saying no more than that it was in a private British collection) were by 1910 each in place, each dancing their way — or not — into the psyche’s, respectively, of Paris, New York and Boston.
All three capitals, furthermore, got in the end the Bacchante each really wanted, all unknowing, the figure that was the most eloquent expression of its characteristic civic values.
Although there be not really any confusion of Bacchante’s — one leaves aside, of course, the reductions without number in museums everywhere distributed by MacMonnies — it is true that to see each of the big three is no longer so easy a matter as a flight from New York to Paris and from Paris to Boston. It being, historically, the policy of the Luxembourg Museum to disperse its art in the decade or so after an artist’s death, one needs today to make a considerable side trip from the French capital to see the Parisian Bacchante, now on loan to the Alsacian town of Selestat in northeast France near Strasbourg, where the statue is at the historic 18th-century Town Hall. However, both New York’s and Boston’s Bacchante’s are still exhibited at the heart of those metropolises, respectively at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And because each of the only two full-sized American bronze Bacchante’s is from a different pair of the four full-sized castings MacMonnies made, to see the two American statues is, so to speak, the full course.
To be sure as recently as 1984 art historian Hildegard Cummings observed that efforts to learn the work’s casting history had “proved frustrating,” not least because “MacMonnies was forgetful of some details and wily about others”. Indeed, Cummings declared that his nymph “will long and probably forever lead researchers on a merry chase”. But there are really two narratives to consider here, and between the two of them we can perhaps sort the matter out.
The first narrative I call the Hildegard narrative after the scholar just quoted. Her account, “Chasing a Bronze Bacchante”, which seems to me to construct the most authoritive overall scenario, hinges on MacMonnies’s decision to give (or sell!) the original casting exhibited at the 1894 Paris Salon to McKim and thus to the BPL and to make a replica (which I have christened Luxembourg 1) for the famous Paris museum which to the delight of both sculptor and architect had meanwhile expressed an interest in aquiring the work.
Original and replica, the first pair, each identical and each highly prized, were the occasion of considerable back and forth between MacMonnies and McKim. And while the sculptor’s decision for the original to go to the architect for Boston was perhaps the generous gesture it has always been portrayed as, the fact is it may also have reflected the wish of MacMonnies (an expatriate American living and working in Paris) to insure Paris got the better casting than Boston, for according to Cummings “after MacMonnies had seen his Bacchante [Luxembourg 1] placed in the Musee du Luxembourg, [he] had always wanted to change the surface effect. ” Thus while the original pair (McKim and Luxembourg 1) were being exhibited respectively in Boston and Paris, MacMonnies was soon working furiously on a second pair.
The change he made in the second pair of bronzes, cast he later wrote “about 1901” and “full-sized”, was not minor. We have the word of one of his studio assistants, Janet Scudder, that MacMonnies threw himself into this task: “with loving, caressing touch he goes all over its surface”, Cummings reports another observer remembering, while Scudder meanwhile testified that “in order to experiment with the effect desired, MacMonnies had had a replica made of this statue in plasteline [and] for a day or two he worked with the surface himself.” Only then, “when he had found what he wanted and how it should be done, he called me”, Scudder recalled, “to look at it, showed me the finnished surface of a few inches — the most beautiful surface imaginable — then told me he wanted me to go over the whole figure.”
Scudder added, rather mysteriously, that MacMonnies told her she was “to take [her] time, not to hurry, as the work should occupy several months.” Archly, Cummings suggests the Paris museum waited rather a long time for what I call Luxembourg 2, the twin of which MacMonnies ordered at the same time for a New York collector, Charles Tyson Yerkes, whose desire for MacMonnies’ statue the sculptor must have known would cause hardly less scandal than the Boston episode — indeed seem to confirm it — for Yerkes’s Fifth Avenue mansion contained an art gallery in which the art, in historian Robert Forrey’s words, “would have raised eyebrows in Chicago and brought out the police in Boston,” a collection at once it was crowned by Bacchante gained according to Forrey one of its two stellar attractions. Cummings speculates meanwhile that Luxembourg 2 first appeared at the Paris Exposition in 1900 — just a year off the sculptor’s memory of events three decades later — while I will speculate Luxembourg 1 was dispatched to a mysterious obscurity in the unknown British collection.
The second pair of Bacchante’s was not cast by Thiebaut Freres, the first foundry, according to historian Paula Kozol, but by E. Gruet Jeune, another Paris foundry, perhaps because of MacMonnies unhappiness with the first pair (Luxembourg 1 and McKim). It is the foundry marks visible today on that first pair (in the latter case according to old museum records) — both Thiebaut — and the Gruet Jeune marks on Luxembourg 2 and Yerkes that seem decisive to me in trying to differentiate among these four original full size bronzes.
Still, four castings of two versions in only six or seven years (between 1893 and 1900-01) was bound to confuse. No wonder Cummings recounts that “from the time the Luxembourg Museum announced its interest in the Bacchante [in 1894], confusion developed over the disposition of the original and its full size replicas.” Indeed, when “in 1910 a full size Bacchante turned up in a New York City auction as part of the estate of Charles Tyson Yerkes, even museum professionals had to wonder who had what, since the Yerkes catalogue implied that its Bacchante might be the original,” describing it thusly: “one of two figures modeled by the artist, one of which was presented to the BPL . . . . Either that or the second one went to the Metropolitan Museum.”
As if this was not enough of a muddle, there is also a second narrative, this one christened by me the White narrative after the Boston museum’s Bacchante donor, whose casting was the one MacMonnies had had made for Yerkes to the sculptor’s improved specification, from the estate of which White purchased it. According to the White narrative, as The New York Times reported on May 8, 1910, of the two known full size bronzes from MacMonnies hand in the United States, the one at the Metropolitan was the original casting first exhibited in the mid 1890s in Paris and in Boston, while the one given by White to Boston’s art museum was one of the second casting of 1901, thus confirming what White had said to the Boston Herald on April 29th: “This figure [the one given to the Museum of Fine Arts] is not, of course, the same one that was for a time at the BPL.” But the New York paper omitted White’s further remark that “the [statue now given to the Boston museum] is supposed to be the first that MacMonnies produced, though there some controversary about this point.” The second bronze Bacchante — if it is the second — is the one originally set up in Boston and now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ” according to which scenario, of course, MacMonnies had not sent McKim the ‘original’, which mercifully is beyond our brief here to address, but does illustrate yet again how “forgetful” (Cummings’ word) MacMonnies was.
It remained for the sculptor himself in clarifying letters in the early 1930s to explain things as best so “wily” an artist could (again, Cummings’s word), undermining, for example, White’s contention that in buying the Yerkes twin of the second pair “his city would now have the original Bacchante afterall.” To the contrary, wrote MacMonnies; the original was in New York, it being the casting he had sent McKim in the mid-1890s for Boston. Of its replica, Luxembourg 1, MacMonnies, however, said nothing.
He did mention in passing an otherwise quite unaccounted for bronze of the dancing nymph, “original size”, that was in a private British collection, where Luxembourg 1, which lacked the historical importance of the Met’s original and having been superceded artistically by MacMonnies second pair of “original size” castings of “about 1901”, probably found, as I suggested earlier, safe shelter. Of that second pair of castings, however, though he firmly identified them as to date and size and location in both Paris and Boston, MacMonnies made no comment about the new artist- and foundry-applied patina that he had once been so invested in.
Why in the 1930s the sculptor ignored his passion of three decades earlier for reworking his nymphs surface apperance I cannot say. “Forgetful” and “wily” have been invoked here so often I hesitate to repeat Cummings excuses — or accusations — again, but nothing is better documented about the statue’s casting history than the fact that the second pair cast at E Gruet Jeune in 1901, on the plasteline replica of which MacMonnies worked so ardently, was considered by him at the time of his creation artistically superior to the first pair. With the other undoubted fact that the historic original went to New York, which no one now seems to dispute, these two facts stand out as the foundation of my assertion that it can truly be said that the chief players among Bacchante’s votaries as well as their cities all got what they really wanted.
Charles McKim, after the incredible run-around he had endured in Boston, had had the satisfaction, as it surely must have semed to him, of giving to New York what New York always wants, the cause celebre, in this case the ‘scandalous’ original ; not to be sure the artists preferred casting, but the historic original casting that caused all the trouble in the first place. (Yerkes, by the way, left his Bacchante to the Metropolitan Museum; George Robert White was able to buy it only because it had to be auctioned off according to Robert Forrey to meet claims against Yerkes’s estate.)
Frederick MacMonnies, though in his last years he had grown uncaring for whatever reason of his passion of thirty years earlier for a new surface patina, was still surely not unhappy that his beloved Paris had got what that artistic capital always really wants, the work the artists judges at the time of creation to be artistically superior.
As with McKim and MacMonnies, so with Charles Eliot Norton.
Norton, it cannot be doubted, somewhere rejoiced that Boston, endowed with the other artistically superior replica, the twin of Luxembourg 2 MacMonnies had had made for Yerkes, thus shared in Paris’s good fortune. Boston had had, afterall, enough of the cause celebre, and was always more attuned to connoisseurship and scholarship, which had been Norton’s point all along. Of course, how much of that artist- or foundry-applied patina survived the weather of either Paris or Boston for the many years the statue was installed outside I am not in a position to pronounce on. The patina of Boston’s Bacchante is now black over green, the effect, if such a thing is possible, of a very soft glassy deep green of blackish hue.
Think Professor Norton smiling — still.
S I R H E N R Y V A N E
The library court, forlorn seeming once Bacchante had found a quieter Boston refuge , did not entirely resign itself to artlessness. The Walker Memorial bust already mentioned was the excellent work of Richard Brooks, another expatriate American sculptor who exhibited at the Paris Salon, though not perhaps with MacMonnies’ conspicuous success (Brooks’s best known work is probably his Thomas Cass in the Boston Public Garden) while in 1890 Augustus Saint-Gaudens himself endowed he BPL court with a magnificant portrait sculpture in bronze of Robert Charles Billings better than anthing in sight.
But what had turned out to be a discreet success for the art museum became as the years passed something of an embarrassment for the library; indeed, an increasingly high profile one as the “Banned in Boston” movement reached its sorry climax in the 1920s. Even in our era of “shelter porn” and even “royal porn,” “Bacchante porn” waxed rather than waned, never at all flattering to the library.
Furthermore, it was not for lack of opportunity, only of imagination. How many people realize that at the same time Bacchante was being exhibited at the Paris Salon and MacMonnies agreed with the library’s architect on gifting the sculpture P. L. Bion reported the sculptor knew would cause trouble to the BPL, the same sculptor, touring the library with McKim, was charged by the architect to create another statue. This statue was actually commissioned for the library, as Bacchante had never been; this time it was a heroic bronze of a notable historic figure; this time apparently a triumph of the genteel tradition, a noble work on a noble subject about religious liberty and early protest against Puritanisms own repressions, a work that would widely inspire.
That sculptor and architect gave such priority to the dancing nymph, and paid so little attention at the same time to the noble knight — Sir Henry Vane –only puzzles those, however, who refuse to accept that sex, conflict and scandal play a larger role in the attitudes of even polite society than any of us like to admit, frequently trumping noble and inspiring. The New York Times noticed when the Vane arrived at the library, but so far as I know none of the other newspapers from Chicago to Los Angeles who could never get enough of Bacchante’s travails.
That’s the other side of the Bacchante saga. Not only did Norton win in the end. And not only did all three cities — Paris, Boston and NewYork, get what they really wainted. So did the Boston Public Library, which rejoices still in MacMonnies heroic portrayal of Vane in niched splendor in its Copley Square vestibule. What focus MacMonnies’ figure gives to an architectural setting worthy of the Vatican.
S O U R C E S
Patrick McMahon of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is dedicated to that institutions history and my debt to him here is considerable. The Susan Morse Hilles Director of Libraries and Archives, Maureen Melton, though she is too inclined to hide her light under a bushell, has also helped much. Similarly, Gerry W. R. Ward, Katharine Lane Weems Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, kindly and promptly responded to an important question. So to did David Dearinger, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum. At the Boston Public Library Fine Arts Department, upon which I continue to rely for my basic research need, I am especially thankful for their help to Curator of Fine Arts Janice Chadbourne and Reference Librarian Kimberly Tenrey. Henry F. Scannel, Curator of Microtext and Newspapers, and Reference Librarian Diane Parks, also come so frequently to my aid I cannot thank them enough.
Bendroth, M. L. FUNDAMENTALISTS IN THE CITY. (Oxford) 2005
Bion, P. L. “Bacchante”, NEW YORK CRITIC ( Century Co.)July-Dec. 1894
Blodgett, Geoffrey “Yankee Leadership in a Divided City” in BOSTON: 1700-1980 THE EVOLUTION OF URBAN POLITICS Formisano, Ronald, and Burns, C. K. eds, (Greenwood Press) 1984
[Brooks, Richard] n.a. “Salon” THE NEW YORK TIMES (May 1, 1909)
Breazeale, Mary Kenon. “The Female Nude in Public Art” in A JOURNAL OF WOMEN STUDIES (1986)
Cummings, Hildegard. “Chasing a Bronze Bacchante” in WILLIAM BENTON MUSEUM OF ART BULLETIN (1984)
Chamberlain, Joseph. “The Listener” in BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT (Oct 28, 1896)
Dryfhout, John F. THE WORK OF AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS (New England) 2008
Forrey, Robert. “Charles Tyson Yerkes” in THE PENNSYLVANNIA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY AND BIOGRAPHY (April 1975)
Freeman, Thomas S. Mayer, Thomas F. MARTYRS AND MARTYRDOM IN ENGLAND 1400-1700 (Boydell) 2007
Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck. AMERICAN SCULPTURE > > > IN THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM (Metropolitan Museum) 1965
Kozol, Paula. “Frederick William MacMonnies” in AMERICAN FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE IN THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS BOSTON K. Green, et al, eds (Museum of Fine Arts) 1986
[Martiny, Philip] see Roth, Leland MCKIM< MEAD AND WHITE (
[Munroe, Harriet] see Whitehill, “Vicissitudes”
[Museum of Fine Arts Decorative Arts Court] “Bacchante” BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT (June 24, 1933)
[Museum of Fine Arts installation of Yerkes Bacchante] MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS BOSTON BULLETIN (Feb.,1908; April, 1908; June, 1908; Feb.,1910; June, 1910.)
NEW YORK WORLD — see Cummings, “Chasing”
[Parker, H. T. ] – see Whitehill, BPL CENTENNIAL
Rosenbaum, Julia. “Displaying Civic Culture” in AMERICAN ART (Autumn 2000)
Rosenbaum, Julia. VISIONS OF BELONGING (Cornell) 2006
Roth, Leland. MCKIM< MEADAND WHITE (Harper and Row)_ 1983
Ryan, Dennis P. BEYOND THE BALLOT BOX (Univ. of Massachusetts) 1996
Scudder, Janet. MODELING MY LIFE (Harcourt, Brace) 1925
[Shuman, Abraham] see Whitehill, MFA CENTENNIAL
Smart, Maryand E. A. Gordon, A FLIGHT WITH FAME (Sound View) 1996
Strum, Phillipa. LOUIS D BRANDEIS (Schocken) 1989
Sullivan, Thomas Russell JOURNAL 1891-1903 (Cornell) 2000 (Orig. published 1917).
Turner, James. THE LIBERAL EDUCATION OF CHARLES ELIOT NORTON (Johns Hopkins) 1989
[Vane sculpture] Wallace, John W. “MacMonnies” inTHE NEW YORK TIMES (July 7 1900)
[Walker, Francis] n.a. “The Bust of General Walker” in THE TECH (Nov. 8, 1900)
Whitehill, Walter Muir. BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY CENTENNIAL HISTORY ( Harvard) 1956
Whitehill, Walter Muir. MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS BOSTON CENTENNIAL HISTORY (Harvard) 1970
[Yerkes Auction] n.a. “Auction” BOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT (April 14, 1910).