Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935)
In 1905 at the age of 23, Gaston Lachaise, who was born and raised in France, left Paris for Boston in pursuit of his love, Isabel, and his career as a sculptor. In an autobiographical statement written in 1928 Lachaise described Isabel, whom he married in 1917, as “the primary inspiration which awakened my vision and the leading influence that has directed my forces. Throughout my career as an artist, I refer to this person by the word ‘Woman’.”
While Lachaise gained numerous commissions for works unrelated to Isabel, his oeuvre is dominated by her presence: ample hips, a full bust, slender legs and small feet. Though only five foot two or three inches tall, weighing about 110 pounds, Isabel appears grand under the artist’s hand, at times tremendous, a sign of Lachaise’s strong feelings for her. As the artist Louise Bourgeois put it, “Gaston Lachaise had one god. And it was a woman, his wife. He put this particular woman on a pedestal, both figuratively and literally.”
After setting foot in America, Lachaise would never again return to his mother country. Instead he devoted his art to immortalizing this majestic woman and lived to see his work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this retrospective of 1935, the first ever given by the Museum to a living artist, Lachaise was honored as “the greatest living sculptor” by the critic Henry McBride. Lachaise died suddenly that year at the age of 52, at the height of his creative power.
Lachaise’s contribution to American Modernism is significant as evidenced by his legacy of monumental, abstract and provocative art on view in public institutions around the nation (see inset). Thanks to the Lachaise Foundation in Boston, the artist’s monumental achievement may be appreciated by a larger public through a traveling exhibition organized and maintained by the Foundation. Comprised of 49 sculptures and about 18 drawings, Gaston Lachaise: Sculptures and Drawings represents the various stages and development of Lachaise’s career, a small-scale retrospective of his life’s work. The exhibition is now traveling around the United States and will be expanded for its tour of Europe in 2003.
Lachaise’s career began in Paris, France, where he was born in 1882 to Marie Barre and Jean Lachaise, a cabinet maker famous for his design of Gustave Eiffel’s apartment in the eponymous tower. Lachaise began to study sculpture at the age of 13, and was admitted three years later to the Academie Nationale des Beaux-Arts. There he received the formal classical training and discovered great success. A bust of Lachaise’s sister, Allys, so compelled his teachers at the school that they suggested entering it in the annual Salon des Artistes Francais. Though the judges at first refused on the grounds that the artist was under the minimum age of salon regulation, they were swayed by his teachers’ appeals and the evidence of exceptional talent. Lachaise proceeded to exhibit yearly in the Salon and to compete for the great Prix de Rome award, for which he was runner-up twice. The earliest piece in the exhibition is Small Head of Isabel, 1903, a reflection of Lachaise’s classical training and the integral nature of portraiture in Lachaise’s oeuvre.
Sometime between 1901 and 1903 in Paris Lachaise encountered Isabel Dutaud Nagle. Belle, as he called her, was of French-Canadian descent, ten years his senior, and married with a son. Smitten, Lachaise quit school and abandoned an already distinguished career to follow her to America. To pay for his passage, he apprenticed himself to the designer René Lalique for approximately one year.
In Boston, from 1906 to 1912, Lachaise worked in the studio of Henry Hudson Kitson, executing the details on various war memorials. In what little free time he had, Lachaise saw Isabel and pursued his own work, including a series of tiny voluptuous clay statuettes based on her.
Lachaise came to New York in 1912 and was represented in the landmark 1913 Armory Show by one such statuette entitled Nude with a Coat, 1912. The expressionism of this bountiful nude presages the creative genius to be unveiled later in Lachaise’s career. At about this time, Lachaise began a seven year tenure as assistant to Paul Manship, while maintaining his own studio where he worked at night. Manship engaged him in a number of decorative commissions between 1914-1918, including the relief memorial to J. Pierpont Morgan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1918, Lachaise had his first one-man exhibition at the Stephan Bourgeois Galleries in New York. Among the 29 works exhibited was Elevation, 1912-17, a life-size portrait of Isabel on which he had been working since his arrival in New York. Rising on delicately arched feet and twisting ever-so-slightly at the torso, the figure displays an ethereal weightlessness and idealism. This work figures in textbooks and is perhaps the best-known of Lachaise’s monumental works.
While in New York, in addition to frequenting the salons of the Stettheimer sisters and the circle of Paul Rosenfeld, Lachaise became affiliated with The Dial, a monthly literary journal dedicated to “the best in all the arts”. Run by Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson, the magazine included writings by the likes of T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings and Henry McBride and art by such figures as Picasso, Braque, Leger, Marin, Demuth and Nadelman. In 1920 for its first issue under Thayer and Watson, The Dial published as its frontispiece Lachaise’s Dusk, 1917. The work was chosen by Lachaise’s good friend e.e. cummings. The sinuous elegance with which this floating female form is portrayed typifies Lachaise’s early work, and suggests the influence of art nouveau.
During the 20’s, coinciding with his affiliation with The Dial, the art of portraiture in Lachaise's oeuvre reached its maturity. This aspect of Lachaise’s work is well documented in the traveling exhibition, which boasts a compelling group of seven portraits, including Alfred Stieglitz-- who in 1927 gave Lachaise a one-man exhibition at his Intimate Gallery-- cummings, McBride and Thayer. The magazine was a crucial link in providing the sculptor with financial support and patronage, and his portraits of such personnages serve as a remarkable documentation of American art history.
For Lachaise it was the creative aspect of making portraits which was important. “My interest in portraiture has always been keen,” Lachaise wrote, “for a portrait of an individual is a synthesis of the prevalent forces within that individual, and in this process there is an expansion for the creator.”
Lachaise’s later work is characterized by a celebration of flesh and an exaggeration of particular anatomical features. Gerald Nordland has called works from this period “heroic incarnations of flesh so violent, so disturbing that for some time to come they can only provoke wonder.” In Burlesque, 1930, Lachaise exaggerates to the point of deformity the right hip of the dancing nude. The result recalls in graphic terms the erotic bump and grind movements of the Burlesque dancers at the National Winter Garden Burlesque on Houston Street in New York, which he used to frequent with cummings.
In Extremis, c. 1934, goes one step further, imitating a posture of ecstasy or death. The frank sexuality of the pose, typical of the late works, might appear shocking but for the knowledge of the artist’s burning passion and sincere respect for Isabel. Janet Hobhouse, referring to Lachaise’s many passionate letters to Isabel, writes that Lachaise “used his art for a kind of long-distance ravishment of his somewhat autocratic, often remote mistress.” She continues, “As Lachaise’s work developed, it increasingly conveyed less the look of Isabel than the experience of loving her.”
In many ways, an understanding of Lachaise, the man, is critical to an understanding of his work. Marsden Hartley, a friend and fellow artist, observed: “You felt the tumult of his ardours and his idealistic ideas in every look and movement of him.” e. e. cummings once said: “Three things Lachaise, to anyone who knows him, is, and is beyond the shadow of a doubt: inherently naif, fearlessly intelligent, utterly sincere.” This property of ingenuousness is key to an understanding of Lachaise’s later more expressionist interpretations of what he called ‘Woman,’ where one might say he abandoned objectivity in favor of more private and personally expressive forms. The traveling exhibition is a brilliant selection of works that captures the essence of Lachaise, the man and his work, and his critical role in the birth of American Modernism. The drawings included complement the sculptures and are characteristic of Lachaise’s drawing style in their fluid lines and swelling contours.
The exhibition is currently on view through October 20 at the Lore Degenstein Gallery of Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. From March 23 to May 6 of 2002 it will be at the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences in Florida. From June 2 to July 14 of 2002 it will be at the new Trumbull county branch of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. In 2003 the exhibition nearly doubles in size and includes a collection of monumental works for its tour of Europe. It opens first in France at the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie in Roubaix, and then in Rome at the Museo Hendrik C. Andersen, a branch of the Soprintendenza Speciale alla Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. For further information regarding the exhibition please contact Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York.
Paula Rand Hornbostel received her MA from the Institute of Fine Arts, at New York University and works part-time at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York. She is a trustee of the Lachaise Foundation in Boston.
1. Gaston Lachaise, by Paul Strand (1890-1976), photograph, gelatin silver print, 1927, The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
2. The Lachaises and a friend at Sea Beach, Georgetown, Maine in the 1920s, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston.
3. Small Head of Isabel, 1903, bronze, 6 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York.
4. Nude with a Coat, 1912, bronze, 13 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York.
5. Elevation, 1912-17, bronze, 70 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York. This work is to be included in the European tour of the traveling exhibition.
6. Dusk, 1917, bronze bas-relief, 5 ¼ inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York. This work was the frontispiece for The Dial’s January 1, 1920 issue.
7. Alfred Stieglitz, 1925-27, bronze, 12 5/8 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York.
8. Burlesque Figure, 1930, bronze, 24 1/2 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York. Lachaise and cummings shared an appreciation for the Burlesque dance halls.
9. In Extremis, c. 1934, bronze, 14 inches high, The Lachaise Foundation, Boston, courtesy of Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York.
10. Dancing Figure, undated, graphite and ink on paper.
Please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all the works illustrated in this article are included in the traveling exhibition.
Selected Public Collections
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Australian National Gallery, Canberra, AUS
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, NY
Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Dade County Art Museum, Miami, FL
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Boston, MA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution,Washington, DC
Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, Hawaii
Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Jonson Gallery, University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Milwaukee Art Center, Milwaukee, WI
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, NY
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY
Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, MI
Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
Newark Museum, Newark NJ
Norton Gallery and School of Art, West palm Beach, FL
Ogunquit Museum of Art, Ogunquit, ME
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ
Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL
Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection, Pocantico Hills, NY
St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH
University of Texas, Austin, TX
Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, NY
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, KS
Wight Art Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
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