Breathing Life into Bronze
CURRENTLY, realistic animal painting and sculpture is out of popular and critical favor, more or less relegated to a minor status found in ecologically oriented exhibits and magazines or on postage stamps. However, there are indications that interest in statues of animals in metal and stone is due for a welcome revival. During the long and very energetic career of Anna Hyatt Huntington, the French term animalier was still in reputable use. Although the humans astride the magnificent horses in her heroic public works are well conceived and executed, it is her animals which make her work memorable.
Anna Vaughn Hyatt was born in 1876 in Cambridge, Mass. Her father taught natural history and paleontology at Harvard University and was the organizer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
As a small child Hyatt spent hours at the horse stalls observing the way the horses moved their jaws as they ate. Her father encouraged her interest both in animals and in sculpture, building a studio for her and her older sister, Harriet.
Hyatt felt that modeling from live animals was essential. She often worked at animal shows, arriving with clay and a high modeling stand. The beasts at one show in Boston were not used to such close observation and an elephant sprayed her with water in frustration after he - wildly trumpeting - couldn't charge at her. The lioness became so upset over Hyatt's attention to her cubs that the keeper asked her to leave. But as she once said, ``Animals have many moods, and to represent them is my joy. I love animals and in order to be near them, I model them.'' She studied with sculptors in Boston and in New York. Her last teacher was Gutzon Borglum.
Hyatt's first show was in 1901, and she had no less than 50 small depictions of various animals. Her exhibit was very well received. She resisted going to Europe until 1906, feeling that ``one ought to be perfectly independent in one's work and above outside influence to a degree, before going abroad.''
Her first fame began in Paris where she decided to do an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc. The plaster full-sized model gained her an honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1910. The prize was nearly denied her because the jurors doubted that a woman would have the physical strength to do all the heavy work herself.
Hyatt's concept of the Maid of Orleans was inspired by Mark Twain's vigorous biography in which Joan is depicted not as a dreamy mystic but as a no-nonsense, healthy young peasant woman who was convinced that she had a task given to her by God. Hyatt wrote later, ``I thought of her there before her first battle, speaking to her saints, holding up the ancient sword. Her wrist is sharply back to show them the hilt, which is in the form of a cross.... It was only her mental attitude, only her religious fervor that could have allowed her to endure so much physically.... That is how I thought of her, that is how I tried to model her.''
Of course, Hyatt paid as much attention to the horse as she did to the young Joan. She inspected many breeds to find a horse which was strong enough to carry an armored rider and spirited enough to match Joan's fervor; she finally settled on a Percheron.
In 1915, she was selected over artists from six nations and commissioned to cast her Joan for a commemorative celebration in New York. This very beautiful statue stands on Riverside Drive and 95th Street in New York City. It also earned her the purple rosette of the French Legion d'Honneur. Cast replicas have been placed in such diverse places as Blois, France; Gloucester, Mass.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Quebec, Canada.
The horse remained Anna's favorite subject throughout her career although she considered it the most difficult animal to portray. ``Riders to the Sea'' with its steeds plunging through the waves is from the same period as her Joan. This is a small piece such as sculptors like to do to try out their concepts. It functions as a finished sketch might for a painter.
The photograph on this page, a detail, shows the precision, vigor, and feeling with which she was able to infuse the bronze. This piece might also have been intended to serve as a preliminary model for a public-sized monument although as far as I know there is no larger version. This elegant piece is part of the Newark (N.J.) Museum's extensive collection of American artists.
When she married Archer Huntington, she became known as Anna Hyatt Huntington. Her husband was an interesting man with no formal education whose mother interested him in literature on the ranch where he grew up. He spent his teen years roaming around Spain with a guide and a mule. He discovered a manuscript of the Spanish epic poem, ``El Cid Campeador,'' and spent 10 years translating it.
When he discovered that Spain had no statue of El Cid, he set his wife to making one and it was erected in Seville in 1927. The heroic medieval warrior is more than matched by his muscular, prancing warhorse. A huge duplicate bronze casting is the centerpiece of a collection of many of her bronze animals and limestone reliefs in the court of the Hispanic Society of America - one of a group of museums established by Archer Huntington at Wadsworth Terrace in New York City.
Although art fashions changed during her lifetime, Anna Hyatt Huntington continued sculpting her vigorous, realistic, monumental works with, among others, a statue of Sybil Ludington who was a 16-year-old female Paul Revere who rode 40 miles on April 26, 1777, to call out the volunteers, and one of Abraham Lincoln reading a law book with his horse nearby.
She always said, ``I live in fear that I may be someday satisfied with what I do. Then I will know I am no longer an artist.' ' That day never came.