Gaston Lachaise

Lachaise at work. (Photo courtesy The Bruce / October 10, 2012)

Face & Figure: The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise

Through Jan. 6, 2013, Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich,, (203) 869-0376


The history of American sculpture was changed by a brief encounter on a Paris street in 1902. That, at least, is what visitors to the Bruce Museum's new exhibition, Face & Figure: The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise, are led to believe. The encounter was between Gaston Lachaise, a 24-year-old French sculptor, and Isabel Dutaud Nagle, an older, married Bostonian who on a visit to Paris just happened to cross his field of vision. Lachaise was apparently so smitten by his glimpse of Mrs. Nagle that he resolved to possess and be possessed by her. She was, he said, "the primary inspiration which awakened my vision."

Though such torrid encounters are more the stuff of romance novels than real life, Paula Hornbostel of the Boston-based Lachaise Foundation insists, "Lachaise started in the passionate phase and never got over it. He loved Isabel's body and her being and spent the rest of his career trying to capture her soul in his sculpture."

And what was Mrs. Nagle's secret? "She had the gait of an empress or a peacock, long black hair and a buxom, voluptuous hourglass shape," says Hornbostel. "The cult of slender was not alive in 1918. Lachaise's art was his condensation of his feeling about this woman."

As apocryphal as this seems, Lachaise did indeed drop everything, including a budding career, to follow this imperial peacock to the U.S., and she did indeed become his lifelong model and muse, as well as a driving force for modernist sculpture in America.

Curator Kenneth Silver says, "Having a Frenchman leave Paris to come to New York to be an artist at this time was really unusual. Paris was then the heart of the art world." Fortunately for Lachaise, at least in hindsight, the fickle winds of art prominence were beginning to blow toward America.

"It was an interesting moment in the world of sculpture," said Silver. "No sculptor remained uninfluenced by Rodin. But Rodin liked to leave a busy surface, to show his ego on his work, to leave his mark. Lachaise was more about art. He was a great admirer of Brancusi who also used smooth surfaces. In this anti-Rodin moment, there was a shift to a more pristine surface."

Lachaise made himself quickly at home first in Boston and then in New York; in 1912, he joined the studio of Paul Manship. He also eagerly embraced America, or as he called it, "The New World," noting that "The American soil is fresh. It is fertile. Flowers and fruit of new species will come forth from it to lighten the world." He even moved some of his family to the U.S. and never returned to France. He and Isabel finally married in 1917.

Though Lachaise died fairly young (at 53, in 1935), he filled the years remaining to him with all things Isabel. Her body was in every female figure he sculpted. In his monumental pieces—some of which are on view in Face & Figure—she's depicted as a powerful Amazon, not unlike a 3-D version of Robert Crumb's "Devil Girl": big breasts, big ass, weightlifter's shoulders, arms and legs, and a tiny head. She was Woman, see her roar, so to speak, and this is most apparent in "Standing Woman (Heroic Woman)," a sleek, dark bronze from 1932. It's hard to imagine the impact of such in-your-face femininity in 1932; the impact is further empowered by Isabel's inscrutable facial expression, not defiant necessarily but not afraid either, with a sort of Mona Lisa smile. As Ken Silver says, "She is powerful, proud, unafraid of her femininity and she just got the vote."

Also riveting are "Floating Figure" (1927), a giant levitating nude that Silver says "embodies the procreative force of Lachaise's earth mother," and "Standing Woman, Elevation" (1912-15), a hefty nude that seems to defy gravity by standing on tiptoe. E.e.Cummings called this sculpture, "a super-Wagnerian poem of flesh, gracefully colossal music."

Lachaise was part of America's avant-garde, a circle that included many figures whose portraits he would later sculpt in bas-relief and bronze: Marianne Moore, e. e. cummings, John Marin, Gilbert Seldes, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Edgar Varese and Lincoln Kirstein.

Kirstein, who co-founded (with George Balanchine) the New York City Ballet, was partly the inspiration for this exhibit. Two years ago, at a Christie's auction, Bruce Museum director Peter Sutton saw one of two bronze copies of "Man Walking," for which Lachaise used Kirstein as the model (the pose derived from an ancient Egyptian statue). Sutton bought the piece for the Bruce and, he says, "the scales fell from my eyes." Immersing himself in the artist's career, Sutton concluded that "Lachaise was the most important American sculptor of the 1920s and 1930s." And Face & Figure was born.