Friday, August 3, 2012

Bessie Potter Vonnoh

Collaboration by Lauren Mills, Chris Saper, and Sarah Bishop
The Art of the Portrait Journal
Issue No. 53, 4th Quarter 2011

In Arcadia
bronze on marble base
12 7/8 x 28 3/4 x 6 5/8"
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Known as “the grand dame of American sculptors,” Bessie Potter Vonnoh is credited with pioneering the genre of small, elegant bronze sculpture depicting women and children in everyday domestic life. Potter’s artistic direction was a significant departure from the world of sculpture at the time …a world dominated by male sculptors who created large scale public works often described as avant- garde.

Her work was not without its critics, and was at times marginalized by both her gender and choice of subject matter:  

“The work of Bessie Potter…is of the first order of merit, and yet of such a nature as to be in place only in the home. It is too delicate to relate to the private phases and emotions of the home life to appear beautiful anywhere outside the home.”
--Theodore Dreiser, "Frank Edwin Elwell, Sculptor,"
New York Times,
4 December 1898

Despite the New York Times’ criticism, Potter’s work was widely and enthusiastically received. Many critics applauded not only her sensitive artistic ability, but also her fearless rendering of the intimate domestic scenes they felt couldn’t be handled as well by men. Potter’s success broke ground for many women sculptors who were hesitant to pursue such a path, fearing they would be considered inferior. Potter’s body of work is notable for her impressionistic use of flowing, classic garments – women whose dress more resembled that of Isadora Duncan than the rigid, confining styles of her time.
Potter’s resounding success grew out of a rather inauspicious start: crippled by a mysterious disease (in retrospect, most likely polio) at age two, Bessie spent the next eight years in leg casts. Her physical and creative outlets were limited to what she could do with her hands. Though her widowed mother struggled financially, she always managed to provide Bessie with an ample supply of clay. Potter recovered from her illness at the age of ten, yet remained a diminutive 4’8” in height. 

By the age of fourteen, Potter’s passion and already considerable skill in sculpting led her to study at the Art Institute of Chicago under sculptor Loredo Taft, paying tuition by working as his assistant on Saturdays.  In 1893, Taft was facing stringent deadlines in preparing his sculptures for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Taft found all the male sculptors of the time to be hired out; he was desperate for help and sought permission to hire female assistants – he was  told he could hire anyone, "Even white rabbits," if it would mean he'd get the work done on time. Taft hired eight women sculptors to assist him, dubbing them the "White Rabbits."  

While completing her work as a “White Rabbit,” Bessie Potter was commissioned to sculpt a separate piece, the Personification of Art for the Illinois State Building. By 1903 she had participated in five major exhibitions. During her career, Potter Vonnoh created almost two hundred works (not counting duplicates and variations), including terracotta statuettes, portrait busts, plasters, marbles, and noteworthy public commissions, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bird Fountain at Oyster Bay and the Frances Hodgson Burnett Fountain in Central Park.

Potter married painter Robert Vonnoh in 1899. The couple traveled widely and immersed in an artistic life until Robert Vonnoh’s death in 1933. Bessie Potter Vonnoh died in 1955 at the age 82.
At the heart of the Conservatory Garden's English garden, deep within Central Park, is Bessie's "Burnett Fountain." The fountain is a tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, the famed children's author of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. The statue has been the center of the storytelling area of Central Park since 1936, which was created to honor Burnett's death in 1924.


  1. I now have a mission next time I am in Central Park! Wonderful article.

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