Double take: A closer look at American bronze sculpture

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

From The Magazine ANTIQUES November 2006.

Bronze sculpture made in the United States between 1845 and 1945 was little studied and largely undervalued until it began to attract interest in the early 1980s. It now continues to gain attention from scholars, museum curators, and collectors. Broadening scholarship has brought recognition to the variety, quality, and importance of this field of American art, just as the market value of sculpture continues to rise. What is lagging behind this expanding appreciation by the public and in the marketplace is connoisseurship. This article is intended as a primer on how to look critically at bronze casts in order to judge them for quality and authenticity.

Bronze has been used to cast objects since ancient times. When skillfully employed, this simple alloy of copper and tin (sometimes with small additions of zinc or lead) will replicate a three-dimensional model with such exactness that details as subtle as the artist’s fingerprints can be reproduced. Further refinements are achieved by chasing, when the metal, which is relatively soft, is hammered and smoothed of imperfections and details are enhanced. Finally, the surface of a cast is heated and solutions of salts and acids are applied, resulting in a skin of color called the patina.

The ideal way to understand the fairly complex processes of casting is to visit a foundry. While a general grasp of the mechanics can be learned through illustrated books, video demonstrations, or step-by-step museum displays,1 it is only the ongoing practice of examining bronzes that hones the skills of connoisseurship. Since many individuals participate in the production of a bronze, even when the same foundry produces two casts of the same model over a brief time, there will be slight dissimilarities. These are usually small variations by workers who quite naturally employ individualized techniques in casting, chasing, or patination. Examples of the same model made years apart will have more conspicuous distinctions, primarily in chasing and patina. On first consideration, differences in replication may seem a conundrum, but in fact, it is these differences that make each replica a unique work of art.

Bronze casting technology arose in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Established mostly by French and Italian immigrants, foundries specializing in art casting developed simultaneously with the decline of the prevailing neoclassical style, for which marble had been the preferred medium. As early as 1849 Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) was casting small sculptures in his Brooklyn foundry with the assistance of two French workers. The preference for bronze had taken firm hold by the late 1860s when it was used to reproduce the burgeoning numbers of public sculptures, designed mostly for East Coast cities, to commemorate Civil War heroes. Compositions modeled in the more fluid and naturalistic style that predominated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were ideally suited for replication in a medium that allowed for greater complexity of design. Many sculptors-especially those who had trained abroad-alternated freely between American and European facilities in pursuit of the highest craftsmanship for the fairest price.

By the 1890s there were commercial galleries in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia showing bronze sculpture alongside paintings. While larger works such as fountains and garden sculptures were usually commissioned directly by patrons or their architects, smaller pieces were frequently sold from showrooms such as those of Tiffany and Company and the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Bronze statuettes enjoyed their greatest popularity as affordable domestic decoration at the turn of the twentieth century. For instance, between 1895 and 1918, there were 154 authorized casts of the iconic first version of The Bronco Buster by Frederic Remington (1861-1909). Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s statuettes of athletic female nudes achieved remarkable success; for example, her 12½-inches-tall version of The Vine, first cast in 1921, eventually reach­­ed an astounding 396 replicas.

A few essentials must be kept in mind when considering American bronze sculptures from this era. The only concrete means for determining the authenticity of a bronze cast is documentation of its ownership. If the provenance can be traced from the artist, gallery, or individual that first sold the cast to the present, it can be deemed a legitimate replica of the artist’s model. In the instance of multiple casts of a model, called an edition, unless a particular cast is numbered or uniquely marked, it is difficult to distinguish one cast from its very similar siblings. Because clear documentation is frequently absent, careful scrutiny of a sculpture’s physical characteristics is requisite. Necessary steps for judging the quality of a bronze sculpture include: determining how the cast was assembled from examining its seams and joints; inspecting its interior for clues about the casting method; feeling its thickness and heft to determine if it was made with the minimum amount of metal; noting how it is mounted to a base and whether anything is being intentionally hidden; scanning the surface to see how well it is chased; and knowing what to expect of original patinas on old bronzes.

A time-honored means for determining the authenticity of a bronze cast is to measure it for comparison with a known lifetime cast from the edition. If one or more dimensions are smaller in the suspect work, it may indicate it is a surmoulage, or “recast”-that is, a bronze made from a mold taken from another bronze. Because bronze shrinks slightly as it hardens, a surmoulage is smaller than the bronze from which its mold was made. The rule of thumb is that shrinkage in a surmoulage is about three-sixteenths of an inch (.476 centimeters) per foot in every dimension. While in theory taking measurements is a useful means to establish a comparison, it is ultimately an imprecise tool owing to the employment of various measuring techniques, the changeable height of an integrally cast self-base (which can be adjusted in the finishing stages), and differing production techniques, particularly when there is more than one foundry in­volved. Thus measurements can never be the sole means for determining the legitimacy of a cast.

Artists who were closely in­volved in the casting process believed in the individuality of the single cast within an edition. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) varied compositional details slightly, even in his larger-edition, commercial, bronzes. Frederic Remington constantly adjusted details from one cast to the next, repositioning limbs and remodeling clothing and animal hides to vary textures. Paul Wayland Bartlett individualized his bronzes by using a wide variety of finishes and colors. Patinas on his casts from the same edition can range from conventional black, brown, and green to innovative hues of red, yellow, gold, or blue. Frishmuth, on the other hand, opted for a more consistent patina, a soft-toned color that became the eponymous Frishmuth green.

Left: Bear Cub Grooming, by Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925), modeled 1887; this cast c. 1900. Signed and dated “Paul W. Bartlett/1887” on the left of the self-base, and stamped “Tiffany & Co.” on the left back of the self-base. Bronze; height 9 ½, width 9 5⁄8, depth 10 5⁄8 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, purchase, Friends of the American Wing Fund.

Right: Bear Cub Grooming, by Bartlett, modeled 1887; this authorized posthumous cast 1932(?). Signed and dated “Paul W. Bartlett/1887” on the left of the self-base, and inscribed “© SB 19[32?]/Pour Col Crasto/Fonb [sic]/Antoine” on the back of the self-base. Bronze; height 9 3⁄8, width 9, depth 10 ¼ inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Mrs. Armistead Peter III.

With works sited outdoors, natural oxidation of the metal occurs from exposure to weather and pollutants. Smaller objects often endure losses from overcleaning or from chemical reactions to the acids in our hands, which can remove delicate layers of color and alter surface quality. Consequently, a bronze may retain only partial areas of its original color, but depending on the extent of wear, the effects can be aesthetically pleasing. Also, new patinas are sometimes applied to outdoor sculpture that has been defaced by weathering or to small sculptures that have been stripped down to the raw metal by overcleaning. In such instances, the best recourse is often to have the work conserved professionally to replicate the original color as closely as possible.

Signatures and foundry marks often give telling evidence of authenticity, and learning how they should look is an important skill. Some artists adopted special marks: for instance, Edward Kemeys (1843-1907) used the symbol of a wolf’s head near his signature, and Mahonri Mackintosh Young (1877-1957) put his thumb print on many models. Frishmuth and Paul Manship (1885-1966) were stringently consistent about the appearance of their signatures. As to foundry marks, companies that were in business over long periods sometimes varied their inscriptions, but these changes were usually minor. Foundry marks are nearly always inscribed with elegant simplicity and are as difficult to fake as signatures.

 Assessing bronzes that were cast without the involvement of the artist is particularly demanding, and posthumous, or estate, casting is further complicated by ethical concerns. In the decades following the turn of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for family members of deceased sculptors to continue making bronzes from original models. Often the sculptor’s founder of choice-even the same foundry artisans-were employed. Augusta Saint-Gaudens (1848-1926) supervised the casting of many of her late husband’s sculptures and always imposed strict control over their quality. Some models that were never cast during his life were replicated in editions under Augusta’s auspices, such as the Victory statuette, modeled in 1902, that was excerpted from the Sherman Monument (1892-1903) in New York City, or reductions after the Standing Lincoln (1834-1887) statue in Chicago. Suzanne Bartlett (1861-1954), herself an accomplished fondeur, produced many bronzes in her husband’s Paris foundry following his early death. Eva Caten Remington’s (1859-1918) casting of her husband’s work is well known and has been meticulously documented in recent scholarship.2

Estate casting continues to the present for works by sculptors including Alexander Phimister Proctor, Solon Hannibal Borglum, Gaston Lachaise, and Elie Nadelman. Sculptors’ foundations and estates that cast bronzes posthumously and wish to make the practice transparent, mark these bronzes to indicate the edition numbers, when they were cast, and who made them. Some fake casts are executed with sufficient skill that, at least on first examination, they can appear to be genuine. However, in many more instances the attempts are so crude that they immediately raise suspicion in anyone familiar with either a particular artist’s oeuvre or with bronze casting in general.

It might seem daunting at the outset, but learning to recognize the distinctions between a good bronze and a spurious one and to discern subtle differences between casts in an edition can be done with confidence. It is particularly helpful when two casts of the same model can be studied in tandem so that their similarities and differences can be judged point to point,3 an opportunity that is presented in the three pairings in this article: Bartlett’s Bear Cub Grooming demonstrates variations between a lifetime sand cast (Fig. 3) and a posthumous lost-wax cast (Fig. 4); Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s His First Journey, between a lifetime cast with a documented provenance (Fig. 5) and a recent surmoulage (Fig. 6); and Frishmuth’s Play Days, between a lifetime cast (Fig. 1) and a spurious one (Fig. 2).

Bear Cub Grooming is a reduced figure excerpted from Bartlett’s life-sized three-figure bronze group entitled Bohemian Bear Tamer, modeled 1885-1887 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The year Bartlett completed this composition of a male figure and two cubs, he also made statuettes of the bear tamer with only the standing cub.4 At some point, the seated bear scratching his ear was also cast as a separate statuette, although the artist’s papers do not reveal when. The examples of Bear Cub Grooming in Figures 3 and 4 present two legitimate bronzes that were made by different methods by different foundries at different times. The first (Fig. 3) is a sand cast recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has a documented provenance going back to 1977, when a private collector purchased it at the sale of the Medallic Art Collection of American Bronzes, a landmark auction of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century American sculpture.5 In addition to the artist’s signature and the modeling date of 1887, both inscribed on the self-base, the bronze is stamped “Tiffany & Co.”6 The second example (Fig. 4) is a lost-wax cast at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where it has been since 1958, the gift of Bartlett’s stepdaughter Mrs. Armistead Peter III (nee Caroline Ogden-Jones; 1894-1965). In addition to a signature and date virtually identical to those on the Metropolitan’s cast, the High Museum’s is also marked “© SB 19[32?]/Pour/Col Crasto/Fonb [sic]/Antoine,” which indicates it was made for a Colonel Crasto and that its casting was overseen by the artist’s widow, Suzanne.7 Antoine was presumably an artisan who worked in the foundry.

While both bronzes are legitimate casts, they have subtle but significant differences, beginning with their coloring. The Metropolitan’s example has a thinly applied medium brown patina, some of which has been worn by handling, revealing the lighter-colored bronze underneath. As a result, the modeling in some of the worn areas appears more pronounced because the contrasting lights and darks create a greater sense of depth. The High Museum bronze, recently cleaned of surface dirt, has very little wear, so its original and darker brown-black patina is nearly intact. It has a slightly heavier, less translucent surface consistent with other posthumous casts of Bartlett’s models, for instance the Seated Female Torso, modeled about 1895, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., also a 1958 gift of Mrs. Armistead Peter.

The most interesting contrasts between these two bronzes are found in the details. While these are subtle distinctions, they can nevertheless be objectified. Generally, sand casting reproduces surfaces with slightly less refinement, while lost-wax casting can reproduce surface variations as delicate as fingerprints. This particular comparison, however, turns the tables on expectations because the Metropolitan’s sand cast, which was probably made around the turn of the twentieth century, has more definition than the High Museum example. The High’s bronze seems to have been made from a slightly worn plaster and therefore lacks some of the crispness ordinarily expected of a lost-wax cast. A plaster positive mold can be used to produce only two or three negative (hollow) molds before losing its freshness. If a plaster has been overused, softer elements can be reinforced or enhanced by working the wax cast made from the plaster, but unless the artisan is able to refer to a fresh duplicate plaster or a crisply defined bronze cast, it is impossible to reproduce the artist’s original intent exactly.

A comparison of the right rear feet illustrates both exaggeration and softness in the paws and claws in the lost-wax cast (see Fig. 4c): the paws are delineated less naturally and the nails have lost the appropriate shape and sharpness seen in the sand cast (Fig. 3c). The head and ears of the sand cast are also more naturalistic, with actively modeled fur (Fig. 3a), while the lost-wax version reveals fewer separations in the tufts of the coat as well as areas that were reworked, and in some cases, slightly exaggerated (Fig. 4a). Other distinctions are found in the facial features. The amusing stuporous gaze of the Metropolitan’s bear is absent in the High’s animal because of differences in the handling of the pupils, lids, and fur around the eyes. The characteristic upturn of the ursine nose has been altered slightly downward in the High’s cast, and the indentations between and beneath the nostrils as well as under the chin were made deeper (see Figs. 3b and 4b). Finally, in the lost-wax bronze there is the suggestion of a “smile,” which is the result of cutting into the wax.

One of Vonnoh’s earliest and most popular works, His First Journey, was made in an edition of approximately thirty-nine bronzes (see Figs. 5 and 6). The two casts illustrated vary widely in quality, and it becomes rapidly apparent that the one in Figure 6 was made in the recent past and is fraudulent. The example in Figure 5 sets a standard of excellence and has a clear provenance, as it was purchased directly from Vonnoh by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906. It is marked “Roman Bronze Works N.Y.- ” and “No. X.,” its cast number within the edition. The other example is a lost-wax bronze inscribed “Cast by Griffoul Newark N J.” In addition, the edge of the base bears the ghost of another inscription reading “roman bron.” This partly obliterated second foundry mark is a strong indication that this is either a surmoulage8 or a cast made posthumously from a plaster. The “Griffoul” inscription seems intended to imply that the cast is from the period, since the foundry was in operation only until 1918,9 but the interior of the cast reveals very bright, new-looking metal with none of the mellowing from decades of aging found inside the Metropolitan Museum’s example.

The sculptor typically signed her work “Bessie Potter Vonnoh”10 in script or block letters and included the date of the model, as seen on the Metropolitan Museum’s cast (Fig. 5c); but on the Griffoul-marked example the date is omitted (Fig. 6c), possibly because the caster did not know it.11 A small amount of clay or wax on which the artist’s signature was clumsily reproduced appears to have been applied to the bronze or plaster used as the model.

The artist’s deft manipulation and tool­­­­­ing in the original clay model created impressionistic wisps of hair that are beautifully reproduced in the Roman Bronze Works cast (see Fig. 5a), while the most casual examination of the Griffoul-marked version reveals indiscriminately applied globs of material intended to approximate curls (Fig. 6a). The Roman Bronze example has only a hint of eyebrows, while the other has an incised line above the right eye, and the left brow appears to have been applied and smeared. Further, the diminutive nose and upper lip were remodeled, resulting in oddly puffy features.

Additionally telling are disparities in the right feet. The shaping of the toes in the lifetime bronze is minimal: the four tiniest digits are barely suggested, while the big toe is shown flexed and pushing against the blanket (Fig. 5b). The lesser cast shows rough tooling along the outside of the foot, and the lower area is crudely incised to indicate separation (Fig. 6b).

Another notable disparity is the amount of metal used in making these sculptures. The Roman Bronze Works example weighs just over three pounds, while the hefty Griffoul-marked example weighs nearly five pounds. In general, the lighter the cast, the better the cast, for a thin-walled bronze indicates that the wax was applied to the inside of the negative mold with expertise and finesse.

Frishmuth modeled a small version of Play Days in 1925, following the success of her 52 ¾-inches-tall fountain of the same title made the preceding year.12 The juxtaposition of a fine lifetime Gorham cast (Fig. 1) with a surmoulage (Fig. 2) offers the readily visible distinctions between them. The lifetime cast has a patina of richly modulated green over brown with traces of lighter Frishmuth green. Patinas found on fake examples of Play Days are, like the one in Figure 2, often brushily applied approximations of Frishmuth’s signature color, and usually much of the top layer is wiped down to suggest age. Recasts of this and other models by Frishmuth have been seen with enough frequency that their earmarks are now recognized. Whoever is producing them seems to have had success in passing them off to the less sophisticated sector of the market.

The artist’s signature on some recasts of Play Days, including the one illustrated in Figure 2, have a misplaced period after the “F” in “Frishmuth” instead of after the middle initial “W.” Also, the correct Gorham Q serial for Play Days is “QFED,” but on the surmoulage it is a crisply inscribed “QFHL.” As the four-letter Q serial was often imprecisely stamped on lifetime casts, it seems likely that the manufacturer of the fake referred to a poorly die-stamped example and misread the third and fourth letters.

The small Play Days is also a fountain, and water arcs daintily from the four frogs’ mouths. The Gorham cast has small semicircular stemlike protrusions that alternate with the frogs (see Fig. 8), but in the surmoulage these were reinterpreted as heads of fish, their mouths providing additional openings for water (see Fig. 9). In addition, eight holes were drilled around the upper edge of the base, making a total of sixteen points of egress. A comparison of the undersides of the bases reveals very different means for operating the fountain (Fig. 7). The Gorham cast has four tiny copper leads from the central pipe that continue through the base and out of the frogs’ mouths. The surmoulage was cast from a bronze that had the protruding copper pipes in place, which resulted in an amusingly awkward continuation of the frogs’ mouths that makes them appear to be whistling (see Fig. 9). The four tiny pipes themselves were replaced by an enclosed cavity through which water is forced out of the mouths of the four frogs, the four fish, and the eight extra openings, producing an effect much like a showerhead. A bronze plate covers the bottom of the base and is tapped with a hole for mounting to a larger plumbing attachment (see Fig. 7, right).

Another informative comparison is found in the handling of the hair. At first glance the spurious cast might appear to have greater detail because of its strongly ridged texture (see Fig. 2), but it is coarse by comparison with the nuanced modeling of the Gorham bronze (see Fig. 1). In the copy the topknot has been heightened, the tendrils in front of the left ear no longer look like corkscrew curls, and the rest of the hair looks like it has been raked rather than deftly modeled. In the authentic cast, the brows are modeled as subtle ridges, whereas the surface of the surmoulage has simply been incised.

Finally, the spurious cast of Play Days has a remodeled left hand that is positioned differently from the one on the Gorham cast. On the latter it is bent backward at the wrist with the thumb and fingers tensed, a gesture meant to exhibit surprise, rather than the flatter, more upright position on the fake. Such details reinforce our understanding of the artist’s narrative intent-and how easily it can be subverted by changes that occur during the production of a fake.

 

Janis Conner and Thayer Tolles are coauthors with Leah Lehmbeck of Captured Motion: The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, to be published by Hohmann Holdings in November 2006.

We are grateful to the following for generously pro­viding information and assistance for this article: Ju­­lie Aronson, Cincinnati Art Museum; Joseph Coscia Jr., Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jonathan Frembling, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; Dr. Michael L. Nieland of Pittsburgh; Mary-Kate O’Hare, Newark Museum; Mark Ostrander, Conner • Rosenkranz; Thomas P. Somma, University of Mary Washington Galleries, Fredericksburg, Virginia; Sylvia Yount, High Museum of Art; and Janet Zapata. 

1 The two primary processes for making bronzes are sand casting and lost-wax casting. For descriptions of these methods, see Malvina Hoffman, Sculpture Inside and Out (W. W. Norton, New York, 1939), pp. 289-305; and Michael Edward Shapiro, Bronze Casting and American Sculpture, 1850-1900 (University of Delaware Press, Newark, and Associated University Presses, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1985), pp. 16-24, 108-114.  A brief video of the lost-wax process is available on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Web site: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/sculpture/bayes/video_bronze (accessed July 14, 2006).

2 See Michael D. Greenbaum, Icons of the West: Frederic Remington’s Sculpture (Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York, 1996).

3 See, for instance, Janis Conner, “Cast Comparisons,” in Conner et al., Captured Motion: The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (forthcoming, Hohmann Holdings, New York, November 2006); or David B. Dearinger and Thayer Tolles, “Side by Side: American Sculpture,” American Art Review, vol. 15 (January-February 2003), pp. 106-113.

4 In 1889 the Paris foundry Siot et Perzinka bought the exclusive rights for a ten-year period to cast and sell the large group with the option to make and sell reductions and enlargements. See Élisabeth Lebon, Dictionnaire des fondeurs de bronze d’art: France, 1890-1950 (Marjon Editions, Perth, Australia, 2003), p. 233. According to Thomas P. Somma, Paul Wayland Bartlett’s papers at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., include orders filled between 1888 and 1894 for thirteen 27-inch reductions of the bear tamer and standing bear (an example is in the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York); and fourteen 17-inch reductions were made during the same time period (an example is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.).

5 The Medallic Art Collection of American Bronzes, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, September 29, 1977, Lot 89.

6 Marks for Tiffany and Company and Theodore B. Starr are found on both European and American bronzes that date from the mid-1890s to the 1910s. These companies entered into agreements with artists (or with foundries that owned the rights to models) to sell their bronzes, which Tiffany or Starr stamped with their names. Usually these are the only marks aside from a signature, but occasionally foundries placed their marks on these bronzes as well.

7 Suzanne Bartlett oversaw casting of her husband’s models between about 1926 and about 1929 (although the High Museum’s Bear Cub Grooming was presumably made later as a special request). Some were made to preserve models not cast during his lifetime; others were produced to sell for funding to preserve the Paris studio, an effort that ultimately failed. Authors’ conversations with Thomas P. Somma, February 6, and July 24, 2006. The one documented lifetime example was cast by the Gruet foundry in Paris and was donated to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in 1923.

8 In a work this small the rule-of-thumb difference of approximately three-sixteenths inch loss per foot for a surmoulage is difficult to measure with accuracy.

9 Active from 1910, Griffoul produced small bronzes for Vonnoh and such contemporaries as Bartlett and Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (1878-1942). The quality of its casts is generally very good. See Julie Alane Aronson, Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955) and Small Bronze Sculpture in America (Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, 1995, and UMI, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1996), p. 225.

10 Before her marriage to the painter Robert W. Vonnoh (1858-1933) in 1899, the sculptor most often signed her works “Bessie O[nahotema]. Potter.”

11 The lack of a date does not alone prove the cast is spurious. We know of at least one legitimate cast of this model without an inscribed date.

12 Of the edition of ninety-nine lifetime bronzes, ninety-three were cast by Gorham and six by the Roman Bronze Works. See Conner et al., Captured Motion, p. 249.