Wild at heart: Rediscovering the sculpture of Anna Hyatt Huntington

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

Cranes Rising by Hun­tington, 1934. Bronze; height 45, width 16, depth 22 inches. Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Colum­bia University in the City of New York, gift of the artist; photo­graph by Mark Ostrander, courte­sy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wal­lach Art Gallery.

The energy of some art only be­comes apparent with the passage of time. Anna Hyatt Huntington made sculpture that was extremely popu­lar in the early twentieth century, only superficially understood, and then almost completely forgotten. Her reputation suffered from ordinary problems: she was American, a woman, and her style was realistic. It also suffered from an unusual problem: too much success.

In fairy tales a courageous heroine meets a prince and lives happily ever after. Anna did marry a prince of sorts and did live happily, but her sculpture was less fortu­nate-until recently. A team of Columbia University and Barnard College students has been discovering sculptures, archives, and photographs that reveal how much more audacious and original her career and work were than anyone had sus­pected.  So much has changed in the past century that we can at last see past the classical references, the armor, and the minor genre of animal sculpture, to the wild spirit of Anna Hyatt Huntington. 

She was formed by her family more than by a teacher or a studio. Born Anna Vaughn Hyatt, she learned about nature from her father, Alpheus Hyatt, a profes­sor of paleontology and zoology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He took her to the zoo, where she studied at his side. During seaside summers at Annisquam, north of  Boston, he ran an informal course for his students out of his home. Anna received very little formal education but her mind was sharpened by what she absorbed from her father’s teaching. She learned about art from her grandmothers, Elizabeth Randolph King Hyatt and Lydia Reynolds Beebe, and from her mother, Audella Beebe Hyatt. Toward the end of her seventy-year career, Anna wrote with love and gratitude that her grandmothers and mother had received “as good an art training as young women were allowed to have in their day. Both of my parents did all that lay within their limited means to encourage my art studies.”1

Always larger than life, Anna took the art world by surprise. At ease with all creatures, no matter how large, she launched her career with animal subjects. Her first sales were made around the turn of the century through the Boston firm of Shreve, Crump and Low, which specialized in jewelry and fine metalwork. After her father died in 1902, she relocated to New York City, which, despite long trips and sojourns in country houses, became her base. Only in New York could she have found so many skilled foundries to produce sale­able work, so many cultural institutions willing to take a chance on a woman, and so many other women art­ists and critics to believe in her aspirations.

From Shreve, Crump and Low, Anna shifted production and sales of her small bronze works to the New York firm of Gorham and Company. In 1902 and 1903 the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sci­ences-now the Brooklyn Museum- com­missioned a series of small animal sculptures from her, and in 1906 the Metropol­itan Mu­seum of Art added its institutional momentum to Anna’s career when it bought her tiny seven-and-a-quarter-inch Winter Noon, Two Horses (c. 1903) and her Tigers Watching (c. 1906). In 1912 the Met acquired Goats Fighting (Fig. 10).  

Throughout Anna’s career, she worked on every scale, from the monument to the medal. Monuments demanded aesthetic as well as technical prowess, but their surface could easily become perfunctory. Work on a small scale kept her attentive to the minute play of muscle under skin, and to the tactile pleasures of pieces that could be handled. They also sometimes revealed a certain sense of humor. Head-to-head combat between goats turned into bookends, with the goats butting their heads against the volumes; a jaguar ripping meat with his jaws became a letter opener in which the mail was the beast’s next course (Fig. 7). While her work on a large scale was mag­nificent, many of her most appealing early pieces are less than two feet high or wide.

Paris had always posed the ultimate challenge for the American artist, a challenge Anna Vaughn Hyatt met in 1910 when she stunned the French at the Salon with her version of their most sacred subject, Joan of Arc. Hers was life-size, armored, and equestrian. The jury assumed that no wom­an could have accomplished such a project, but Anna had anticipated this problem, and had kept her studio off-limits to all artists, so that no one could question whether the sculpture was the work of her hands. The jury grudgingly awarded her an honorable mention. It was an impressive accolade for a young American woman.

Back in New York City, Anna’s Joan made history. It had been spotted at the Paris Salon by J. Sanford Saltus, who happened to have Joan of Arc on his mind. He became the leader of a Joan of Arc monument committee, founded to promote Franco-American friendship, and lent new urgency when World War I broke out. In 1915 a bronze version of Anna’s Joan was installed in Riverside Park at Ninety-third Street (Figs. 3, 4). It was the first public monument in New York to a real woman (as opposed to an allegorical figure, like Liberty). It was also the first public monument in the city by a woman, hardly a coincidence.

Encased in metal, sword raised high, astride a battle steed, the Riverside Joan is a super-hero, even among Joans. But for the second time, Anna’s talent and originality raised the suspicion that a woman could not have accomplished a feat of this magnitude without help. When the Riverside Joan was installed, its armor became the main talking point for the monu­ment committee and for critics. They dwelt on how much influence Bashford Dean, legendary first arms and armor curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a figure of great prominence in New York, had had on its design. Anna herself did not mind the association with the powerful Dean, but new research proves that he contributed almost nothing to the sculpture, whose armor had hardly changed from her earlier version of 1910. (It was easy to forget what the 1910 armor had looked like because that sculpture seems to have been lost, and its photograph rarely published.)

The armor was indeed essential to Anna’s Joan. Complete with helmet, it encases her from head to toe, rendering her genderless and invulnerable, both idealizing and denying an individual female body. The armor was also a reminder of the art of sculpture, because armor is itself a kind of sculpture, one that creates artificial bodies.

Joan was, of course, Anna’s alter-ego. The subject could not have been a more heroic woman: visionary, military leader, king-maker, martyr. As scholars have noted, Joan of Arc was a symbol for both the most conservative ideas about women’s potential, and also the most radical. Catholic French nationalists claimed her as their symbol, and so did suffragettes. Visually, Joan of Arc offered just about the only viable excuse for a woman to wear armor. Anna seized on that excuse. For a charity ball in 1917, she donned Joan’s armor, rode a white horse, posed in front of an unfurled American flag, and dazzled the crowd.2

Twelve years after she first displayed her Joan at the Paris Salon, Anna shed the armor. In 1922 she made the first, and most beautiful, of several Dianas. It was life-size, gleaming bronze, and nude (Fig. 1). For a sculptor of animals, Diana, goddess of animals, was an obvious choice. And yet Diana is not just the goddess of animals, she is the goddess of wild beasts, and of the hunt. Anna said she picked the subject of Diana, like the subject of Joan, because she wanted to push herself to do a different version of a subject “hackneyed by time,” and “a more difficult task” than her previous “animal subjects.”3 What did different mean to her? Hers is not a striding classical Diana looking over her shoulder (the fourth century bc style Diana Chasseresse, or Diana of Versailles), not a majestic seated Renaissance Diana with ornamental stags (the Anet Diana, once attributed to Gougon), not an elegant floating eighteenth-century Diana (Houdon), not a Gilded Age Diana delicately poised on one foot (Saint-Gaudens), but a Diana for the 1920s, with a cropped bob of curls and a whippet gamboling at her feet, a sinuous Diana caught in the act of shooting her bow toward the sky. The poet Maxwell Anderson described it as “burnished air.”

It was a commemorative medal rather than a life-size work that brought Anna Vaughn Hyatt together with Archer Milton Huntington in 1921. Archer, the erudite founder of countless museums, societies, and academies, had to cope with the ad­vantages and the drawbacks of inheriting a fortune from an unusual woman. He was born to his mother Arabella while she was probably the mistress of Collis Potter Huntington, a self-made railroad magnate. When Collis later married Arabella, he officially adopted Archer, but he left his money to Arabella and to a nephew, not to Archer.4 Arabella adored Archer, raised him, and supported everything he did. Archer’s dubious parentage and showy wealth could not have been more different from Anna’s descent on both sides from sturdy English families who had settled New England in the seventeenth century, a heritage of which she was proud.

Nor did Anna’s and Archer’s personalities seem alike. Archer expressed himself indirectly through patronage and scholarship, whereas Anna lived life creatively. Independent and remarkably strong, she worked tirelessly. This was a woman who made friends with a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, wielded a ton of clay for her biggest sculptures, and at an advanced age was still walking four deerhounds on the leash. No subject was too fierce or too noble, no scale too daunting. Awards, commissions, prizes, and critical acclaim had already come her way. By 1912 she was reported to be among the most highly paid professional women in the United States, earning more than $50,000 a year. Actually, it wasn’t quite $50,000, she pointed out when interviewed much later, but why spoil a good story?

What Anna and Archer shared-besides the same birthday and their exceptional height-was a love of art. When they met over his commission of the William Dean Howells Medal (Fig. 8), to be awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Let­ters (an Archer cause), they spent an evening dreaming of a grand sculptural program for his Hispanic Society of America. “I can’t begin to tell you,” she wrote him the next day,”how wildly enthusiastic I am to begin work, especially since seeing you and having your appreciative approval of the small drawings.”5 He panicked, backed off, couldn’t resist, commissioned another medal in late 1922, and then, in 1923-on March 10, their shared birthday-they were married. The wedding took place in her studio, and he described her in a telegram to his mother as “Ana [sic] Hyatt, sculptress.”6

El Cid Campeador by Huntington, 1925-1927. Bronze; height 16 feet 7 ½ inch­es, length 10 feet 2 ½ inches. His­panic Society of America, New York; photograph by the Media Center for Art History, Depart­ment of Art History and Archae­ology, Columbia University, in collaboration with the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery. 

The artist who had become Anna Hyatt Hunting­ton developed into one of the most munificent twentieth-century patrons of sculpture. Now close to fifty years of age, she began to acquire and donate figurative American sculpture. With Archer, she founded Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, a gigantic outdoor sculpture park, the first of its kind and the best collection in America of work by artists such as Harriet Frishmuth, Carl Paul Jennewein, Paul Manship, and Carl Milles. If history has not remem­bered her contribution, it is only because the realistic art Anna and Archer favored was consigned to oblivion by the triumph of modernism.

It is also impossible to deny that unlimited wealth hurt the quality of Anna’s later work. In the last phase of her early career, during the 1920s, she executed the splendid Hispanic Society program she and Archer had imagined: her magnificent equestrian El Cid is surrounded by four life-size male figures and an array of  life-size animals (see Fig. 6). Then tuberculosis struck, and she barely worked for almost a decade. Afterwards, her sculp­ture was never the same. What had been vital became grandiloquent. She was no longer obliged to deal with criticism, a market, or decisions about what to keep and cast. She could pay for countless bronzes, on any scale, and did so, into her early nineties. If many of them are inferior to those she had made before about 1936, we should remember that when she recovered from tuberculosis she was in her sixties. Not many artists do great work for seven decades.

Anna has been too often confined in the cate­gory of animal sculptor, but even there her work strains against the limits of its category. Her animals prowl, attack, and gnaw. Their energy also ex­presses itself in the struggle against the solidity and resistance of their materials. One jaguar’s lithe form slithers up and over an inchoate mound of stone; another tears its meat as if it were ripping the metal out of its base. When goats butt horns, they form a molten arc of jagged bronze (see Fig. 10). In 1929, describing the excellence, spirit, and vis­ceral reaction to her work, a critic wrote: “Anna Hyatt Huntington displays some of her living ani­mals which are surpassed only by the great Helle­nistic masters of animal life. Every beast seems to have waited for this American lady to give it soul.”7

Anna also fashioned an exceptional persona for a woman of her time. In presenting herself to the portrait painter, photographer, or film-maker, she invariably connected herself to her work. Her 1915 portrait by Marion Boyd Allen (Fig. 2) shows her dressed in an austere blouse and skirt, hair pulled simply back, and posing next to a lion bas-relief with both hands wrapped around an unfinished clay Joan of Arc. Her grip is gentle though she holds a sculptor’s tool. The lion looks uncannily like an extension of her. Similarly, in a photographic portrait by the Misses Selby, she stands with one hand on her hip and holds a tool in the other. She is wrapped in a work apron, while a horse in the background seems to rise in a cloud out of her brain. Judging by the number of copies she stored in her archive, her favorite image of herself was a still from a 1936 film about stone carving, in which she goes head to head with a jaguar, her tool aimed at its face.

In anticipation of the one hundredth anniver­sary of the Riverside Joan of Arc’s installation, Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Gallery is presenting an exhibition of Anna’s work (January 22 to March 15). The exhibition reveals her early career through small sculptures, including a rediscovered trove from the Hispanic Society of America. In the spirit of Anna’s fascination with the new media of her day, the exhibition experi­ments with digital methods for bringing public art inside a gallery. High-resolution rotational pho­tography, projected on the same scale as the ac­tual monument, allows visitors to feel as if they can fly around Joan of Arc, swooping in at will on details. In addition, a web catalogue connects the exhibition to permanently installed examples of her sculpture all over New York, bringing back to light the institutional network that made the city a cultural capital. After the exhibition ends, the website will continue to serve as a permanent re­source for the study and enjoyment of Anna’s work and the public art of New York City.    

  1 Undated and unpaginated typescript, box 6, Anna Hyatt Hunting­ton Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries, Syracuse, NewYork.  2 “The Festival of Fools,” New York Times, February 27, 1917, p. 10.  This was discovered by Morgan Alba­hary and Sonia Coman, participants in the Columbia University Anna Hyatt Huntington exhibition project.  3 Unpaginated typescript marked “C,” before 1932, box 6, Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.  4 To com­plicate Archer’s sense of himself still further, his mother Arabella and her co-heir, his cousin Henry, married one another.  5 Anna Vaughn Hyatt to Archer Milton Huntington, September 11, 1921, box 37, Anna Hyatt Huntington Papers.  6 Handwritten note and telegram, March 10, 1923, ibid.  7 Joseph Pijoan, “The Exposition of Contemporary Sculpture at San Francisco,” Parnassus, vol. 1, no. 5 (May 1929), p. 11.

ANNE HIGONNET is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Art History, Barnard College, Columbia University.