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Essays on the work & lives of the artistic populace

Gaston Lachaise was born in Paris, March 19, 1882, the youngest of four children to respected woodcarver Jean Lachaise, designer of the Eiffel Apartment, and his wife Marie Barre. Lachaise, the youngest of four children, began showing interest in art by the age of five after Allys, the third eldest, found him in his father’s studio busily cutting at a piece of wood. When the carving, a holy water font, was completed, Lachaise placed it at the foot of a Christ child effigy Jean was then working on. Soon after, Jean took Lachaise into the studio and thus began his long apprenticeship, assisting his father in projects as diverse as the aforementioned Eiffel Apartment and decoration of the apartment of the Chancellor of Spain.

Allys, Lachaise’s closest companion as a child, began attending school shortly after Lachaise began his apprenticeship leaving him feeling quite alone. When he began his formal schooling, he was a quiet, reserved, sensitive child who found adjusting to its demands a traumatizing experience. Delicate and dreamy, he preferred to spend his time at home, working with his treasured flower box, studying the local flora and fauna.

In the late 1880s, Lachaise had his first experience of America, the land he would call home during much of his adult life, when he attended a Cirque d’Hiver featuring none other than Buffalo Bill. Captivated by the spectacle of the famed legend of the American West riding a white horse, shooting egg shells tossed by Indians, he captured the experience in his 1918 sculpture Equestrienne, one of his typically stylized female figures riding atop a similarly robust and rounded steed.

Jean moved the family from Paris to Crepy-en-Valois, a small town book-ended by two gothic-style churches. Lachaise remembered these years fondly; the family having taken up residence in an early Renaissance-style castle that would do much to capture the fertile imagination of any adolescent. Lachaise, at 13, soon began fantasizing, typical of any boy his age of seeking a life of adventure and romance. He considered joining the French Navy as an officer, or of becoming an inventor, however, his father soberly recommended his son follow him in his career of wood-carving as Lachaise showed above-average ability. He quietly acquiesced and soon enrolled at the Escole de Art appliqué d’Industry, where he studied with Bernard Palissy, school director Jean Paul Aubé and master sculptor Alphone Moncel, who became a close friend to the Lachaise family. While at school, he collaborated with Aubé on a statuette, titled Les Reconnaisances, and modeled for Moncel’s figural monument to poet Alfred de Musset. The three artists continued a friendship that lasted for the remainder of Lachaise’s life.

During his third year at the Escole, Lachaise applied to the Académie Nationale des Beaux Ansond and was admitted in April 1898, when he was still sixteen years of age. There, Gabriel Jules Thomas, a former teacher of Moncel’s, took him on as a student. His family provided him a small studio on the Avenue du Maine, and the artist spent much of his time there, or in the Paris museums. While at the Beaux Arts, he took part in the Paris Salon des Artistes Francais. His Portrait of Allys Lachaise, a decidedly classical portrait of his sister was shown there in 1897, against the Salon rules as Lachaise was deemed too young. He subsequently showed at the 1901, 1902 and 1904 Salons, all the time studying the works of the past masters, attending Le Moulin Rouge, reading the works of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. It was his initial encounter with the new, post-Romantic artistic avant-garde, a movement in which he was to take an active and prominent part in the United States.

In 1901, Jean died of viral meningitis and despite the significant decrease in Lachaise’s finances as a result of his father’s death, he was able to keep his studio on the Avenue du Maine. Another important turn of events occurred at some time between 1901 and 1903, when he met Isabel Dutaud Nagle, a woman who was to become his wife and muse. Similar to Dante’s vision of Beatrice described in La Vita Nuova, Lachaise compared this occurrence of love at first sight with that of a beatific vision, later recalling that it occurred on the banks of the Seine, though accounts of the exact locale differ depending on who is telling the story. Ten years his elder, Isabel was a Boston Catholic, happily married to a wealthy businessman for over a decade and the mother of one son, Edward, one year Lachaise’s junior. Despite her status, Isabel was immediately taken with her first encounter of Lachaise, dressed dramatically in full black, his dark hair tussled, his features somber and dramatic, his clothes attractively askew. Isabel’s husband refused to allow her to take his son Edward in the separation and so they remained married until Edward would begin attending Harvard the following year. Edward greatly admired Lachaise but was to have a difficult life; after several mental breakdowns he was forcibly institutionalized and died in a mental asylum. He and Isabel were not to be married until 1913, shortly following her divorce.

Contrary to her status as Lachaise’s muse, Isabel was by no means overweight, though she was bosomy, weighing only 110 pounds and no taller than 5'2" or 5'3". Despite her outward diminutive appearance, to Lachaise she was the very symbol of self-assuredness and strength. Given his small stature, Isabel’s robustness, particularly in the female sex and in comparatively more conservative times, left quite an impression on him. The two became closely attached, spending as much time as possible with one another, sharing interests and bringing to each other a whole range of new experiences and possibilities.

While Lachaise and Isabel awaited Edward’s entry into Harvard, Lachaise returned to his studies, showed in the Salon and competed for the Rome Award. In 1903, he turned twenty-one and was drafted into service of the French Army; fulfilling a dream he had left behind eight years before to become an artist. He served no more than twelve months, saw no active duty and the experience would have been of little to no consequence had it not a) provided him with a scholarship to the City of Paris upon his leave and b) interrupted the remainder of his time with Isabel, who was to leave for American shores during his tenure in the army. Shortly after his return to civilian life, Lachaise abandoned his studies to obtain regular work in order to fund his passage to the United States. He began work as a modeler, casting jewelry, vases and art nouveau-style ornaments for artist René Lalique. Lachaise by all accounts excelled in his new vocation and it provided him with his first experience using natural forms and East-Indian inspired art as formal subjects of his designs, finding inspiration in, among other examples, the Hindu Lakshamana Temple of India. Soon, he had saved enough money to sail the Atlantic, plus sixty dollars to buy his entry into the continent.

On December 5, 1905, Lachaise set sail on the S.S. Ivernia, arriving in Boston one month later on January 13, 1906. While on the ship he met another passenger who offered him tenancy in a house on Beacon Hill. Soon thereafter, he found work for commercial sculptor John Evans, but left soon after being asked to design religious symbols; being either unable to find inspiration in the subject or having confessed to his firmly religious employers that he was simply unable to muster the religious fervor required to produce an adequate product. He later found employment working for sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson on a Civil War memorial statue, executing medals, buttons, uniforms and horse harnesses. Such detailed work was of valuable experience for a blossoming sculptor.

He and Isabel saw one another only a few times a week and meanwhile, he worked for Kitson or on his own sculptures, which, at the time, included a bust of his mother and a statuette of Isabel. In their free time, the couple attending evening concerts, cooked, listened to Jazz recordings and read and discussed the French Symbolists, Ibsen and Nietzsche. They also obtained a summer house at Robin Hood Cove in Georgetown, Maine. Soon Kitson decided to leave for New York and in 1912 Lachaise followed him to his MacDougal street studio in the Village. Isabel followed him shortly thereafter. They took up residence in a Washington Square apartment where Lachaise began work on the defining work of his career, Standing Woman. Not completed until 1927, it was to be representative of all the major works to follow (particularly his Heroic Woman (1932) and Torso (1930)); a nude female with enormous breasts, hips, and muscular, attractive thighs, an attempt to visually objectify the spirit of not only Isabel’s, but woman’s, and by extension, life. As later critic, friend and supporter Lincoln Kirstein observed of this work,

The orgasms and spasms of birth are universal symbols or the source and continuation of human life. Lachaise has not been timid in using them as symbols.

In it, critics saw a modern embodiment of the archeological theory of a primitive, pre-paternalistic "Mother Goddess" society devoted to the worship of female deity represented by a plethora of various archeological discoveries of ancient idols of a distinctly female human form. Arthur B. Davies, organizer of the seminal Armory Exhibition of 1913, the first international modernist art exhibition in the United States, was impressed by Lachaise’s work and invited him to exhibit. Lachaise soon left Kitson and devoted himself briefly to his own sculpture and then, eager to establish a new home for himself and Isabel, soon began work for sculptor Paul Manship, assisting with the sculptor’s J.D. Rockefeller bust and the J.P. Morgan memorial in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lachaise executed all of the carvings for the Morgan memorial and when Manship requested Lachaise sign the piece, he adamantly refused.

After having spent the previous five years performing neo-classical carvings for Manship, Lachaise had his first solo exhibition in 1918 at the Stephen Bourgeois Gallery. The show, made up of 29 pieces, among them statuettes, reliefs, busts, peacocks and a plaster of Standing Woman, received a mostly favorable reception from critics and audiences alike. A second one-man show was held in 1920, of which one piece, Love, was destroyed during his being evicted from his studio for having neglected to pay the rent. Among other works were small bronzes and drawings. By this time, the critical response to Lachaise demanded establishment respect and he was soon receiving recognition from other, better-known artists. The following year the American Telephone and Telegraph Building of New York commissioned him to create a frieze for one-half of an elevator core in their lobby. The wooden frieze, Dancing Children, is replete with both primitive and Eastern influence, all the rage among artists during the early part of the century. The Dancing Children and numerous other works (including his sculptures of penguins, gulls, sea lions, frogs and dolphins) betray a debt to the Hindu carvers of Indian temple friezes, noted by a number of his associates and admirers, namely poet E.E. Cummings. He would receive other notable commissions throughout his life, among them, two from the Rockefeller Center, the Cost Guard Memorial, cement plaques for the home of architect Wells Bosworth and the design of the Zodiac elevator doors. He also designed radiator caps, peacocks for the estate of James Deering and numerous other hired jobs, more for the money than the challenge of the work.

For its first issue, The Dial, an extremely influential "little magazine" of the flowering of both modernist and American literature in the 1920s (having published, among others, the work of Santanaya, Ortega y Gasset, Eliot, de Gourmant, Pound, Williams, Russell, Yeats, Cocteau, Proust, Giradoux, Wyndham Lewis, Lawrence, Croce, Burke, Dos Passos, Schnitzler, Lindsay, Crane, Sherwood Anderson, Colum, Aiken, Cezanne, Demuth, Marin, Stuart Davis, Gaugin, Van Gogh, O’Keefe, Weber, Picasso, Zadkine, Bonnard, Doraine, Klimt, Munsch and Kokoschka) reproduced Lachaise’s early bronze Dusk (1917), an eloquent relief of a floating female nude that Isabel loved so much she kept it with her until her death. The Dial’s editors, Scofield Thayer and Sibley Watson, would do much to promote Lachaise’s work over the next several years, reproducing his artwork and publishing studies of his work, including one by friend and admirer E.E. Cummings, who had, in fact, recommended Dusk as a frontispiece for the inaugural issue.

Cummings was only one of a number of admirers introduced to Lachaise’s work through the pages of the Dial and Lachaise began producing highly varied sculptures of a number of them, which he described as "A likeness with the skin removed," a procedure of which appears to have been, according to curator Gerald Nordland, to "research the skeletal and physical matter of a human head or figure so thoroughly that the psychological was revealed almost miraculously", the result of which is that each of the busts is varied in style according to the personality of the subject. Of his subjects were composer Edgar Varèse, Lincoln Kirstein, E.E. Cummings, Dial editors Thayer and Watson, critic Henry McBride, Georgia O’Keefe, Whitney curator Juliana Force, John Marin and Marianne Moore. He also sculpted a number of nudes. While he employed a number of assistants, Lachaise, a prodigiously hard worker, preferred to have absolute control, and often worked his own plaster and clay, made his own molds, pointed his own stones, performed staining of marble and silvering of bronze and oversaw the patina of completed works.

By 1922, Lachaise parted ways with the Bourgeois Gallery and began showing at the Kraushaar Gallery on Fifth Avenue, where he remained until 1926. Kraushaar treated him well, commissioning the artist to a portrait of Kraushaar’s daughter (1923’s Head of Antoinette Kraushaar) and arranging for the publication of the first monograph of the artist’s work, published by E.P. Dutton in 1924 in an edition of 400 copies (artist Charles Sheeler provided the photographs). Despite his success, Lachaise still spent an inordinate amount of time seeking patronage, and financial troubles haunted him until his death. He would eat only simple meals, never rode a taxi and never hired professional art shippers, preferring to package and handle the artworks himself, even delivering a number of them to his clients. Much of the reason for his thriftiness was due to the cost of maintaining a studio, payroll for his assistants, a hotel room, summer house and apartment, and not least the satisfaction of his wife’s appetite for material comforts, as she had grown accustomed in her previous marriage to a more extravagant lifestyle than an artist of modest success might be prepared to handle. Lachaise, despite this ongoing lack of money, prized his sense of personal integrity, refusing to compromise to the tastes and suggestions of his wealthy patrons, mostly businessmen, affording him a feeling of superiority over his more financially successful customers. And, despite Isabel’s worldly desires, it was she that provided him with the confidence to achieve success as an artist.

Lachaise’s works from the early 1930’s both continued and magnified themes first stated in Standing Woman. In Seated Figure Holding Breasts (1932) the female breasts become, in essence, wings and in Torso (1930), the entirety of which is a female torso with substantially magnified breasts and nipples. Burlesque Figure (1930) is a sculpture of a dancing woman (replete with enormous breasts, thighs and hips) whose backside has contorted around the front so that her rear rests where her right hip should be, embodies the motion of a naked burlesque dancer in almost pornographic detail, a case study in post-Freudian fetish-imagery. His Torso with Arms Raised (1935) again features a headless torso, albeit with arms, raised in Buddhist meditation above the space where the head should rest, the enormous breasts spilling from the torso, coming to rest on a square bronze bed at midriff. The Mountain sculpture, completed in bronze in 1930 (it had earlier incarnations in field-stone) uses the female form as embodiment of a natural scene, a range of peaks and valley, sensuous cascade of limbs, breasts, thighs and belly, a minute head providing the peak. Torso, of 1930, is an abstract, hourglass-like form, encompassing the back and buttocks, with no head, arms or legs and is extremely effective in its representation of the human form by omission. Perhaps the most expressive, abstract and outrageous of these late sculptures is Dynamo Mother (1933) which features a female form, her legs spread-eagled and held back by the arms, enormous buttocks, legs and arms extend into thin feet and hands, large breasts extend into large, pointed nipples with a gargantuan, engorged vulva at the sculpture’s visual center, and, as with the Mountain, topped by a comparatively miniature head. But these late works are not without their austere understatement or simplicity; witness his elegant 1934 bronze Welcoming the Peoples or the extremely moving Dans La Nuit (1935) featuring a man and woman in what appears to be a tender, intimate, post-coital embrace.

In October of the year he completed Dans La Nuit, Lachaise died suddenly after being rushed to the hospital after bleeding from a tooth distraction that had ceased to staunch. Some later speculated that leukemia was the cause; whatever the diagnosis, the doctors were unable to save him. At Lachaise’s funeral, held October 21st, Lincoln Kirstein observed Lachaise’s status as one of America’s most respected artists and lamented the fact that Lachaise never received a commission "worthy of his enormous energy and ability."

Lachaise’s final show was held earlier that year, from January to March, at the Museum of Modern Art and for it he was given almost total artistic control. In it were shown 60 sculptures and some drawings. His major works, Elevation, Floating Woman, Heroic Woman, Man and La Montagne Heroique, were all given public viewing. The press hailed him as a "powerful, highly original sculptor" while others regarded his work as having a sophomoric "predilection for huge, inflated forms." In an introduction to the catalogue for the 1919 exhibition at the Bourgeois Gallery, Lachaise had observed, "all art is confession: one can conceal nothing of one’s weakness." His confession was admiration for the strength of forms he sought to embody in his unique and often misunderstood artistic vision, in summa a vision of an archetypal living presence, made visible through, predominately, the human female form, to utilize modern artistic vocabulary to portray this life essence represented throughout the ages, from the primitives to the moderns. He once described his career as having been burdened by

the temptation to repeat forms that grow out of contemplation for great works of art of the past, like the Venus de Milo. This can make for a repression of creative freedom. The obligation is to create a new Venus with no loss of vigor.