Frederick MacMonnies, born in Brooklyn, New York started his career by working as a studio hand for Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). Soon afterwards, MacMonnies enrolled in modeling classes at the Cooper Union and drawing classes at the National Academy of Design. In 1884 MacMonnies moved to Paris and spent time at the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. Unfortunately, a cholera epidemic broke out in Paris and forced him to leave. Subsequently, MacMonnies traveled to Germany and then back to the United States, where he spent another year working with Saint-Gaudens before returning to Paris to begin a two-year tenure at the École des Beaux-Arts. At this time MacMonnies also worked in the studios of Jean Falguière and Antonin Mercié.
MacMonnies’s first artistic achievement which helped to establish his reputation was his plaster model of Diana, which he exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1889. MacMonnies was then commissioned internationally to create many sculptures and, although he chose to live in Paris, many of his public and private sculptural commissions were in the United States.
In 1893 MacMonnies received a fifty thousand-dollar commission for the World's Fair Exposition in Chicago. The work he created for this commission titled The Barge of State, a thirty-eight figure extravaganza, made him internationally famous.
Frederick MacMonnies was one of the first American sculptors to recognize the potential market of the middle class. He created a system, therefore, where he copyrighted his works and then contracted with foundries to produce some of his figures in multiple sizes.
The following is excerpted from American Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born Before 1865, pp. 436-439:
No American sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection has received more intense public scrutiny than MacMonnies’s Bacchante and Infant Faun. MacMonnies modeled the work in 1893-94, following the triumphant reception of his Columbian Fountain at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He chose as his subject a dancing female figure whose appearance had been forming in his imagination:
“I returned to Europe, and went to Paris and started to work on my Bacchante. I had made this design long before, but I never found a model for it. I feel sometimes that the model creates the work. Then a woman came in and I said “There is my Bacchante!” It was the real Bacchante, who used to laugh herself right out. I created this thing and she was just what I wanted. She was just nineteen.”
The sculpture captures the nude young woman in exuberant motion, her right toes on the ground and her right arm holding a bunch of grapes high over her head. Her left knee pushes upward in a dancing motion, and with her left hand she secures the nude infant sitting in the crook of her elbow. The woman’s eyelids are lowered and her mouth is pulled in a toothy grin; the baby looks toward the grapes with an open mouth.
For some years the identity of the model was a mystery, but a drawing by MacMonnies’ childhood friend Charles Dana Gibson, A Café Artist (1894), that depicts MacMonnies and a woman seated together in a Parisian café provides the solution. In an inscription on a reproduction of the drawing, MacMonnies identified the model as Eugénie Pasque, who had previously posed for one of the rowers in the Barge of the State for the Columbian Fountain.
The original bronze Bacchante (the one at the Metropolitan Museum) was cast at Thiébaut Frères in 1894 and exhibited that year in the Paris Salon. There it was greeted enthusiastically by critics and artists for its elegant form and spiraling motion. After the Salon closed, the French government ordered a cast for the Musée du Luxembourg. MacMonnies was the first American sculptor to receive this honor.
MacMonnies arranged to provide a duplicate cast for the Musée du Luxembourg, having decided to give the original in June 1894 to the architect Charles Follen McKim in appreciation for a fifty dollar loan that had facilitated MacMonnies’ trip abroad in 1884. McKim was building the new Boston Public library, a neo-Renaissance structure designed by his firm, McKim, Mead, and White. He offered the Bacchante to the library as a memorial to his second wife, Julia Appleton McKim, who had died in 1887. However, it was not until July 1896 that McKim provided the Boston Art Commission with a bronze reduction and photographs of the Bacchante before he shipped the large version. Following the gift’s approval by the trustees of the library, the commission was required to pass judgment on any work of art for a public building or park. The commission solicited the opinion of a Committee of Experts, which included Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, both of whom, not surprisingly, endorsed the Bacchante.
The suitability of the Bacchante’s size to the library courtyard setting inspired little objection, but the subject and its perceived moral implications set off a storm of controversy that raged for almost a year and attracted national press coverage. By mythological definition, bacchantes were intemperate women devoted to the wine god, Bacchus. Among the points at issue was the appropriateness of placing a possibly drunk nude woman, with an infant that was perhaps illegitimate, in the center of a temple of learning. Opposition to the statue was not only mounted by concerned citizens but also mobilized on an organizational level. Groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Watch and Ward Society, the Law and Order League, and the Young Men’s Christian Association, as well as numerous clergy and the Boston Post, viewed the Bacchante as a threatening corruption to Victorian propriety.
Another aspect of the debate was an attack on the very fundamentals of the Beaux Arts style with which MacMonnies was indoctrinated. The American viewing audience was not as sophisticated as the Parisian one, and the prevalent mindset was still a Neoclassical one, which held that the only acceptable context for the nude was pure white marble carved into a traditional allegorical figure.
After two months of spirited discussion, the Boston Art Commission rejected the Bacchante on October 8, 1896, by a vote of four to one. McKim asked the commission to reconsider; if the commission and other influential citizens saw the piece installed in the library, he reasoned, they might comprehend how the Bacchante complemented the architecture of the courtyard. The Boston Art Commission acquiesced, and the bronze was installed in the center of the courtyard with jets of water spraying lightly around it. On Sunday, November 15, members of the commission, library trustees, and a limited number of special guests, including Saint-Gaudens and French, inspected the sculpture.
The Boston Art Commission was favorably impressed and reversed its decision, accepting McKim’s gift on November 17. The Bacchante remained in the courtyard for public inspection until November 30 and on December 11 was removed for storage while a pedestal of Connemara marble was prepared. Meanwhile, however, public opposition to the statue escalated, and the daily press continued to cover the story. McKim, who had tried to minimize the controversy in letters to MacMonnies, had by now lost patience. A gift intended as a memorial to his deceased wife had become the object not of gratitude but of derision and controversy. On May 29, 1897, McKim withdrew his offer. He proposed presenting the Bacchante to the Metropolitan Museum, and the gift was promptly accepted. MacMonnies included in the gift the green Irish marble pedestal.
Although New Yorkers had been contemptuous of the Bostonians’ puritanical routing of the Bacchante, sentiment was hardly unanimously in the sculpture’s favor. The American Purity Leage and the Social Reform League circulated petitions calling for its removal. The Museum’s decision was final, though, and the Bacchante was, for some years, accorded a place of honor in the center of the Great Hall.
Ironically, MacMonnies’ remaining aloof from the controversy enhanced his reputation as a sculptor working in the Beaux Arts style, and his name was securely linked with those of Saint-Gaudens and French. The negative publicity generated increased notice, attested not only by the proliferation of Bacchante reductions but also by the popular culture the sculpture inspired.
In addition to the Metropolitan’s bronze, there are three other located overlifesize Bacchantes produced during MacMonnies’ lifetime. One, dating to 1897, is in a British private collection, and two, cast in 1901, are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Musée National de la Coopération Franco-Américaine, Blérancourt, France. Two large marbles are in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1905) and the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, California (1914). They differ from the overlifesize bronzes in being several inches higher and in the addition of lion-skin drapery and grapevine supports.
MacMonnies began producing reductions of the Bacchante before the Boston Public Library debate, and they remained highly successful throughout his lifetime. Four lifesize (approximately 68 in.) versions are located in the collections of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida; and the collection of Frederick Hill and James Berry Hill, New York. A dozen extant half-lifesize (approximately 34 in.) reductions were cast beginning in 1895 by French and American foundries. These casts and smaller 16-inch pieces were sold by Durand-Ruel in Paris and New York, as well as by Theodore B. Starr and Tiffany and Company in New York.
In a late chapter to the story of the Boston controversy, a bronze cast of the Bacchante was made in 1993 for the Boston Public Library on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the construction of its McKim, Mead, and White building. The surmoulage was produced from the Museum of Fine Arts’ cast.
Private Collection, Maryland, since 1920s
Private Collection, by descent from the above, to present
E. Adina Gordon, Frederick William MacMonnies (1863-1937), Mary Fairchild Macmonnies (1858-1946), deux artistes américains à Giverny, exhibition catalogue, Vernon, France, pp. 44-47, another example illustrated
E. Adina Gordon and Mary Smart, A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies, 1863-1937, Madison, Connecticut, 1996, p. 292, another example illustrated
E. Adina Gordon, The Sculpture of Frederick William MacMonnies: A Critical Catalogue, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1998, no. 30.2, another example illustrated
Thayer Tolles, ed., American Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born Before 1865, vol. I, New York, 1999, p. 436, another example illustrated