American Art

Discoveries: A Stunning Paul Manship Bronze Sculpture

By Mark Stephen

T his lot was consigned for sale after a routine enquiry through the online 'request an estimate' platform. Our client inherited it from a great grandfather who was a collector but it's not known if his ancestor bought it in a gallery or was gifted it by Paul Manship.

Paul Manship was possibly America’s most famous and fashionable sculptor between the wars, achieving fame and material success comparatively young, being patronised by the wealthiest and grandest of American families including John Rockefeller, Samuel Untermyer, Harold McCormick and Isabella Stewart Gardner and receiving various commissions for public sculpture including the Prometheus fountain at Rockefeller centre and the Bronx Zoo gates.

Manship had always wanted to be a sculptor, working as a studio assistant to Solon Borglum, the animal artist. In 1909 he won a fellowship to study for three years at the American Academy in Rome, where he fell in love with classical art, travelling around the Mediterranean to see ancient discoveries. On his return, he had a succession of sell out shows, receiving a variety of awards in the process. In 1913 the Metropolitan museum purchased his bronze Centaur and Dryad and this was the first of many sales to important and influential clients. Even in the recession following the Wall Street crash, Manship had a studio employing eight assistants which demonstrates his continued popularity and financial status.
He then fell out of favour in the 1940’s as his work came to look old fashioned and traditional as he was left behind by the abstract expressionists and the new wave of American artists of the post war generation pushing modernism to new boundaries.

However his reputation has had a reappraisal in recent years since the shows arranged by the National Museum of American Art in Washington and the Minnesota Museum of Art and a flurry of publications from the 1980’s and since. How then should we see him now and why do his bronzes endure the test of time and continue to demand high prices.

Manship’s work was stylised, concentrating on sharp clear lines clearly owing much to Greek pottery painting and classical sculpture and was a contrast to the rather Romantic 'frilly’ sculpture in fashion at the start of the century. Susan Rather argues that Manship should be seen as a Modernist, for his preoccupation with 'archaism' which he discovered during his fellowship in Rome, was a reaction to the over refinement of art at the start of the century, a more basic form of expression to restore art to a purity of form, thus linked to primitivism as practiced by Picasso and his followers. She sees Manship in the same tradition as Maillol and Brancusi who were inspired by classical sculpture to simplify the work where each element was considered and perfected.

But where Manship differed from Maillol and Brancusi was in his clean elegance of form and line and this can be argued as anticipating Art Deco. The confusion arises from the many decorative consumer goods of the 1920s and 1930s which incorporated the sleek lines and stylized forms seen in Manship’s sculpture, but Manship’s classicism should be recognised as his personal search for an artistic philosophy and it was unfortunate that his simplified lines should get hijacked by Art Deco designers. Harry Rand asserts that Manship’s greatest strength was 'formal originalty almost without peer’ and argues that this differentiates Manship from the largely two dimensional Art Deco sculptors.

Although the present work is entitled 'Indian Hunter’ the work is certainly not in the tradition of 'Western’ artists like Frederic Remington, Cyrus Edwin Dallin or James Earle Fraser, whose works were naturalistic and observant. They may have idealised their subjects as heroic and noble, as did Manship, but in American Hunter, we feel that it does not matter whether the figure is a Native American or a classical hunter from the ancient world, as the work is inspired by the story of Hercules and the Cerynian Hind and inspired by Egyptian and ancient Greek pottery painting. The desired effect is achieved by eliminating detailed naturalism in favour of stylistic definition, and we see the technical skill of the casting, the smooth polished body contrasting with the incised plaited hair and linear folds of drapery, which not only hark back to antiquity but also anticipate Art Deco. The extension of both arms in opposite directions however, turns the figure’s torso at the hips, imitating the customary pose of the human figure in ancient Egyptian wall paintings, allowing Manship to show a muscular torso and through the tension of firing the bow, to show his defined biceps and leg muscles.

It was almost as if Manship had backed the wrong horse in adopting archaism as his artistic philosophy, unlike say Rodin in France, whose work has always been admired by critics for its expressive content through Impressionist techniques. However, looking at his early works now, they were a contrast to the rather pretty decorative sculpture found in the salons of the art nouveau period, and at the time were seen as modernist, which is why after his return from Rome in 1912, all 96 works in his first major exhibition held by the Architectural League in New York sold. As Susan Rather argues, he should be seen as bridging the gap between the academic and the radically modern, using his take on archaism as a tool to reach his artistic vision.

Mark Stephen is Deputy Director in the London valuations department, responsible for online valuations with 35 years’ experience in the auction world. The variety and breadth of antique and often, not so-antique, objects and paintings sent to Sotheby’s via our online platform is an experience to see. We sift through watches, jewellery, wine, paintings from every period, silver, ceramics and objects so bizarre they cannot be categorised. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the antiques world passes through our hands on a daily basis.

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