Chicago's Public Sculptor

How Lorado Taft carved a future for himself

Illinois Issues

January 1989

Probably the definitive work on the subject. Garvey's book about Taft, I mean. I also reviewed it for the Reader; that piece appears here.

 

Reviewed: Timothy J. Garvey. Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988

 

In 1910 Lorado Taft—then Chicago's preeminent sculptor as well as a critic and teacher of national note—derided the work of the Parisian painter Henri Matisse for what Taft called its ' 'pretence of naivete.'' Matisse's pretended innocence was esthetic; Taft's was social and quite genuine. Creator of such well-known works as Fountain of the Great Lakes and Fountain of Time and founder of a successful studio on Hyde Park's Midway, Taft is a fascinating case of the artist who is sincerely, eloquently, even admirably wrongheaded.

 

Taft's career is thus more interesting than his art, as Timothy Garvey makes clear in his study, Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Part biography, part social history, part critical essay, the book recounts the years between 1893 and 1913 when Taft's vision of what Garvey calls "public sculpture as meaningful cultural record" coincided with Chicago's civic beautification campaign. Taft supported the Beaux Arts ideal as embodied in the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. He sought the universal in place of the merely local, timeless meaning in place of topical commemoration, classic unadorned figures in place of monuments to "modern tailoring."

 

Today it seems obvious that Taft, far from replacing one kind of art with another, merely replaced one kind of drapery with another. But the potential of public art to improve civic life seemed real enough then, and not only to Taft. Garvey considers Taft's career in the context of the larger Chicago artistic community of those days. Drawing from now-obscure novels as well as from more traditional documentary sources, he takes us to the salons and the drawing rooms where the city's artists—as busily on the make as any lumberman or coal merchant—courted potential clients and amused each other.

 

Taft was a key figure in such circles. Artists met in studios in the Fine Arts Building or gamboled on summer retreats at Eagle's Nest Camp on the Rock River. Chicago's well-to-do acquired their culture as they acquired everything else they displayed—they bought it—and Taft and his colleagues turned to each other for protection against the corruptions of the fashionable.

 

Taft resolved early to be a success in Chicago upon his return to the U.S. from Paris. He was good-looking and gregarious, with enough talent to make his claims to artistry credible. His ambition to do large-scale public works, Garvey hints, may have owed something to the unchallenging, even somewhat tawdry alternatives open to sculptors in the days before arts council grants and university faculty appointments; for years Taft survived by doing portrait busts of the rich, even butter sculptures for fairs.

 

The World's Columbian Exposition was the making of Taft. Louis Sullivan, the apostle of modernism, might have sneered at it, but for Taft it provided both commissions and a model for public adornments across the city. However, it was years before he received his first major public commission. Only in Chicago could such a backward-looking man have been considered ahead of his time, as Taft was before 1913, and by then the Beaux Arts ideal had become both socially and artistically passé. Garvey points out that Taft's remarks at the dedication of his controversial Fountain of Time in 1922 were practically a confession of failure to the critics who sneered at it.

 

Taft sought to make his art eternal by distancing it from the times, but this approach caused him personal as well as esthetic confusion. As a proto-feminist, Taft encouraged the careers of women sculptors who trained with him, such as Evelyn Beatrice Longman, yet his sculpted females remained firmly on their pedestals. "His sculpture was at times not only safely free from [contemporary complexities]," writes Garvey, "but unfortunately adrift from his own beliefs."

 

Taft's contributions as teacher, critic and proselytizer for public art are believed by some to be more significant than his art. Even so, his works deserve a better fate than that which has befallen most of them. His popular Blackhawk near Eagle's Nest is cracked, and the concrete Fountain of Time on the Midway is being eaten away by pollution. The Art Institute some years ago turned the back of Fountain of the Great Lakes toward its namesake; today its tarnished figures scarcely resemble the gleaming maidens who were unveiled (a little too unveiled in the view of local blue-noses) in 1913.

 

The real public art in those years, of course, was being designed by Chicago's commercial architects. Taft never was able, as Sandburg and Algren did in words, to express in stone or bronze the city's exuberant lowness. He wanted to make Chicago better than it was, while Chicago only wanted to make itself better-looking. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated