Realism at the Sesquicentennial: The Palace of Arts

Palace of Fine Arts at the Sesquicentennial, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Deep in South Philadelphia in the mid-1920s, Sesquicentennial planners carved up a brand new 68,000 square-foot pavilion beside Edgewater Lake into 48 galleries and dubbed it the Palace of Fine Arts. Along a mile-and- a-quarter of walls, they hung paintings, watercolors and prints. On pedestals they mounted sculptures from all over the world, more than 400 of them from France, Spain, Yugoslavia, Japan and Russia, among other nations. Among “the foremost Americans” represented was Charles Grafly and Albert Laessle, who had dedicated galleries. Paul Manship’s sculptures, including his Diana and Actaeon, both now at the Smithsonian, graced the great entrance hall. Just outside the large arched entrance, in a place of honor, Beatrice Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain greeted visitors.

A half century later, curator of 20th century art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Anne d’Harnoncourt described Seaweed Fountain as Fenton’s first “ambitious, life-size ornamental sculpture” an example of a genre known as Decorative Realism. An “unidealized treatment of youth,” it represented a “departure from standard academic canons of grace and proportion in the human figure.” This particularly American brand of realism was reminiscent of work by Thomas Eakins, a family friend and early mentor. Eakins painted a portrait of the young Fenton in 1904. He died a decade before the Sesquicentennial but his reputation was on the upswing in the mid-1920s. In stark contrast to the decision not to hang his Gross Clinic at the Centennial in 1876, curators at the Palace of Fine Arts devoted an entire gallery to Eakins, crediting him as “the most potent figure in the art of this country in the last fifty years.”

Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain also echoed the approach of another mentor and teacher, Charles Grafly. An “original adaptation of the realist aspect of Grafly’s teaching,” suggested D’Harnoncourt. “Nothing could be more remote in feeling from the polished simplified and classicizing work of Paul Manship” who, interestingly, had also studied with Grafly.

Manship’s Duck Girl from 1911 won the coveted Widener prize at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1914. Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain won the same award in 1922.  (See Duck Girl is in Rittenhouse Square, not far from Fenton’s much later Evelyn Taylor Price Memorial Sundial.)

Beatrice Fenton with her sculpture Seaweed Fountain, ca. 1920 / unidentified photographer. Beatrice Fenton papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Fenton walked away from the Sesquicentennial with a bronze medal for sculpture, one of 15 winners, 13 of whom were men, including Manship, Alexander Sterling Calder (who Fenton also briefly studied under) and Albert Laessle (another student of Grafly). The only one other woman to win a medal, the younger Katharine Lane Weems from Boston, would become known for her realistic renditions of all kinds of animals, especially elephants and rhinoceroses.

D’Harnoncourt described the making of Fenton’s Seaweed Fountain: Fenton “set about it with characteristic thoroughness. Working in her third-floor studio at 1523 Chestnut Street, she posed a lively six-year-old child…. The child is gawky yet charming, posing in her seaweed festoons, with all the coy bravado of one caught in the act dressing up in her mother’s clothes before a mirror. Her toes grip the turtle’s back, and her stocky torso balances awkwardly atop thin and knock-kneed legs.”

In 1922, Fenton’s first cast was installed in a fountain at the foot of Fairmount Park’s Lemon Hill. Three additional casts are known, in the Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina and private collections. In the early 1960s, the Fairmount Park Art Association commissioned Fenton to create clusters of bronze angelfish to accompany the piece at Lemon Hill. Those were stolen in 1974 and presumedly melted down as scrap. Fearing Seaweed Fountain would have also disappeared, officials moved to the park’s Horticultural Center, where it’s still on view.

Shortly after that re installation, Nessa Forman, the arts editor at The Bulletin, found that Mary Wilson Wallace, the once-upon-a-time model for Seaweed Fountain, was alive and well in nearby Glenolden, Pennsylvania. Then 63, Wallace and the 89-year-old Fenton held a reunion in front of a cast of Seaweed Fountain, part of a centerpiece display at the Flower Show. Wallace and Fenton reminisced about the a six-year-old whose arms were growing tired. But the commitment to realism only went so far. For the sake of posing, Fenton chose to have Wilson’s “precarious perch” be on a box, rather than on the back of a giant turtle. To make her sculpture of the turtle look as real as possible, Fenton convinced the aquarium at the Fairmount Waterworks to lend her one of theirs.

(Sources: Paintings, Sculpture and Prints in the Department of Fine Arts, Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition [Illustrated Catalogue] (Philadelphia, 1926); E. L. Austin and Odell Hauser, The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition (Philadelphia: Current Publications, 1929); Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art : Bicentennial Exhibition, April 11-October 10, 1976 (Philadelphia Museum of Art: 1976]; Nessa Forman,” Found: Mary Wilson,” The Philadelphia Bulletin, March 21, 1977; Penny Balkin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press: 1992); Page Talbot, “The Philadelphia Ten,” (The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, 2017); A Finding Aid to the Beatrice Fenton Papers, 1836-1984, bulk 1890-1978, in the Archives of American Art.)

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