The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Frederick William MacMonnies, Shakespeare, circa 1895

Thanks for the great guesses about the object shown in the September Crocodile Mystery! Dawn Kiilani Hoffmann got it right. The photo shows the bottom of the bronze Shakespeare sculpture at the foot of the stairs from the Reading Room.

Sculpture and furniture group opposite the Deck B elevator at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Photo by Erin Blake.

The bronze base was cast separately from the statue itself, and the photo shows where large screws attach it to Shakespeare’s feet. Just about everyone who has done research at the Folger has seen this collection item, but almost no one has seen it from this angle.

Base of Frederick William MacMonnies’s bronze sculpture of Shakespeare, Folger ART Inv. 1162. Photo by Erin Blake.

Like the rest of the Folger collection, this piece by American Beaux-Arts sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937) had to be packed up before the current renovation started. I snapped photos when Shakespeare was lying on his back, being readied for a long sleep.

Frederick William MacMonnies apprenticed in his native New York under Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), then moved to France where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. He opened his own studio in Paris, and also had a home in the artists’ colony of Giverny. Several important commissions came to him in France, including a life-size William Shakespeare for the Library of Congress. It still stands there, one of sixteen bronzes of famous men on the balustrade of the visitors’ gallery above the main reading room.

Frederick William MacMonnies’s Shakespeare at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Commissioned 1894, installed 1896. Photo by Patricia Highsmith

MacMonnies did extensive research for the Shakespeare sculpture, traveling to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the memorial bust in the parish church and to the British Library to see Martin Droeshout’s title page portrait from the 1623 First Folio. Returning to Paris, he made six maquettes, the sculptural equivalent of sketches, exploring different poses for the figure.1 Two that had long remained in the family recently sold at auction, and are seen here (along with four smaller studies):

Lot 179. Six studies by Frederick William MacMonnies. Rago Auctions, 23 September 2020.

The maquettes helped MacMonnies decide on the final pose. He worked up a half-size version of the finished piece, and exhibited a greenish bronze cast of it in the Paris Salon of 1895.2 The Folger’s Shakespeare is 41 inches high (104 cm), cast from the same mold as the one exhibited in 1895, but with a brown rather than a greenish patina on the bronze.

Frederick William MacMonnies. William Shakespeare, circa 1895. Bronze. Folger ART Inv. 1162 (click image to see in Folger Digital Image Collection)

The foundry mark shows that Edmond-Paul Gruet (1863–1904) did the bronze casting and patinizing:

Foundry mark reading “E. Gruet Jeune, Fondeur, 44 Ave. de Chatillon, Paris.” Pencil rubbing by Jean Miller, 1993.

It’s possible that the Folger sculpture is the same one that MacMonnies exhibited at the first exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers in London, May through July 1898.3 Correspondence between the organizers shows that the selection of works he sent from Paris included two versions of his Shakespeare, a larger one and a smaller one.4 Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for MacMonnies’s pieces on the return trip to Paris. He complained afterward that his custom-built boxes had been “confiscated in London & the bronzes dumped into a large case & arrived battered & bent.”5 I don’t recall seeing any evidence of past battering or bending on the Folger sculpture, but after reading that letter, and comparing the photo of the Folger piece with a photo of the one in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum, I’d like a closer look at the edge of the collar when the Folger re-opens after the renovation.

The collar brings me to one of the more unusual things about the sculpture: the costume. Typically, 18th- and 19th-century sculptures of Shakespeare make only a faint nod toward historical authenticity, and contrive to have dramatic flowing fabrics that evokes classical statuary. For example, Louis-François Roubiliac gave Shakespeare a floor-length robe and just a hint of slashed hose at the knee:

Louis-François Roubiliac. Modello for life-size marble sculpture of William Shakespeare, 1757. Terracotta. Folger FSs1 (click image to go to Folger Digital Image Collection)

MacMonnies’s maquettes show that also considered heavy drapery around the figure at first. In the end, though, he turned his back on that tradition, going for a degree of realism and historical accuracy that hadn’t been seen before. This Shakespeare isn’t just wearing trunk-hose, he’s wearing the short padded trunk-hose that have come to be known as “pumpkin pants.” While he does have a cloak, it’s not loose and flowing, it’s heavily embroidered, stiff, and static.

Critics weren’t quite sure what to make of this balding, unbearded, undramatic Shakespeare. Charles H. Caffin wrote that “the external facts have been very conscientiously compiled, and edited with much mastery of craftsmanship; but the soul of the facts, the inspired poet inside them, is scarcely suggested.”6

Will H. Low was more generous:

MacMonnies’s Shakespeare has the appearance of a thoughtful man, simple and dignified, dressed like a gentleman of the period at which he lived, standing firmly on extremely well-drawn legs…. [T]he whole work produces an impression of reality which is convincing. Altogether it is conceived on a much more humanistic and thoughtful plane than any preceding work [of his], and may well mark, in the artistic growth of the young sculptor, the first step…toward a graver, more soberly conceived sculpture than his youth and ardent delight in execution have allowed him heretofore to conceive.7

Augustus Saint-Gaudens went farther, telling Loredo Taft in 1900 that he considered it one of MacMonnies’s two greatest works. This prompted Taft to take another look, then write:

I think that I have failed heretofore to fully appreciate the rather archaic treatment of the Shakespeare, but I must acknowledge that it grows on me…. The figure is simple and straightforward, and it has the lasting quality of distinction.8

Taft still had a positive opinion of Shakespeare three years later in his ground-breaking History of American Sculpture, but it is barely recognizable as praise:

In following the bust at Stratford and the Droeshout portrait, approved by Ben Jonson, Mr. MacMonnies has given to his statue a rather austere and archaic look, which surprises one at first, though it is quite as satisfying in the end as the intimately imagined but markedly inadequate types evolved by other sculptors. Curiously enough he has taken pleasure in clothing this thoughtful figure in a costume of much bulk, covered with elaborate embroidery the details of which would confuse the attention were it not for their extremely low relief. In some ways the ‘Shakespeare’ is the most original of all of Mr. MacMonnies’s works, the most removed from one’s range of experience. It is so seriously conceived and so evidently a work of conscience that it makes instant appeal to one’s respect, and, however unwinning at first, gradually replaces in the mind all other representations of the great poet.9

The critics all agreed on one thing: Shakespeare was unlike MacMonnies’s other portrait sculptures. That came as news to me. Until I began working on this Collation post, I had no idea it wasn’t typical of MacMonnies, since I’d never seen anything else by him. Or at least, that’s what I thought. Guess what? It turns out I’ve probably seen his Major General George B. McClellan at least as many times as his Shakespeare over the past twenty-odd years, I just had no idea he was the artist.

General McClellan stands just north of Dupont Circle, where Columbia Road splits off from Connecticut Avenue, two blocks from my apartment. I took this picture when walking home on Friday.

  1. Mary Smart, A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies (1863–1937). Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1996, p. 149.
  2. See entry 43 of  E. Adina Gordon’s catalogue raisonné of MacMonnies’s sculpture in Mary Smart, A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies (1863–1937). Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1996.
  3. The Online Edition of the Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler currently states that the exhibited piece actually was the Folger sculpture, measuring 38 1/2 inches (97.8 cm). After exchanging emails with one of the editors, it seems this might simply have been an assumption because the Folger sculpture was the only one known at the time the data was gathered. The difference in measurements is explained by Folger records, where the sculpture was previously recorded as 38 1/2 inches high (the height of the figure) rather than the current 41 inches (the height of the sculpture).
  4. Letter from Albert Ludovici, London, to James McNeill Whistler, Paris, 11 May 1898 (Glasgow University Library MS Whistler I49). The smaller one would have been the one-third scale version, measuring 29 inches (74 cm).
  5. Letter from Frederick William MacMonnies, Paris, to James McNeill Whistler, Paris, 4 January 1899 (Glasgow University Library MS Whistler LB 2/89).
  6. Charles H. Caffin, American Masters of Sculpture. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913, pp. 83-84.
  7. Will H. Low, “Frederick MacMonnies,” Scribner’s Magazine, November 1895, pp. 622, 624.
  8. Loredo Taft, “American Sculpture at the Exposition II,” Brush and Pencil (August 1900), p. 211.
  9. Lorado Taft, The History of American Sculpture. New York: Macmillan, 1903, p. 348.

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