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Archive for April, 2012

"Primitive Indian Music" - A rare 1894 bronze casting of a sculpture later refined and cast in multiple copies as the "Primitive Chant to the great Spirit."

A recent inquiry from James Dixon has revealed a previously unseen 1894 bronze casting entitled “Primitive Indian Music.” The piece appears to be an early (or earliest) proto-type of  “The Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit” by Hermon A. MacNeil dated 1901.  

MacNeil marked this earlier piece on the base in block letters. He signed it simply “MACNEIL Sc”

It is dated [ ’94 ] similar to the Marquette Building panels of 1895, some of which are dated [ ’95]. SEE detail below: 

"MACNEiL 95" reads this signature on Panel 3 of Marquette Building, Chicago. (Detail from lower right corner - Note; mocassin foot in showshoe above signature.)

This ‘Dixon’ piece is marked like no other bronzes of the “Primitive Chant.” All others are dated 1901.  Jim tells us that his great grandmother, Eda Lord, lived in Evanston, Illinois, and purchased the statue between 1890 and 1900.

Jim Dixon knows this, because the sculpture has been in his family for four generations.  He found our website seeking more information on his family’s MacNeil art piece. Here’s how Jim shares his family’s story:

My Great Grandmother, Eda Lord, purchased a MacNeil sculpture in the late 1800’s when she lived in Evanston, Illinois. The sculpture made its way down the family tree to my Grandmother and then to my mom and dad and it was passed on to me when my mom passed away last year. The statue is of an Indian boy and is about 24″ tall (bronze) It is labeled “Primitive Indian Music MacNeil s: ’94” My review of the works of MacNeil pointed to the sculpture entitled “A primitive chant to the Great Spirit” at the Smithsonian Museum. My observation of the photo of “A primitive Chant…” lead me to believe that the two sculptures are the same. It this possible? Were multiple casting made of these statues? Was it common to re-cast the statue at a later time? I would be happy to send digital photos of the sculpture for your records, review and comments. Any further information you may have on this statue would be appreciated.

Thank you for your time and assistance.

James Dixon

The partial title "PRIMITIVE IND..." is visible here

Hers is partial title "Indian Music" and "MACNEIL Sc" with date " '94"

This photo of  markings on the piece read “PRIMITIVE…” and the next photo continues “INDIAN MUSIC”. The  signature bears no initials, only the full last name, “MACNEIL Sc”. Additional marks include a date [ ‘ 94 ]. These markings are consistent with MacNeil’s pre-1900 dates on the Marquette Panels — last name only with no initials. The block letter ( MACNEIL ) is “identical to Panel #3 of the Marquette Building.  In addition, consider the following:

  1. No foundry marks appear on this Dixon Family heirloom.
  2. More importantly no RBW (Roman Bronze Works) initials or name appears on the casting.  Roman Bronze Works is where most museum pieces of this work were cast.  They also bear the date of 1901.  RBW opened its doors in 1900 the same time that Hermon MacNeil settled in College Point, Queens, NYC, New York.
  3. The absence of RBW’s distinguishing mark, as found on the 1901 casts, and the Dixon family story of acquisition would seem to indicate a date before 1900 for the casting of this piece.
  4. The story of Hermon MacNeil and his hiring of Black Pipe (see previous post dated April 25, 2012) as a studio assistant and model are consistent with an 1894 dating of this piece.  In this conversation with J Walker McSpadden in 1924, MacNeil recalled the events:
    • MACNEIL: “Yes, and you may find it an interesting yarn. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been in Chicago during the Fair, and one of his braves was Black Pipe, a Sioux, a fine-looking fellow. He had stayed behind, and one day I met him on the streets, looking hungry and cold, and asked him if he wanted something to do. He did there was no doubt about that. I took him into the studio, fed him up, and then set to work modeling his head. I finished it in four hours, for I was not sure that I would ever see my Indian again; but he stayed with me in all for a year and a half, helping me with odd jobs about the studio. That’s his head there.”
    • It was a life-size bronze, which he indicated, not done in full relief but resting on a plaque a strong piece of portraiture.
    • MCSPADDEN: “In this and your later work with Indians,” I inquired, “did you have any trouble about making their likenesses? Some of them object to being photographed.”
    • MACNEIL: “Yes, many of the older Indians object; they think it takes the spirit out of them. But Black Pipe had been among white folks long enough to know better, and with others I managed to get around their superstitions. Black Pipe, by the way, posed for ‘The [312] Primitive Chant 5 which is one of my best-known Indian subjects.”
    • This is the spirited figure of a naked savage dancing to the music of his own flute. It has been widely copied in art prints.  [ Source: Joseph Walker McSpadden, Famous Sculptors of America, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1924) pp. 311-12. ]
  5. This figure also appears to also be based on Black Pipe.  CLICK HERE for more on MacNeil and Black Pipe
  6. The only other evidence of a MacNeil Bronze from this period (1894) is “the Vow to Vengeance” in the Art Institute of Chicago which lists a date marking on 1894 as well.   SEE AIC Website HERE.

Many old photos of ‘plaster casts’ of this sculpture appear in museum archives.  This ‘Dixon’ bronze appears to be a very different find than other models, either plaster or bronze. 

WEBMASTER’S COMMENTS:

  1. Thanks Jim for the photos and inquiry.
  2. This seems a VERY early bronze casting from MacNeil’s 1893-1895 days at the Art Institute of Chicago (1893-1895).
  3. I have seen Plaster sculptures from this period but not Bronze casts. Perhaps, MacNeil was venturing (experimenting) into bronze castings. Another bronze from 1894 is this “Vow to Vengeance” which was an early version of the later “Sun Vow”  [ SEE Art Institute of Chicago holdings: CLICK HERE ]
  4. This “Primitive Indian Music” seems an early version of his “Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit.” of 1901. Your piece seems to be a ‘first’ to me. Spelled RARE. There maybe others, but they are not in museum archives, or accessible on-line. I certainly have not seen them.

  5. All other bronze casts I have seen photos of date after 1900. This includes “Primitive Chant” from museums and auction house photos. All those have RBW initials from NYC -Roman Bronze Works.
  6. The work seems much less finished (polished).  It appears rougher in texture (more primitive? early?). Not only Primitive Indian…, but also maybe Primitive MacNeil… ?

CONCLUSION (for now): This is a fascinating piece that seems to this non-curator-MacNeil-enthusiast to be one of Hermon’s earliest concepts of what he later cast as “Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit” in 1901. 

That piece was cast by Roman Bronze Works when MacNeil settled there in his studio-home in College Point NYC.

NEXT: “Who was Eda Lord? And How did she become owner of this early MacNeil sculpture?

Hermon MacNeil’s  interest in Native American culture began in (of all places) Chicago.  Before he ever traveled to the Southwest in 1895 to visit the Hopi (Moqui), and Navajo people, Native culture visited him in Chicago.

"Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit" photo of plaster model from MacNeil's Studio. (Credit: Photo Archives Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The live Native model for “The Primitive Chant” (at left) was a Sioux warrior by the name of Black Pipe.    Hermon first saw Black Pipe in the ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’ at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That winter, MacNeil found Black Pipe cold and desolate on the sidewalks of Chicago. MacNeil said that he gave him food and work as a model and an assistant in MacNeil’s studio (shared with Charles F. Browne).

More than being a model called in to portray an idea of the sculptor, Black Pipe portrayed a Native ritual dance, an ecstatic religious experience. The full title “Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit,” implies a religious experience that the native was depicting.  Lorado Taft, in his criticisms below, seems to miss the probable point of how this image came to be.  This image is not MacNeil’s in the mind of the artist, rather it is in the ecstatic religious memory of the model, Black Pipe.  I wonder how Hermon MacNeil experienced this Sioux’s portrayal as the warrior was transported in an ecstatic dance offered to the Great Spirit. MacNeil said that Black Pipe worked for him for the next year and a half. The Sioux warrior is immortalized in this piece and in the facial portrait pictured below. (Both photos are part of the Smithsonian Achieveshttp://siris-juleyphoto.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?&profile=all&source=~!sijuleyphotos&uri=full=3100001~!128333~!0 )

 

MacNeil's bronze of Blackpipe, a Sioux warrior he befriended in 1893 (source Smithsonian Archives)

The urging and support of Edward Everett Ayers led MacNeil and two companions, Hamlin Garland and Charles F. Browne, to travel to the southwestern territories (four-corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah) in the summer of 1895.  Their goals were to witness the vanishing images of the Native people,  of the Southwest.

MacNeil made plaster models of native images and events and shipped them back to Chicago for later inspiration.   Many of the sculptures that he made in Rome to fulfill the Rinehart Scholarship requirements were based on these early studies from the Southwest. These would include the ‘Moqui Runner’, and the ‘Sun Vow’.  Returning to these themes three decades later, he crafted the Society of Medalists Issue #3 in 1931, after the “Moqui Runner” and the “Hopi Prayer for Rain.” His 106 foot long bas relief frieze on the North side of the Missouri Capitol contains a section that seems to be the basis for the SOM #3 Issue of 1931 called “Hopi Prayer for Rain.”

Lorado Taft ‘imagined’ MacNeil’s ‘days’ in Rome in very ‘idealistic’ terms.  He suggested that the Reinhart Rome Scholarship must have given MacNeil an ideal time for focused ‘days’ of study:

“Four years of them with three hundred and sixty-five days in each year! To live in the Villa dell’ Aurora, to work upon subjects of one’s own choice, with no care and all expenses paid — what better could an artist ask for.? The only requirements made by the trustees were “satisfying evidences of industry,” to be attested in the form of “a  life-size figure at the end of the second year, a relief containing two life-size figures before the close of the third year, and during the fourth year a life-size group of two or more figures in the round.” [Lorado Taft, The History of American Sculpture, 1903, p. 439].

In his, THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCULPTURE, published in 1903, Taft critiques several of MacNeils sculptures in very flattering terms.  He praises the ‘technical quality’ of this piece while questioning the artist choice of a dancer playing his armpit as a musical instrument.  His exact words are offered in the passage below:

The next figure, ” A Primitive Chant,” possesses every technical quality of good sculpture. While the idea of an Indian making strange noises by blowing or shouting in the crook of his arm awakens no responsive thrill of imagination, this is nevertheless a powerful work. Its triumph is all the more marked since our surrender is, in a sense, an unwilling one. We are not prejudiced in favor of this tuneful creature, who, unlike a Hector or an Achilles, brings to his aid no emotional backing of poetry, no prestige of three thousand years’ success upon the ” boards.” This is sculpture pure and simple, — beauty of form, strength with refinement of modelling, compactness, breadth. The figure kneels, taking hold of the earth with powerful limbs ; the hands are clasped, the right elbow tight across the body, the arm raised at a right angle, concealing largely the savage face. The expanded chest and powerful back have fascinated the sculptor ; he has shaped them superbly.

Larado Taft's words describe this kneeling pose of "The Primitive Chant." The 'upright-dancing-warrior' is a more commonly seen version of MacNeil's work.

That these are adequate reasons for the statue one is hardly prepared to say, though such beauty of modelling is almost a sufficient excuse. The trouble is that with nine persons out of ten, nay, with ninety-nine out of the hundred, beautiful modelling is not interesting nor a raison d’etre ; and with the more thoughtful the very fact of such costly elaboration enhances the perplexity. Why so much labor and so much time expended upon a thing unbeautiful in idea? With all its masterful workmanship, and even its sculptural pose, it remains but an illustration of an incident, a custom; curious it may be, and even to some persons moderately interesting, but possessing for none a deep significance. Where does the emotion come in — the poetic thrill which we are told is fundamental in the genesis of every great work of art, and which in turn a truly great work must convey in some fashion and some degree to men and women of taste? We are obliged to admit that in the lack of any supplementary hint at a deeper import — as of mourning or of love-making, of solitude, or of worship — the only response awakened by the action of the figure is a rather unsympathetic query regarding the nature of the “music” produced in so outlandish a fashion!” (pp. 437-439.)

According to the Smithsonian Institute:

Hermon A. MacNeil
A Primitive Chant to the Great Spirit
modeled by 1901
bronze
24 1/2 x 6 1/8 x 8 3/4 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum,

Gift of Maurice Kawashima in honor of Dr. Richard Wunder

http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/t2go/1lw/index-noframe.html?/exhibitions/online/t2go/1lw/1996.27.html

MacNeil has interpreted an Indian dancer as he chants into the crook of his upraised arm. The model for this sculpture was a Sioux Indian named Black Pipe, who was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Black Pipe remained in Chicago after the fair closed and became a regular model and studio assistant for MacNeil. The artist maintained a studio in Chicago, but traveled many times to the Southwest to observe Indian rituals, costumes, crafts, and ceremonies firsthand. In Primitive Chant, MacNeil captures the physical beauty and grace of the Native American, which he compared to that of Greek warriors.

In the early 1900s, because of his knowledge and authorship on American Sculpture, Lorado Taft was referred to by many as ‘the Dean of American Sculpture.’   He offered early praise for Hermon Atkins MacNeil.  His admiration of MacNeil’s work continued into the 1920s when he recommended MacNeil’s “Lawyer Lincoln” bust to the University Of Illinois to grace the spiral entry foyer of Lincoln Hall.

In Chapter XXIII of his volume “THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCULPTURE” (originally published in 1903), Taft offers the following praise of the young MacNeil:

THE YOUNGER GENERATION IN NEW YORK

 The opening twentieth century brings before us a group of young sculptors equipped by nature and by training as in the past few Americans have been. …

One of the most promising of this number is Hermon A. MacNeil.

Marquette Panel #4 (detail)

Well equipped with the training which the Parisian studios give, Mr. MacNeil was early discontented with the banality of modern sculptural themes. The makeshift subjects of his comrades seemed to him unworthy. He wanted to do things more original and more truly expressive. Western life and the Indian had for him a great appeal, and he made several trips to the redman’s reservations north and west, in order to study what he considered the most sculptural motifs which America offers.

His reliefs over the doors of the Marquette building in Chicago — scenes of the life and death [ p. 437 > p. 438 ] of Pere Marquette — show to what good use he put his material. He was wont to talk of the artistic possibilities of the Indian in sculpture with an enthusiasm that was eloquent if not always convincing. To him they were as fine as Greek warriors and as worthy to be immortalized. …

More of Taft’s critique on H. A. MacNeil will be offered in upcoming postings on HermonAtkinsMacNeil.com.

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