Archive for September, 2013
Without Robert Thurston’s rescue, Hermon MacNeil’s first attempt at sculpture may have never survived MacNeil’s own self-critical judgement.
The story of that event was published six years later accompanying this ‘celebrative’ news story in the New York Evening Post. It recounts how Thurston saved MacNeil’s first work just as he was ready to breakup the clay piece. In so doing, Thurston nurtured the ‘tender’ confidence of his first Instructor of Art to strive as a sculptor, to study in Paris (1889-90), and eventually to win the Rinehart Scholarship (1895).
SATURDAY. DECEMBER 14, 1895.
~ A Cornell Sculptor ~
Ithaca, N. Y., Dec. 13, 1895
Hermon Atkins MacNeil, formerly Instructor in drawing here, now of Chicago, has won the Rinehart Roman prize in sculpture entitling the holder to a studio and other accommodations in the Villa Ludoviel (sic) at Rome besides $1,100 for expenses. Mr. MacNeil did his first piece of modeling at Cornell, “Putting the Shot.” from the then champion all around athlete of the university. He was about to break it up when Prof. Thurston, director of Sibley College, interposed to save it and now adorns that college. Prof. Thurston’s encouragement led Mr. MacNeil to devote himself to sculpture.
~ THURSTON ~ the CONSUMMATE ENCOURAGER
Nearly twenty-years later MacNeil would return the favor. The dedication of MacNeil’s bas-relief of Thurston at the ASME national office was held on Tuesday, February 8, 1908. All Thurston’s colleagues who spoke tributes shared their personal regard and the encouraging impact that his life left on each of them. Dr. Alex. C. Humphreys, Chairman, Member of the Society; and President of Stevens Institute of Technology gave introductory remarks describing him as a large-hearted, gentle, lovable, helpful man, a man of vision, an optimist:
“I never saw him other than cheerfully responsive to a request for help, and I was never allowed to feel that I was intruding when I went to him for counsel. While demanding respect and obedience from those under him, his attitude towards them was characterized by a sympathetic desire to be helpful.”
Mr. Wilham Kent, one of the organizers of the Society (ASME) and a close friend and co-worker with Dr. Thurston shared personal memories from his eighteen year friendship with Dr. Thurston:
“Dr. Thurston was called as the first director. No choice was ever more fortunate. I will not undertake to recount all that followed in physical development from his administration, except to say that the number of students increased from one hundred to eleven hundred, buildings grew, facilities grew, everything that his hand touched grew, and all the growth was healthy. ” … “His everpresent cheerfulness was an inspiration, and his patience was an example. There is no subtle mystery about why he was so loved and respected at Cornell, nor why he accomplished so much. His ways were ways of peace, and his achievements were a series of creative victories. He was a strong man, so strong that we honor his memory tonight. He has gone, but the influence of his life lives.” ~ Mr. Wilham Kent, Feb. 8, 1910, at Dedication of the Thurston Plaque ~
Hermon MacNeil’s three years at Cornell (1886-1889) with Professor Robert Henry Thurston shaped the rest of his sixty years of life and his entire career as a sculptor. After leaving there, MacNeil would eventually return to make four major sculptures for the University. In his will executed after his death, he ordered that all of his professional papers be left to the Cornell University Library (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections #2425).
Of Robert H. Thurston’s thousands of career accomplishments, perhaps his quietest yet most profound, was his personal praise for Hermon MacNeil‘s sculptural talent and the confidence with which he encouraged Hermon to develop those skills in Europe and the Beaux Arts schools of Paris.
In the 1880s, Thurston was a man of vision who became a central pioneer in the developing field of Mechanical Engineering. He would soon become the first president of the newly organized American Society of Mechanical Engineers (A.S.M.E.). The faculty of Cornell brought him there to start the Sibley College of Engineering.
The bronze memorial sculpture at the right was a tribute to Thurston who died in 1903. The Cornell University, its Sibley College of Engineering and the Ithaca community conceived, subscribed and and commissioned MacNeil to sculpt this bas-relief in 1908. A duplicate of this bronze memorial was placed in New York City at the offices of the ASME. Thurston was the first president of that national engineering society.
In 1886, Hermon MacNeil was a fresh twenty year-old graduate of Boston State Normal Art School. MacNeil was then the same age as a certain carpenter named Ezra Cornell when he walked forty-one miles (in 1826) into the town of Ithaca from DeRuyter, New York. Arriving at the crest of Libe Slope (the current location of MacNeil’s statue of him), Cornell could see the town of Ithaca in the valley below. The place looked so promising as young Ezra could see manufactured goods and commodities being transferred from wagons to steamboats and barges. University history explains it this way:
At last he had come to a place, Cornell decided —before continuing down the hill, taking a boardinghouse room for the night and finding a carpentry job the next morning— where he could make something of himself. [ Cornell Engineering: A Tradition of Leadership and Innovation, p. 2. ]
Exactly sixty years later, another twenty year old was brought to Ithaca, this time by Professor Robert Thurston. MacNeil had just Graduated with first honors from the Boston State Normal Arts School (Massachusetts School of Art). This talented youth brought skills that Thurston desired all of his engineers to develop (mechanical drawing, drafting, architectural drawing, geometries, modeling and sculpting.
So Thurston hired Hermon MacNeil as Instructor of Art to teach these skills. The engineer degree required four years of these classes. Thurston wanted mechanical engineering students to know how to draw and to absorb the visual skills of a true artist.
Stay tuned for more (Part 2) on MacNeil’s first attempts at sculpting at Cornell and Professor Thurston’s vital role in affirming Hermon’s talent and future as a sculptor.