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~ This Gallery celebrates Hermon Atkins MacNeil,  of the Beaux Arts School American classic sculptor of Native images and American history.  ~ World’s Fairs, statues, monuments, coins, and more… ~ Hot-links ( lower right) lead to works by Hermon A. MacNeil.   ~ Over 200 of stories & 2,000 photos form this virtual MacNeil Gallery stretching east to west  New York to New Mexico ~ Oregon to S. Carolina.   ~ 2021 marks the 155th Anniversary of Hermon MacNeil’s birth. ~~Do you WALK or DRIVE by MacNeil sculptures DAILY!   ~~ CHECK it OUT!

DO YOU walk by MacNeil Statues and NOT KNOW IT ???

Feb
01

“Hermon and Jo” ~~ Story #1 ~~ For MacNeil Month ~ February 2021 ~~

By
 

 

Jo Davidson, Sculptor, 1937

Hermon A. MacNeil sketch by Charles D. Daughtrey.

Jo Davidson

started as a

“studio boy” for

Hermon MacNeil

in 1903.

NOW,

February 2021  

MacNeil Month 

will showcase

FOUR Stories of

“Hermon and Jo”

from their nearly fifty years of friendship.

PLUS A SURPRISE BIRTHDAY

UNVEILING  on  February 27th !!!

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

STORY # 1  

Jo Davidson ~ begins here …

From his late teen-years to his mid twenties,

Jo appears as a talented, outgoing, vagabond.  

A vagabond can be defined as …

  • an itinerant,  a wanderer, a nomad,
  • a wayfarer, a traveler, a gypsy
  • a person who wanders
  • from place to place
  • without a home or job.
Home Life
In Between Sittings, his autobiography, Jo sculpts his early home life in shapes of restlessness, rovering, and hunger. 
“I was born on New York’s lower East Side and the memories of early youth are vague and shadowy. I remember long, dark halls, crowded tenements, strange sour smells, drab unpainted walls and moving — we were always moving. … we were exceedingly poor and often didn’t have enough to eat.”Between Sittings, p. 3.
 Samantha Baskind tells Jo’s story this way: Davidson was born in the ghetto of New York’s Lower East Side to immigrant parents who had fled the Russian pogroms Encyclopaedia Judaica.
[ def.: pogroms: ethnic cleansing, persecutions, massacres, exterminations, slaughter …]
Jo “was the youngest of five children in a household of greatly limited means.”  “He had a step-brother, George, and three sisters; Nancy, Rachel, and Rose.”2
Jo’s parents had real fears and emotional scars from the traumas of those anti-Jewish persecutions in Russia.  After his parents emigrated to the U.S., Jo was born in New York City on March 30, 1883.  Jo inherited a restless wanderer’s spirit as a an offspring of terrorized generations “who had fled the Russian pogroms”  MORE.
Jo’s father, Jacob, was Jewish and a man “who lived completely within himself.” His father was “orthodox, self-absorbed, and more intent on religion than on his family.”2   He believed in miracles and fanatically hoped to hold the winning ticket in some lottery.  His father’s friends teased Jacob asking if he would rather have a SON or win a MILLION dollar lottery. So after Jo was born, he was nicknamed by friends and family, “The Million.” 
“Father had beautiful eyes, a long white beard, and the face of a prophet.  I can still see him moving about the house almost like a spirit.  He was always praying and a sign of affection from him was a rarely given luxury.” *  Between Sittings, p. 3.  and  Joel Rosenkranz, Rediscoveries…, p. 11.
Jo went with his Father, Jacob, to synagogue on Saturdays, but kept out of his way for fear of offending him. When he asked “where did Cain get his wife?” his Father father smacked him down by stating that “with God everything is possible.”
Jacob Davidson, definitely had plans and ambitions for his son.  The MILLION became the sarcastic “BRIS”  label of blessing for Jacob’s only son.  That moniker became a life-long label in Jo’s Life.  Seven decades later, Jo entitled Chapter 1 of his autobiography, “THE MILLION!”  Even after his death, Lois Harris Kuhn in her biography,The World of Jo Davidson, offered her young Jewish readers the following explanation:
“No one was ever to know for certain what it was that Jacob Davidson thought that having a son meant.  Whatever it was, it was obvious  — almost right away — that Jo was unlike anyone his father had expected.  In Fact, Jo was like no one else.  He asked far to many questions.  He made pictures of everything he saw. He was so filled with life and laughter that everyone around him responded to it.  Everybody — everything — small or large — interested Jo.!  It was a good thing for a boy that his mother, Haya, understood him completely. ” [ Kuhn, The World of Jo Davidson, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1958. p. 4.]
Jo’s personality was much like his mother, Haya, (nee: Getzoff) “was full of an unquenchable fire that brought life to everything around her… .”
“She was tiny, energetic, practical, the one on whom the whole family leaned.  The Davidson’s were exceedingly poor and often didn’t get enough to eat.  She would distract the family from their hunger with her wonderful story telling of her past life in Russia, her grandfather who adored her and raised her, and their father’s family filled with scholars and rabbis.” Between Sittings, p. 3,
She was a wonderful cook, could stretch a half-pound of meat into a dozen mouths.  Food was very scarce, but restlessness flourished.
“It is curious how little I remember of my school days. I was always in a dream, vague and lazy.  I understand now — being underfed, I wanted to sleep all the time.
Yet for all their poverty,  Jo recalls the touch of “a warm glow which came from my mother (Haya) and sisters (Nancy, Rachel, and Rose) who surrounded me with love and affection.”
Between Sittings, p. 3, 6. And Joel Rosenkranz, Rediscovderies
A Train Wreck of JOBS
The needs of the family forced Jo to leave school in his teens. What followed were a series of itinerant, dead-end tasks.  He first got a job as an apprentice to a house-painter and paperhanger.  He worked 12 hour a day, preparing pots and paints in the mornings and washing up and cleaning brushes after returning from jobs. “I don’t remember how I lost that job, but I did,”
 
What followed was a succession of endeavors: messenger boy at Western Union, office boy at a weekly, and errand boy at a bookstore.  Each job ran off the tracks, as he worked too fast for fellow piece-workers, or then slowed down, and got fired by the boss. 
 
When he got board he would sit and sketch, friends, cats, anything in sight. When he sketched other messenger boys, they told him “Jo, you are wasting your time, you ought to get a job at a newspaper.”  In between jobs, he hung around art galleries, or visited the afternoon drawing class at the Educational Alliance. Eventually the idea of becoming an artist appealed to him.
 
Talent Leads the Way
His sister, Rachie, was teaching public school.  She showed some of Jo’s sketches  to an interested friend who obtained a year’s tuition for Jo at the Art Students League. He enrolled in evening classes becoming the youngest member of the live class drawing from nude living models.   There he also met a friend, Waterbury, who taught pyrography — burning in sketches on leather with a pyrographic needle.  He mastered the technique and could sell piece work for good pay. 
 
He continued evening drawing classes at the Art Students League.  On weekends he would go to a country sketch club and on Sundays he would paint on Richmond Hill on Staten Island.  He said his paintings were timid and pale.  One in a discussion group he was asked if he could shut his eyes and mentally see a desired color, red, blue, yellow.  Jo recalls, ” I tried and tried but all my concentration produced nothing and it was then that I decided I was not a painter.” Between Sittings, p. 8-10.

For some time, Jo’s family thought he should become a doctor. So he was sent to New Haven moved in with his sister, Nancy, and her husband, David, a graduate of Yale Medical School.  In between cramming for Regents’ exam, Jo befriended Randall the college photographer. He loaned Jo a photograph of Dr. Arthur Hadley, of Yale University.  Jo  began using his skills to make a burnt wood portrait of the new president.  When Jo finished, Randall displayed it in his storefront window. The next morning Jo returned to the store to find a crowd of people looking in the window at his portrait.  It was marked “sold.”  Jo got a check for $25.

The buyer, Mr. Pardee, requested that Jo visit him in his office.  Seeing the sketchbook in Jo’s pocket, Pardee asked to examine it, then requested permission to show two drawing to the head of the art school.  On seeing the sketches, Professor Neimeyer invited him to come and work in the Art School — tuition free — saying, “We are glad to have young men of talent.” So Jo began drawing a live model with other Art School students. Eventually he sketched the model from so many angles that he tired and lost interest.  Taking a break, he roved through the  building. He found a basement room full of plaster casts and modeling stands, and he walked in. 

Jo finds CLAY and “touches the rest of his life … ”

“I found the clay bin, put my hand in it, and touched the rest of my life. The cool wet stuff gave me a thrill that I had never before experienced.” 

He began building clay on a stand, copying a mask of Saint Francis nearby.  He lost track of time, then was startled when he realized  the modeling instructor, Mr. Boardman, was standing behind him.  The instructor asked how long Jo had studied modeling.  Jo said this was the first time he had touched clay.

He did not seem to believe me, which gave me the feeling it was not too bad.  We talked for a long time and the result was that I decided to chuck medicine and take up sculpture.”  Jo asked who taught sculpture and was given the name of Hermon A. MacNeil.  Between Sittings, p. 8-10.

Hermon MacNeil ~ enters Jo’s life …

JO finds Hermon MacNeil and his College Point Studio.

“By 1903, with his flirtation with a medical career ended, Jo was back in New York working as an assistant in sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s studio.” RosenKranz, p. 11.

PHASE ONE ~ Jo and Hermon: A previous story on this website tells the next phase the story

CLICK HERE to read the whole saga as Jo described it, 50 years later after Hermon’s death.  Jo relates meeting Hermon, asking for a job, getting turned down, bargaining for pay from a Scotsman … [click link for More]

PHASE TWO ~ Jo and Hermon WORKING in the MacNeil Atlier with Henri Crenier and John Gregory as the studio boy .  => CLICK HERE for full story …

OR JUST READ JO’S ‘PUNCH-LINE’ TO THE STORY BELOW –

Jo FUNNY STORY concludes:  “Henri Crenier took a special delight in teasing me. I liked him and took it good-naturedly. But one day I lost my temper and we came to blows. I knocked him down and relieved my feelings by giving him a healthy pummeling. I was so busy that I did not hear MacNeil come into the studio. Suddenly I heard him say: “Jo, when you get through, will you mix me a little plaster.” 

Hermon MacNeil outside his Studio about 1945. [Courtesy of Kenilworth Historical Society & Joel Rosenkranz. Photo by: Violet Wyld

Jo Davidson (about 1922)

NOTE THIS WELL: 

HERMON’S INTERVENTION:  MacNeil did not scold. He did not raise his voice. He did not even tell Jo to stop, for he probably saw the teasing and taunting that the young 18-year-old had taken from the other Assistants, Henri and John.  In essence he said,

“When you feel you are  sufficiently through pummeling Henri Crenier, (my master assistant), would you mix me a little plaster.”  Jo must have found Hermon to be quiet a contrast to his Father whose “signs of affection were rarely given luxuries”  Fifty years later Jo tells the above story in his biography, then concludes with: “The summer passed quickly. Those were rich and full days. I was sure of my vocation. I was going to be a sculptor.”l

Rich and full, the “sculptor to be” went on searching the world for another decade to develop his own style and skills as a sculptor.  Then in the next 40 years, Jo Davidson shaped portrait busts of over a hundred world famous peopleBUT the kindness of Hermon MacNeil seemed to be a pleasant memory.

MORE “HERMON & JO” STORIES TO COME …  on Feb 8th

#2  The Wanderer & The Monument Maker

~~~~

NOTES:

  1.  Jo Davidson, Between Sittings: an informal autobiography of Jo Davidson. Dial Press: New York, 1951. PP. 3.
  2. Connor, Janis and Joel Rosenkranz, photographs by David Finn, Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893 – 1939, University of Texas Press, Austin TX 1989.

SOURCES: 

  • Jo Davidson, Between Sittings: an informal autobiography of Jo Davidson. Dial Press: New York, 1951. PP. 3-16.
  • TIME, “Political Notes: Glamor Pusses.” VOL. XLVIII, No. 11, September 9, 1946. pp
  • Connor, Janis and Joel Rosenkranz, photographs by David Finn, Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893 – 1939, University of Texas Press, Austin TX 1989.
  • Jo Davidson, (1883-1952). Jewish Virtual Library: a project of AICE. Source:  https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jo-davidson. recovered on Jan 11, 2021.

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