Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935)
Portrait of E. E. Cummings, 1924
Bronze, 14 1/4 in.
The Lachaise Foundation
© The Lachaise Foundation

Gaston Lachaise (1882 – 1935)
Man Walking (Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein),
Bronze, 23 1/2 in. high.
Bruce Museum Collection 2010.01

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Face & Figure: The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise

September 22, 2012 - January 6, 2013

Gaston Lachaise (American, b. France, 1882–1935) was more than a gifted sculptor of the human body, he was one of the finest portraitists of his age. Key examples of the artist’s work, many on loan from leading museums, private collections and the Lachaise Foundation, will reveal the full range of Lachaise’s vision, with special attention to the fascinating interchange between figural work and portraiture.

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Gaston Lachaise was the extraordinary exception that proves the rule. In contrast to nearly every other modern artist in the early years of the twentieth century, for whom Paris was the modernist Mecca, Lachaise abandoned France for the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, the young Parisian’s voyage to our shores was motivated by something other than pure esthetic drive: he was in passionate pursuit of a married American woman, Isabel Dutaud Nagle (1872–1957), who would become his obsession, his muse, and eventually his wife.

It is no exaggeration to say that Lachaise’s oeuvre is a sustained elaboration of his intense feeling for Nagle’s beauty.  The series of great nudes that secured his reputation—standing on tip-toe, dancing, reclining, floating, and even levitating—are meditations on flesh and space in the immediate wake of Auguste Rodin’s myriad brilliant formulations.  Lachaise was probably lucky to have crossed the Atlantic in what seemed to be the wrong direction in 1906 (living first in Boston and then New York), as he thereby became the leading representative of French art implanted in the New World.

“Lachaise was that singular being of today and yesterday,” American painter Marsden Hartley wrote in 1939, “the worshipper of beauty . . . beauty was his meat and bread, it was his breath and music, it was the image that traversed his dreams, and troubled his sleep, it was his vital, immortal energy.”


The Bruce Museum was closed on September 14th, 2012 for the delivery of Floating Figure, (1927) Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935) Bronze, The Lachaise Foundation. Approximately 2000 pounds.



For Lachaise as sculptor and portraitist, the head and face—alternately pensive, noble, aloof, commanding or introspective—inspired superb and complex portrayals.  His sitters were poets, painters, musicians, critics, and art patrons, including E.E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Scofield Thayer, Carl Van Vechten, George L.K. Morris, Antoinette Kraushaar, Edward M.M. Warburg, Edgard Varèse and Henry McBride—a veritable pantheon of the American artistic avant-garde of the interwar years.  Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the nude figure of critic, historian, and founder of the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein, a work that has recently been acquired by the Bruce Museum.  One of only two examples of the sculpture (the Whitney Museum of American Art possesses its twin), the 23½-inch bronze confounds the usual distinction between figure and portrait, as its bifurcated title indicates: Man Walking (Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein).  Alluding to both dance and oration—Kirstein’s mouth is open, as if speaking, and his hand extended, as if making an intellectual point—the sculptural form was in fact inspired by a statuette of the Egyptian god Amun that Lachaise and Kirstein admired.

“In archaic sculpture, from Egyptian statuettes to Greek kouroi,” writes Bruce Museum Executive Director Peter C. Sutton, “the first step that announces the figure’s break with the columnar captivity of the media, be it stone or bronze, is the single striding, extended leg. What better pose to convey his sitter’s impact on twentieth-century American culture?”

The exhibition will raise a number of compelling questions: does the aesthetic appreciation of the nude rule out a more intense study of personality, and conversely, does portraiture, with its focus on specific character traits, interfere with the pursuit of beauty?  Do unnamed nudes qualify as portraits if, in fact, we know the identity of the model, and does an artist’s repeated use of a particular model preclude the possibility of recognizing his or her personality?  Are Gaston Lachaise’s scores of nude female figures as nonspecific as they purport to be, with generalizing or allegorical titles like Elevation, Floating Figure, Standing Nude, In Extremis, or The Mountain, or are they portraits of his beloved Isabel? What, in fact, did Lachaise intend by portraying Lincoln Kirstein nude: a revelation of the young man’s personality, the “naked truth,” or a device for distancing us from the specific man by means of an idealized portrayal, free of social trappings? Was Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Hyatt Mayor right when he said, in 1932, three years before the sculptor’s death: “In a sense every figure of Lachaise’s is a portrait—an individual struggling against a particular fate,” or should we, to the contrary see all of Lachaise’s portraits as figures, as the individual’s recognition that there is no particular fate in store for any of us, only the same end as everyone else.  These and many other compelling issues will come to light in Face & Figure: The Sculpture of Gaston Lachaise

Curated by New York University Professor of Modern Art and Bruce Museum Adjunct Curator of Art Ken Silver, the exhibition will be accompanied by a major scholarly catalogue with contributions by Silver, Sutton, Paula Hornbostel, Curator of the Lachaise Foundation, and Laura Hovenac, Bruce Museum Zvi Grunberg Intern, 2011-2012.

The exhibition is underwritten by The Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce  Exhibtion Fund, The Matthew A. and Susan B. Weatherbie Charitable Foundation, The Malcom Hewitt Wiener Foundation, and a Committee of Honor under the chairmanships of Aundrea Amine, Michael Kovner and Jean Doyen de Montaillou, and Leah and Bob Rukeyser.