November 2007

The Intrepid Mrs. Sally James Farnham

An American Sculptor Rediscovered

by Michael P. Reed

The following article is a revised and expanded version of "Sally James Farnham," originally published as an addendum to the author's "Simón Bolívar in Central Park" for the website (2004).

When the revised edition of Lorado Taft's landmark volume The History of American Sculpture was published in 1924, it cited, albeit briefly, fifty-seven women then active in the field. Such recognition indicated the significant contributions women were making in a male-dominated art at a time of rigidly defined gender roles. The concurrent rise and eventual dominance of a modernist aesthetic, however, soon eclipsed the accomplishments of these talented women, whose highly individual works were rooted in the academic style of the Beaux Arts tradition. Only recently have new scholarship and groundbreaking exhibitions begun to explore the careers of these forgotten sculptors, highlighting their glaring omission from standard accounts of American art history.

One of the most notable of these pioneering women was Sally James Farnham (1869-1943). Taft's history allotted her but a single sentence:

Nor can we overlook the intrepid Mrs. Sally James Farnham, who, self-taught, without master or tradition, undertakes equestrian statues like her General Bolívar, and does them well enough to please the New York Municipal Art Commission.

Clearly alluded to in that brief remark was Farnham's unlikely beginning and meteoric rise as a sculptor who excelled in the creation of public monuments, among various other works.

Born Sarah Welles James in 1869 in a small town in upstate New York, Farnham belonged to a prominent family. Her paternal grandfather, Amaziah Bailey James, served in the U. S. Congress from 1877 to 1881, and her father, Colonel Edward C. James, was a celebrated Civil War veteran who became a noted trial lawyer in New York City. From a very early age, Sally enjoyed the physical activities that life in the St. Lawrence River valley afforded. Despite the proprieties generally imposed on girls of her day, she was encouraged in her love of hunting and celebrated for her horsemanship. The latter would eventually serve her well, for equestrian subjects often figured in her sculpture.

Following the death of her mother in 1879, Sally became her father's closest companion, inheriting his deep love of beauty and his insatiable appetite for knowledge. The strength of their bond no doubt contributed to her life-long preference for the company and advice of strong men whose intellectual equal she could be. With Colonel James she traveled the world, exploring the cultures of countries as richly diverse as France, Norway, Scotland, and Japan. During these early years, however, Sally appears to have demonstrated little interest in actually creating art, much less pursuing it as a possible career path. The only creative activity recorded during this period were schoolgirl drawings and an uncommon ability to fashion exacting paper-cutout silhouettes of people and animals. Nonetheless, she was sensitive to the sights around her, once noting in her travel diary that she had been transfixed by the sheer beauty of the Venus de Milo. As she later recalled, those days "were loaded with opportunities to study, to absorb unconsciously the great things in line and form of every nation. In fact this was my real schooling. I was heading for sculpture then, though I didn't know it."

In 1896, Sally married George Paulding Farnham, design director for jewelry and silver at Tiffany & Co. His strong personality and remarkable work under the Tiffany name had brought both him and the company international fame, including a Gold Medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition for his exquisite jewelry designs. The couple established a residence in Great Neck, New York, had three children, and enjoyed an active social life, entertaining in style and surrounding themselves with creative people. Within five short years, however, Sally's life was dramatically altered by the sudden death of her beloved father, followed by the onset of a serious illness that confined her to a hospital bed. Seeking to distract her from her infirmity, her husband had the idea of bringing her some modeling clay, hoping it would engage her and elevate her depressed spirits. She took to it readily. Of the hours spent in her first attempts at sculpture, she later said: "It was as if in some mysterious previous state of existence I had actually been a sculptor and the memory of it was beginning to leak back into my fingers and thumbs."

On regaining health, Farnham resolved to pursue her newfound interest professionally. Defying social convention, not to mention the demands of domestic life, she soon opened a studio in New York. Her first year brought a number of commissions, mostly for portrait busts of society friends. Gently guided and advised by her husband, who was a member of the National Sculpture Society and a gifted sculptor in his own right, she was always sensitive to the criticism that she lacked academic schooling (the sculptor Augustus Lukeman once affectionately characterized her technique as "punk"). In those early days, Sally relied heavily on the advice of an old family friend, the painter and sculptor Frederic Remington, famed for his embodiments of the American West. Remington--who called one of Sally's early works "ugly as sin" yet "full of ginger"--supported and encouraged her in her work until his untimely death in 1909.

Farnham received her first important private commission in 1903. It was to create a fountain for the Baltimore garden of Captain Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer. Her design for the fountain featured three life-sized nude maidens gaily dancing hand in hand around a center spout topped with a fanciful figure of Pan. While partly conforming to the Beaux Arts conventions of the day, the work is nonetheless typical of Farnham's early output in being ambitious in scope and a bit daring in content. Tellingly, she had the following poem inscribed upon the base:

Graces in alluring shapes
Played and danced among the grapes.
None to question or to hamper,
Naught on fun to cast a damper.
Joyous spontaneity,
Knowing not propriety,
Why should maiden, stiffly bodiced,
Stand the type of all that's modest,
Or the consciousness of virtue
Be expressed by shoes that hurt you?
Would the All Wise Power saw fit
To unlace our lives a bit
Give us room to breathe, and be
Like the gods in Arcady!

Just as she clearly voiced this good-humored protest against the marginalized and constrained role of women in the society of her day, Farnham boldly rejected such a role for herself. In 1905, she began entering and winning competitions for public memorial sculpture. The war monuments she created for her hometown of Ogdensburg, New York (Spirit of Liberty [more]), and the city of Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery (Civil War Soldier with Bugler Boy [more --search for "Farnham"]), for example, were acclaimed for her unusual treatment of the theme.

Farnham did not disdain the domestic side of her life, however. Writing about her art, the influential critic Alexander Woollcott noted that when the committee for the Rochester monument had first requested a meeting with her, she replied that she had an important piece of work that would take six weeks to complete. When that time elapsed and the committee again contacted her to ask if her prior job were finished, she replied: "The new job is satisfactorily accomplished, and weighs ten pounds. I am nursing him at present and have my oldest boy to install in school and am moving into town for the winter, and I also have a few guests to entertain, but I think I can tackle your monument next week."

Around this time, Sally was chosen by the social activist Jacob Riis to model a bas-relief plaque of Theodore Roosevelt [more] to be placed in his honor within a new gymnasium at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City. This commission gave the budding sculptor her first true dose of national exposure, as news items on her image of the president ran in papers across the country. Her reputation began to precede her.

By 1908 Farnham had received a major public commission. She was invited to create a frieze for the Governing-Board Room of the new building for the Pan American Union (now the Organization of American States) in Washington, D. C. The task was a difficult one, as it required depicting the European discovery, exploration, and settlement of the New World without overemphasizing the plight of indigenous Americans. Sensitive to the sometimes brutal realities of the subject matter, Farnham created painterly bas-reliefs, rather than employ a more sculptural style similar to that of the Parthenon, as the architects had stipulated. In the course of the work, she revised the content of many of the panels to satisfy various political factions. On completion, The Frieze of the Discoverers [image of panel 7] was praised for Farnham's attention to historical detail, as well as for the sensitivity of her treatment and modeling. Before their permanent installation in Washington, the panels were exhibited at the American Art Galleries in New York. It was the first (and remarkably the last) solo exhibition of Farnham's work.

In marked contrast to her growing success as a sculptor, however, Farnham's marriage had been rapidly deteriorating. In 1908, Louis Comfort Tiffany had became president of Tiffany & Co., and deep-rooted creative differences between him and Paulding Farnham soon led the latter to resign. Paulding spent the next few years working as a sculptor in New York before traveling to British Columbia to pursue mining opportunities, but failed in his dreams of quick financial returns and, in the end, drained the family finances. In 1914, with three children to support, Sally petitioned for a divorce, which was granted a year later on grounds of desertion.

Despite her personal difficulties during this period, Sally won the most important public commission of her career, one that brought her international acclaim. In a worldwide competition in 1916, she was chosen by the Government of Venezuela to create a new equestrian monument of the great South American liberator Simón Bolívar. It was to replace an earlier bronze, notoriously regarded as a "monsterpiece," that had been placed in New York's Central Park in 1886. A previous attempt to replace that unsatisfactory memorial had been rejected by the increasingly influential Municipal Art Commission, which deemed the proposed model technically and aesthetically inferior. Farnham's model, a noble rendering of the Liberator, was chosen over the work of fifteen (some accounts cite twenty) other sculptors. Numerous delays hampered production of the monument until 1921, however. Owing to the war in Europe, competent workmen were scarce, as was the bronze needed to cast the large-scale work. Moreover, Farnham's first model for the work was lost or destroyed during the course of a very public dispute with another sculptor from whom she had rented studio space, and who claimed she owed him a hundred dollars in back rent. As a result, she had to begin again the project anew.

When at last the monument was dedicated in Central Park near West 83rd Street, on April 19, 1921, the crowd of thousands present included representatives from five South American republics and President Warren G. Harding. Farnham's work (later moved to Central Park South and the Avenue of the Americas)--according to one account, the largest by a woman "which history anywhere records"--was also the only known equestrian monument of a man created by a woman. More important, it was generally acclaimed for its splendid portrayal of a great hero. In a three-page entry on Farnham in the volume Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture (originally published in 1943), Beatrice Proske, who was curator of the Brookgreen collection, wrote of Bolívar's "spirited, high-stepping mount with proudly arched neck and tossing mane." She noted that Farnham had "used the General's handsome uniform and flowing cape to increase the atmosphere of pomp and circumstance, while concentrating attention on [his] courageous bearing and nobility of expression, vividly suggesting his fiery nature." Similarly, the Guide to Manhattan's Outdoor Sculpture by Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, observes that the sculptor (mistakenly listed as Sally Jane Farnham) "capture[d] her subject's intellectual and heroic qualities. The furrowed brow and resolute mouth give the bronze figure a sense of dignity and nobility." In gratitude for such an achievement, Farnham was awarded the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Venezuelan government, the Order of Bolívar.

The decade following that great success was a busy one for Farnham, in which she executed important commissions for public monuments, commemorative medals, and memorials, and also created portraits of several members of a circle of influential friends that included the actress Lynn Fontanne. In 1922, one of these friends, the dancer Irene Castle, saw a work Farnham had first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1915, and asked her to enlarge it in marble for the grave of her late husband and dancing partner, Vernon Castle. The work, entitled The End of the Day [more] [more] [more] [more] [more], depicted a nude female figure kneeling on the ground, slumped over, head bowed, in total weariness. (In Volume II of Brookgreen Gardens Sculpture, Proske's successor, Robin Salmon, reports that the figure was inspired by a member of the Isadora Duncan dance group who had dropped to the floor exhausted after a strenuous practice session.) In the context of the memorial, the figure becomes a moving expression of grief and loss. A small bronze version of the work, one of her finest, has been in the Brookgreen Gardens collection since 1943. The original marble, replaced by a bronze copy at the Castle gravesite, is now at Brookgreen as well.

Much sought after as a portrait sculptor, Farnham was lauded by sitters and critics alike for her keen eye and her ability to capture individual character. As Proske noted, sitters probably also valued Farnham's sparkling personality and wit (the inscription on her tombstone aptly reads "A merry heart goes all the day"). The sculptor's portrait subjects include many of the decade's prominent personalities, ranging from President Harding and Marshal Ferdinand Foch (supreme commander of the allied forces in World War I) to her friend Fontanne and violinist Jascha Heifetz. Foch judged Farnham's bust of him to be the best likeness of him ever created. And her portrait of Heifetz (an image of which can be seen on my Farnham website [click on "Portraits"], though its thumbnail is missing--click on his name) is a beautiful example of the pared-down naturalism that she gradually perfected. (A different view of the Heifetz portrait is on the North Country Public Radio website [click on "next"].)

In 1927, Farnham began work on another important war memorial, this one for Fultonville, New York. The optimistic spirit of the work comports with the view expressed by the painter Cecilia Beaux in a public debate regarding the quality of war memorials erected around the country after World War I. As Beaux observed,

[Americans] are a busy and cheerful people. We shall not become morbid over our dead. Let our memorials be such as to turn us aside, for the moment of pity, love and pride. The American soldier of the Great War must be permanently and visibly on record in many places, as he looked and was.

Adhering to such a view, Farnham created Like Hell You Can! [more]--a bold composition of a soldier and sailor standing tall, shoulder-to-shoulder, confronting what may come. The work demonstrates, once again, her exacting attention to detail, as well as her typically positive outlook. "I am so glad to be able to make it a simple memorial," she said, "and not a sculpture of good little Sunday School boys, or soldiers and sailors dying." Critics praised the work, noting the "masculine spirit" she had embodied in it.

Farnham's creative activities were not limited to sculpture. Among other projects, she designed stage sets and costumes for an historical drama, A Love Story for the Ages, produced in Los Angeles in 1913. Later that decade, with her friend Neysa McMein--a highly successful commercial artist--she co-wrote a song that found its way into a Broadway revue. In 1929, she even entered into a contract with R. H. Macy and Co. (along with McMein and Fontanne) to create a line of shoes for women. Following the stock market crash that year, however, Farnham, like many artists, had limited opportunities for paid work. Her own output was minimal during this period. Nevertheless, she was actively engaged in advancing the careers of the next generation of artists (among others, the sculptor Wheeler Williams [more] [more ] and the Western painter Olaf Wieghorst), who can thank Farnham's influence and connections for getting some of their early work seen.

In 1930, Farnham cast what she considered to be her best work--Pay Day, an obvious homage to her early mentor and friend, Frederic Remington. She once reminisced about Remington's early influence: "He was responsible for my 'fitting in' to art. . . . He filled me with the romance and picturesque beauty of those days that have passed." Pay Day depicts four cowboys riding into town for a raucous evening, and is full of the robust energy and naturalistic detail for which Farnham was known. It had originally been conceived in 1924 as a monumental work to be placed atop the center arch of the newly built Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but that commission never materialized.

Farnham's last important work took form in 1936, inspired by the sudden and tragic death of America's beloved humorist Will Rogers. Like many artists, Farnham wished to memorialize his unique contribution to American culture. Her subtly detailed figure of Rogers [more] on his famous horse, Soapsuds, shows him in a mood of quiet contemplation. The work won the hearts of admirers across the country as photos of it appeared in newspapers and magazines.

Farnham once commented that she most liked sculptures "that are full of force, feeling and emotional expression. I want to believe the whole heart and soul of the artist is in his work. When he can make others believe that, he is a great artist." On another occasion, she wrote: "I have always felt beauty as well as strength, and loved them. These are important things in sculpture. To mould feeling, strength and wisdom, to see through the outer form and bring to the surface the unconscious joys of life, this is my task."

Sally James Farnham died in New York City on April 28, 1943, after several years of failing health. Almost till the end, she continued seeking commissions. As late as 1940, she was in discussions to create a New York monument to yet another Pan American patriot, Francisco de Paula Santander. Notwithstanding the remarkable scope and quality of her creative output, however, and the celebrity she had enjoyed for more than forty years, her work fell into lamentable obscurity after her death. Happily, that neglect has begun to be reversed. In 2005, the Frederic Remington Art Museum published The Art of Being an Artist: Sally James Farnham, American Sculptor, the first monograph to explore her work and place it within American art history. As an able sculptor who competed on a difficult stage and succeeded on her own terms, the intrepid Mrs. Farnham well deserves such critical reassessment.

A native of Ogdensburg, New York, where he grew up in the shadow of Sally James Farnham's Soldiers and Sailors Monument (Spirit of Liberty), Michael P. Reed is the leading authority on the life and work of the sculptor. An independent scholar, he initiated and pursues the Farnham Catalogue Raisonné Project from his present home in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and maintains a website dedicated to the sculptor's life and work.

Sculpture by Farnham

Images of the works cited below are also found on the Farnham website unless marked with an asterisk (*).

* Fra Junipero Serra

Courtship of Two Elephants (also known as Spring in the Jungle) [additional view]

[Pictured on NCPR website]
* Lynn Fontanne
* Cowboy Fun
Theodore Roosevelt
Enos Booth, Esq. in Riding Habit
Jascha Heifitz [do not miss stunning additional view on the Farnham site (thumbnail image is missing)]
The Madill Grandchildren
Marshall Ferdinand Foch
Warren G. Harding
Rain (also referred to as Policeman in the Rain and Man on Horse)

Select Bibliography