The History of American Sculpture

Lorado Taft, Sculptor

On Tuesday March 12, 2013 at 7:00pm, the museum will host author Lynn Allyn Young, who will present a lecture on her recently published book, Beautiful Dreamer: The Completed Works and Unfulfilled Plans of Sculptor Lorado Taft.  (Tickets are $10 per person and $8 for museum members.  For more information or to make reservations, call 312.326.1480.)

Lorado Taft (1860-1936) was a prominent American sculptor, respected writer and educator, teaching for many years at the Art Institute of Chicago.  His massive Fountain of Time, located in the southeast corner of Washington Park at the west end of the Midway Plaisance is among Chicago’s best known public works of art. 

Taft was born in Elmwood, Illinois and received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees (1879 and 1880 respectively) from the University of Illinois, where his father was a professor of geology.  Taft later attended the École des Beaux-Arts where he received high praises for his work and twice was asked to exhibit at their annual Salon.  After returning to Chicago in 1886, he accepted a position to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago, a post he retained until 1929. 

During the planning of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham approached Taft about his concerns that the sculptural decorations on the various buildings would not be completed in time.   Taft suggested the use of a number of his female students to work as assistants to which Burnham famously replied “Hire anyone, even white rabbits if they’ll do the work.”  Several of the female sculptors, who became known as the “White Rabbits,” achieved later fame, and Taft is generally credited with helping to advance the status of women as sculptors.

In 1903, Taft published a comprehensive survey of American sculpture entitled The History of American Sculpture.  The study was revised in 1925 and remained the standard reference on the subject until the late 1960s.  In 1921, he published Modern Tendencies in Sculpture, a compilation of various lectures given at the Art Institute, still regarded as an important work in recording the perspectives on American and European sculpture in the first decades of the 20th century. 

In 1906, Taft moved his main studio to a converted carriage house at what is now 6016 S. Ingleside Avenue, immediately south of the Midway Plaisance (entrance shown above).  The firm of Pond & Pond was hired to significantly expand the building, known as the Midway Studios, to include a total of thirteen studios and dormitory spaces for Taft and other sculptors.  (The complex, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, is now used by the University of Chicago as studio and gallery space for its studio art program.)

Taft’s commissions were numerous and not surprisingly several of them can be found today in Chicago.  His Fountain of the Great Lakes, completed in 1913, stands in the south courtyard of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Two prominent monuments at Graceland Cemetery, Eternal Silence (Dexter Graves monument, 1909) and The Crusader (Victor Lawson monument, 1931) remain favorites on walking tours of the cemetery, the latter being used as the cover image of the new guide to the cemetery, written by Barbara Lanctot for the Chicago Architecture Foundation. 

But it is the massive Fountain of Time in Washington Park, 110 feet long and 24 feet high, that remains Taft’s most famous work in Chicago.   (A detail of the fountain is shown on the book cover at top).  It is interesting to note that John Glessner was involved in the planning for this project as noted in an entry in the Glessner journal dated February 2, 1913:

“I have had several meetings with the committee to help place Lorado Taft’s monument, The Passing of Time, on the Midway, in commemoration of 100 years of peace between the U.S. and England, for which the Art Institute gave Taft the commission.  Now the South Park Commissioners must agree to the placing of it.  At least five years will be required to complete the model.”

World War I intervened in the planning and execution of the fountain, so it was not officially dedicated until November 1922.  A $2 million restoration of the fountain and reflecting pool was completed in 2005, returning this treasure to its original glory.