14 May 2014

Joy Is Our Cause: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth

" ...listen; there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go"
 - E.E. Cummings, 1944

What world is this where a young girl dances on the back of a fish, her head turned to the side where another fish perches on her shoulder, as though speaking into her ear?  Is this a vignette from some obscure mythology or a tribute to the freshness of the new 20th century American girl, who could charm, bemuse, and even alarm her elders?   The prosaic answer is that this is a garden fountain by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980).  But there is too much poetry in Frishmuth's sculpture to leave it there.
Two years ago this month, I finally visited the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, a small city on the Mohawk River about forty five minutes west of Albany.  The museum, which has kept a rather low profile, is home to a varied collection of American paintings, thanks to the Arkell family who made their fortune with Beechnut Baby Foods.  I hadn't thought about Frishmuth for    a long time, but there it was.  It turned out to be Humoresque modeled, as I later learned, by Madeleine Parler, a ballerina who died at twenty-five, on tour far from home,of leukemia.  Frishmuth captured Parker forever young.  The title may be a nod to the generations of piano students who have made Antonin Dvorak's Humoresque second in popularity only to Beethoven's Fur Elise.

Frishmuth's relationship with her models was unusual and definitely light years removed from the perfervid atmosphere of Auguste Rodin's studio at Meudon.  I mention Rodin not only because his louche attitudes and behavior were notorious during his lifetime but because Frishmuth was a student of the man widely acknowledged as the greatest sculptor of the human figure in his time.  Her collegial working relationship with models included asking them to suggest poses to embody her themes. Lasting friendships often resulted, notably with Desha Delteil (1899 -1980) and Madeleine Parker (1911-1936). Delteil and Frishmuth died within months of each other in 1980.

How Frishmuth and Deltiel first met says a lot about the artist's personality and approachability.  Frishmuth was living in her studio at Sniffin Court, a picturesque alleyway near Manhattan's Thirty-ninth Street, where artists lived and worked in converted stables.  At the time, Delteil was an apprentice dancer with the Russian emigre choreographer Michel Fokine.

“It was in 1916 that [Desha] knocked at my studio door and asked if I could use her.  When we had finished our little chat she went out skipping, half dancing and singing through the courtyard to the street.  At first I used her [Desha] for my class. ...Then one week I had her pose just for me and as neither of us knew exactly what we wanted I put a record on the victrola.  It was L'Extase by Scriabin.  Desha started dancing and one pose intrigued me. I carried it out and called the finished bronze L'Extase after the music.”

Desha Delteil was much in demand as an  artist's model  for her unusual ability to hold difficult poses for long periods, a skill she perfected as a dancer.  The photo of Delteil (at top) was one of a series she made in collaboration with photographer Nikolas Murray (1892-1965) for Vanity Fair in 1921.  Murray was briefly married to Desha's sister Leja.
She was born Desha Podgorsek in Ljubljana, now the capital of Slovenia but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  She and her sister Leja came to the United States in 1913. 

It was Delteil who also modeled for The Vine (1921), a work that is now synonymous with the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing in the public imagination.   At seven feet three inches tall, the female figure, her back gracefully arched,  holds her own against the reconstructed columns and stained windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany's Laurelton Hall.  Another casting of The Vine belongs to the Yale University Art Gallery, which is where Abelardo Morell photographed it in 2008.  Against the sylvan backdrop of Corot's  A Pond Seen Through the Trees (c. 1855-1865), the nymph holds out a garland, as if in offering to the woodland gods. 

Madeleine Parker was also a student of Fokine, making her professional  debut at the Metropolitan Opera House at the age of 12.  She had been born in Fichtburg, Massachusetts in 1912, but after her father’s death the family moved to New Hampshire. After New York, Parker tried her luck in Hollywood.  In 1935, under a new name, Mira Dimina, Parker joined the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.  She died on November 22, 1936 of leukemia at a hospital in Adelaide, Australia.  Most writers have concentrated on the brevity of Parker’s life and its sad end far from home but that does a disservice, I think, to her vibrant art and its expression through Firshmuth’s sculptures.

Parker knew Desha Delteil, who introduced the young ballerina to her friend the sculptor.  According to  Ruth Talcott, Frishmuth's secretary,  “Frishmuth asked young Madeleine what she would do if she were standing on a flat rock in a shallow pool and there were frogs nearby, and then girl said that she would probably try to tickle the back of one of the frogs.   Like this...”  And so  Playdays was conceived.   Sometimes cast as a a fountain, when it is , the frogs at the base spout water

Parker was also the model for for Call of the Sea (1924).  It stands a diminutive four feet high but is a breakthrough sculpture by an American woman.   I remember seeing it at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens as a little girl.  The exuberance of her arm thrown back as she rides the fish  is the essence of joy, frozen in a moment, and unforgettable.  There is something in Frishmuth's approach to the female body that ignores the prurience that the erotically judgmental male brings to the experience.
Speaking of which....a version of Call of the Sea was donated to Vassar College in 1954,  to grace  Sunset Lake on campus.  Doubtless because the figure of the young girl riding a fish is so deliciously rendered and deliciously suggestive, it was the object of several  kidnappings by male students from Yale University. When the lake was dredged in the late 1970s, Call of the Sea had disappeared, only to be returned in 2011.  Restored, it now stands, safely, in the sculpture garden of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

Harriet Whitney Frishmuth was born in Philadelphia in 1880.  She grew up in Europe where she studied at private schools.  While staying at a Swiss pensione the 19 year-old Frishmuth first tried modeling with clay.  She studied for two years in Berlin before returning to  the States where she worked at the Art Students League under Gutzon Borglum, who later designed and executed the Mount Rushmore project.  Borglum encouraged the young artist to work on her own.  Her maternal uncle, Dr. T. Passmore Berens, gave Frishmuth studio space in his Park Avenue apartment but it took years of  designing  small statues for the Gorham Company before she was able to work independently.

Like many artists,  Frishmuth found it increasingly difficult to make a living during the depression years of the 1930s.   She returned to Philadelphia but in 1940, a fall from a scaffold left her permanently injured.  For a time her work went out of style, so her hostility to modern art was understandable.  But Frishmuth always scorned the dismissive term 'sculpturess.' 

If Frishmuth's works seem to dance, a rare feat in bronze, it may reflect  the joy she found in dance.
“ I was in a theater watching Michel Fokine dance.  I was making a portrait of Fokine at the time... The big curtain was down and I saw this vision of a figure pass across the screen and I cooed hardly wait to go back to the studio to start modeling it.”  A sleek, forward leaning figure perched on a globe, Speed was used as a hood ornament on luxury cars and  a large marble relief can still be seen today on the former Bell Telephone Building in Erie, Pennsylvania.

A note on dating:
Because Frishmusht's sculptures were often cast several times, I have used the dates supplied by the owners for each work shown here.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the Harriet Whitney Frishmuth papers on file at Syracuse University.  Syracuse University also owns nine bronzes by Frishmuth.

For further reading: 
American Women Sculptors by Charlotte Street Rubenstein, Boston,  G.K. Hall: 1990  Madeleine Parker and the Fokine Connection  at Dancelines (Australia)

Desha Delteil photographs at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

1. Abelardo Morell -  Frishmuth and  Camillle Corot,  2008, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.
2. Nikolas Murray - Desha Delteil, 1921, Vanity Fair (magazine), NYC.
3. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth - Joy of the Waters  (Desha Delteil, model) , 1920, Flornce Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, CT.
4. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth - Call of the Sea (Madeleine Parker, model), 1924, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie
5. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth - Playdays (Madeleine Parker, model), c. 1924, private collection
6. Harriet Whitney Frishmuth - Humoresque (Madeleine Parker, model), 1924, Farming Community Library, Farmington, Michigan.


Yasmeen Elsayed said...

thanks ,,,,,,,,

Jane said...

Welcome, Yasmeen, and thank you for visiting the site.

Joe Lex said...

I am working on a podcast for Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, where Harriet is buried and one of her most magnificent works - "Aspiration" - marks the plot of the Harry Berwind family. This has caused me to "go down rabbit holes" in pursuit of information about Harriet and Desha. The anecdote about "Call of the Sea" is priceless and I will include it in the podcast, with credit to your blog. Look for it on / about December 1, 2019, from https://www.joelex.xyz/all-bones-considered-laurel-hill-st. Thank you.

Jane LIBRIZZI said...

Welcome, Joe Lex. If you haven't been to the Arkell Museum, it is well worth a visit, and not just for the Frishmuth fountain. The Arkell family gave a wonderful collection of American art to their town, giving back to the people who worked at their Beechnut Foods plant and made their fortune.
I'm looking forward to your podcast (s). Thanks for sharing it.