Norwich sculptor’s talent lives on in famous figures
“I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” are the legendary last words of America’s first spy, Connecticut militiaman Nathan Hale. In a famous statue, Hale stands erect, set face and jaw, hands tied behind his back, ankles hobbled. You can find bronze installations of this statue inside the quadrangle beside Connecticut Hall, at Yale University in New Haven; at the center of the circle in Mitchell College, New London; on the grounds of Fort Trumbull in New Haven; and in front of the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in D.C. The statues are four of the five, full size bronzes of Hale that were created. In addition, twenty smaller bronze statues of Hale were made. Two of these are now on exhibition at the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich with other striking bronzes: a lithe young girl, draped in her hair, embraces her knees and contemplates a nude dive into the water. Another young woman turns at the waist in demure introspection; still another lifts without inhibition, her lush, heavy hair from her shoulders. Nearby, other sculptures depict sweet, soft moments, as mothers embrace their babies and kiss their wonderfully chubby limbs.
This array of characters—the Revolutionary War hero, the sensuous nudes, and the happy mothers and children—share the same Norwich, Connecticut sculptor, Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917). Over 100 years ago, Bela Lyon Pratt threw his vision and passion into his artwork. Now, after a century that many of these works spent in hiding, much of his wide-ranging imagination is on view in “Bela Lyon Pratt: Sculptor of Monument”, through Jan. 15, 2018 in the Converse Art Gallery of the Slater Memorial Museum on the campus of Norwich Free Academy. Objects in the exhibition have been loaned by institutions and family members from across the country and Canada.
You can take part in a special celebration of the 150th birthday of Bela Lyon Pratt on Sunday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. in the atrium at the Slater Memorial Museum. Visitors of all ages are welcome to enjoy birthday cake and to create their own souvenir medallion.
The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of Pratt’s birth and commemorates the centennial of his death. Among 50 sculptures and paintings, numerous objects related to his life, and informational text panels, are a plaster of Captain James Avery, portraits in bronze, marble and on canvas, a bow Pratt carved himself for his archery practice, and other interesting personal artifacts.
In Connecticut, Pratt’s work is recognizable to school children and history buffs. Hempstead Street in downtown New London boasts his 1904 sculpture of the city’s founder and fascinating early Puritan governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop. In addition to being a popular statesman, Winthrop was a chemist and promoter of modern medicine and his sculpture is one that Pratt himself thought was one of his best. Pratt’s Captain James Avery, a bronze bust of the Stonington settler and military commander, sits atop a tall marble column among the treetops off Route 12 in Groton.
Pratt was named for his paternal great-grandfather of Weymouth, Massachusetts, and complained to his mother Sarah (Whittlesey) that his first name was often thought to be a woman’s name. His father, Yale-educated lawyer George Pratt, was elected in 1860 to represent Salem in the Connecticut General Assembly and became a leader in city and state government and politics. The family originally lived at Rocklawn above Broad Street, in Norwich, not far from the present Rose Garden. The house was a great stone pile on 12 acres at the highest point in the city with a view of the Thames River from this height and, today, to the Mohegan Sun Casino. The 7-year-old Bela walked down the hill to the Broad Street School in the 1870’s.
By the time Pratt turned 8, the loss of his father had sent the family into turmoil. His mother, with six children, struggled to sustain the family and maintain a stable home life. From at least 1879 to 1882, she operated her “Norwich Normal School of Music” at 81 Union Street where she moved the family. Sarah Victoria Whittlesey Pratt had studied painting at Troy Female Seminary in New York, and music at her father’s Music Vale Seminary in Salem, CT.
In 1883 at the age of 16, Pratt entered Yale to study at the School of Fine Arts, where he was a contemporary of future Norwich Free Academy Art School Director (1897-1913) Ozias Dodge (1868-1925). Both graduated from Yale, both went on to the Art Students League in New York, and both studied in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, known for its use of plaster casts for drawing. Both would have studied with John Ferguson Weir (1841–1926) at Yale, grandfather of Irene Weir, NFA’s first Art School Director.
At the Art Students League of New York, Pratt took classes from Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), who became his mentor.
In 1893, Pratt began a 25-year career as an influential teacher of modeling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Modeling (also spelled modelling) is the term used to describe forming three-dimensional works from clay. From a clay model, an artist could create a mold and have the work cast in plaster or bronze. Today, such works are often cast in polyester resin, a combination of substances.
During his twenties, Pratt also began a weekly correspondence with his mother, which he sustained until his death. To her, he confided his strongest emotions. The letters that Granddaughter Cynthia Kennedy Sam (1936-2014) bequeathed to the Yale University Art Gallery, show a window into family and business concerns, including Pratt’s years at the École des Beaux-arts and at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Pratt’s first work of public sculpture was the 13-foot statue Diana of the Tower for Madison Square Garden. Augustus Saint-Gaudens specifically requested that he assist with the project, and Pratt had free reign on the piece in Saint-Gaudens’ large, well-stocked studio.
By 1895, his career launched, Pratt won the prized commission to depict the female figures carved in granite above the bronze doors at the main entrance of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. His figures represent the four seasons and literature, science and art. He also designed a figure representing philosophy for the library’s rotunda.
Pratt’s work is recognizable elsewhere in New England as well. He designed the Andersonville Boy on the grounds of the State Capitol in Hartford, Connecticut; the statue of famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem, Massachusetts; and the figures representing Art and Science for the Boston Public Library. He received numerous commissions for portrait busts for leaders of educational and cultural institutions around New England and became an associate of the National Academy in 1900. Pratt designed fountain and garden figures for a number of grand estates, including that of railroad, steamship and hotel magnate Morton Plant, now the campus of UConn, Avery Point. Despite the financial stability of portrait and public commissions, Pratt's greatest passion was the work he produced with no market in mind, mostly the female figures.
This latter passion is well represented in the exhibition. Nearly a dozen works, in bronze, plaster, marble and resin, reflect his consummate draftsmanship in rendering the human figure, while doing so with sensitivity and tenderness.
When Saint-Gaudens died before completing a suite of eagle gold coins for the U.S. Treasury, Pratt completed the series with $5 and $2.50 gold coins. His are smaller and less spectacular than their better-known contemporaries, but experts view them as more innovative and daring because their relief was reversed. Rather than being raised above the flat surface of the coin, the image was incised into it.
The front design of Pratt’s coin displays a Native American, and the portrait has been deemed by coin historians as representing a real individual, the first real Native American ever to appear on U.S. coinage. The Pratt gold coins appeared in 1908. It was unusual for an artist outside the government mint staff to design coins for official issue, but President Theodore Roosevelt played a role Pratt’s completing Saint-Gaudens’ commission. Roosevelt very much liked the reverse relief.
When success brought prosperity, Pratt purchased much of the old Whittlesey family Music Vale property in Salem and kept it as a retreat. His letters to his mother, by then living in Kansas City, mention summers and frequent visits to the old homestead and describe a vigorous life of boating, hunting, archery, fishing, golf and other outdoor activities.
Helen Lugarda Pray Pratt (1870-1965), a Boston native and talented sculptor herself, married Pratt in 1896 and worked alongside him in Paris. The young family settled in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, then a suburb of Boston. It seems her husband’s increasing professional success and her role as the mother of four children overshadowed her own artistic career. Her portrait of her husband Bela, a bronze in the Converse exhibition, evidences draftsmanship and a keen eye. The portrait was included in the Paris Salon exhibition of 1897, shortly before the birth of their first child.
Pratt’s remarkable, talented life was cut short at age 50, most likely of an incompetent heart valve, a condition which today would have been corrected by surgery. Helen lived for almost 50 years after Bela’s death.
The Slater Memorial Museum’s exhibit provides a rare and inspiring glimpse into this man behind famous landmark monuments – his family, his passions, his beautiful interpretations of the human form.
Vivian Zoe is the director of The Slater Memorial Museum. The museum is located at 108 Crescent St, Norwich, CT 06360. For more information, visit slatermuseum.org or call 860-887-2506. Normal museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 1-4 p.m. Follow the museum on Facebook and Twitter.