Gaston Lachaise infused his bronze sculptures with life and love.
The genius of the 20th-century French-American artist Gaston Lachaise radiates from his Dolphin Fountain of 1924, a sprawling, darting, diving ballet cast in bronze. It is so deftly rendered that it approximates a magic trick. Juan Manuel Pretel, vice president of Findlay Galleries in Palm Beach, Fla., and New York, which represents the Lachaise estate, is an avowed fan of dolphins and of Lachaise’s interpretation of them. “When I look at it, it makes me happy,” he says of Dolphin Fountain, which measures almost three and a half feet long by almost two feet deep and 17 inches high. “This is such a dynamic work. It’s alive. It’s exquisite. Not only are they moving like dolphins do, they are a wave themselves.” (Works by Lachaise are on view in the Palm Beach and New York locations of Findlay Galleries this spring.)
As Pretel speaks, he states that the tour-de-force bronze—one of two cast during Lachaise’s lifetime—features 14 dolphins in all. Then he reconsiders, starts to count, and is confounded. He now sees 15. “Every time I count them, I get a different number. I’m not kidding you!” Pretel says, laughing. “There’s so much movement, I lose count.”
The kicker here, of course, is that Dolphin Fountain is a sculpture. It doesn’t move; that’s part of what makes it a sculpture. Yet Lachaise’s vision is so vibrant that your brain wants to flesh out the movie that his leaping dolphins suggest. It’s a trick that many sculptors through the ages have tried to pull off and few have achieved. Lachaise is so good at evoking the illusion of movement that you can circle Dolphin Fountain and try to count all the animals in it and they won’t sit still for you, even though the metal fixes them in place and ensures that the contest is fair.
Lachaise’s life was full of strange and wonderful magic, and he translated much of it into art. Born in France in 1882, he showed his promise early. His older sister found him in their father’s woodworking studio, where the five-year-old was chiseling a hunk of wood into a font. Alarmed to see little boy wielding a grown-up tool, she moved to take it from him, only to hear her father counsel her to leave him be—he had been quietly watching Gaston work. Whether the boy had slipped into the studio on his own or had gained permission and promptly fallen into a work-fugue is impossible to say. But it was the dawn of a career that gained him a place at the Académie Nationale des Beaux-Arts at the age of 16.
Four years later, he saw Her. Isabel Dutaud Nagle was an American, from Boston. She was 10 years older than Lachaise, unhappily married, and the mother of a son, Edward. The need to give Edward the best education possible brought her to Paris, where Lachaise first saw Nagle. The artist did not record the precise date of that fateful spring encounter (historians believe it probably happened around 1902) but even as late as 1931, four years before his death, he loved recounting the details: “…as I was coming out through the beautifull [sic] formal garden and the beautifull gate of the School, I passed a majestic woman that was walking slowly by the bank of the Seine. I succeeded to meet the majestic woman later—through her the splendor of life was uncovered for me and the road of wonder beguin [sic] widening and far out reaching…”
And that was that. Finishing his course of study no longer mattered to him. Dreams of winning the Prix de Rome (and Lachaise was unquestionably a contender) exited his mind. His new goal was to save money for a ticket that would ferry him across the ocean to the country that Isabel called home. He quit school to toil for a year in the atelier of René Lalique, absorbing the Art Nouveau style while he cast jewelry and other decorative delights. Lachaise arrived in Boston in January 1906 and never looked back.
Lalique was one of many future immortals Lachaise met. He worked for sculptors Henry Hudson Kitson and Paul Manship (who hosted a post-wedding dinner for the Lachaises after Isabel’s divorce became final) and associated with Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and George L.K. Morris, who commissioned him to sculpt The Mountain, which would become a noted masterpiece, for Morris’s estate in Lenox, Mass. And Isabel’s son, Edward, brought Lachaise to the attention of his Harvard schoolmates e.e. cummings, Scofield Thayer, and others who took the helm of The Dial in 1919 and focused it on contemporary culture. Lachaise was intertwined with The Dial from its relaunch issue, which featured a relief by him, titled Dusk.
Lachaise worked tirelessly and devoted his free studio time to works inspired by Isabel. Their relationship grew stronger as they grew older, and he remained artistically faithful to her until leukemia ended his life at the relatively young age of 53. (Isabel outlived him by 22 years.) Theirs was not a traditional artist-muse relationship in that she wasn’t required to pose for hours on end as he drew or worked the clay. The luxury of togetherness wasn’t an option for them early on, when he was a 20-year-old Parisian art student and she was a 30-year-old wife and mother visiting from America. They accustomed themselves to being apart, and later on, even when they lived in the same place, they didn’t always choose to live under the same roof. Lachaise’s visions of Isabel are not rigidly accurate; they’re more about his love for her, and his impressions of her, and how it all made him feel. Through Lachaise’s art, Isabel morphs into a capital-W Woman, a goddess symbolic of all who share her gender.
Lachaise’s depictions of women are remarkable for their presence and their heft, and for how these qualities are inseparable from their beauty. Lachaise was active during the age of the flapper, a woman whose ideal body was as slender as the cigarettes she smoked. But his women take up space, and they do so without apology. Perhaps this liberating attitude is what moved him most when he spotted Isabel strolling near the Seine more than a century ago. Though his women seem like giantesses, Isabel was not; more than one source reports that she stood five feet, three inches tall and weighed 110 pounds, well within the dimensions of what we’d call “petite” today. Maybe she glowed with an outsize sense of comfort in her own skin that the young artist had never seen before. Lachaise skillfully infused aspects of her being into his sculptures and drawings, but he struggled to put them into words, once telling a friend that she “has a great deal of something which it’s difficult for me to express to you, something of a great calmness and ardor, a quality of both old age and youth.”
But he didn’t just transform her ethereal qualities into art. He captured evidence of Isabel’s faith in the beauty and worth of her own body in a series of nude photographs that he took outdoors during one of the couple’s many sojourns in Maine. A 21st-century woman who shares Isabel’s shape might feel too ashamed of her supposedly imperfect body to pose for the camera at all, even fully clothed. Isabel, who lived in a world that lacked movies, television, the Internet, and social media, frolics across the landscape as if it’s the most natural and right thing that she could do.
Lachaise’s peerless command of his chosen media earned him the first solo retrospective that the Museum of Modern Art bestowed on a living sculptor. And while Lachaise is not as famous as Warhol or Picasso, he continues to enchant new admirers who keep his flame alive. “I know from talking to collectors who own Lachaise’s works that they cherish it so deeply that generations of families love it,” says Pretel, noting that it is more common for children to reject the art their parents collected. “It’s beautiful enough that when the kids grow up, they love it too.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley