[Art Markets] Ascent of a woman: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth

An outstanding collection of American sculpture was recently sold at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, N.J. The 250 works — mostly bronzes, but some in terra cotta and stone — featured American male and female artists such as Selma Burke, James Earle Fraser and Paul Howard Manship. Included in the collection were three bronzes by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980). Relatively unknown until recently, her works appeared at several auctions this past spring including Sotheby’s, Heritage and Christie’s, selling with strong results.

For a woman working in the labor-intensive field of sculpture, in a time when even professional female painters were scarce, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth enjoyed a series of fortunate circumstances. Like many American artists who came of age in the late 19th century, Frishmuth went to Paris and studied briefly with the great sculptor of the epoch, Auguste Rodin. There she absorbed the Beaux Arts sensibility of classical symmetry and eclectic historical references. After becoming a sculptor’s assistant in Berlin, she returned to the U.S. where she studied anatomy by dissecting bodies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. Settling in the city, she also attended classes at the Art Student’s League directed by Gutzon Borglum, known later as the creator of Mt. Rushmore.

Around 1910, she began creating popular items of the day, such as bronze ashtrays and bookends, all sought by collectors today. By 1913, with several prestigious awards under her belt, she moved into a converted stable on East 36th Street, which became her studio and home throughout her most productive years, the high Art Deco period of the 1920s through the early 1930s.

Favoring the female form, her work embodied the modern spirit of women in the post-suffragette era. Working mostly in bronze, her sculptures — athletic and buoyant — seemed to take off from their platforms with their remarkable sense of gesture and movement. Her titles captured the life spirit she infused into her stationary forms. Laughing Waters (circa 1929) poses a young woman adroitly balanced on rocky ground, in a joyful dancing stance with one leg bent, an arm swinging right as she glances left, while grasping a fish. The nude statue suggests the woman of the era playful and let loose from the subjugation of an earlier time.

Rhapsody (circa 1925) defines the vivacious tenor of the 1920s with a well-toned couple sportingly entwined in a grapevine. The female, standing away from the man who lags behind her, is bending on one leg, ready to sprint from the weak grasp of his hand, with a smile on her expressive face, which seems to say, “Let go of me, but only for a moment.”

Frishmuth’s favorite model, the dancer Desha Delteil, became the subject of one of her finest pieces, The Vine (1923). The larger-than-life bronze depicts a nude woman, standing tall with arms outstretched and head arched back while lifting a vine upwards to embrace a joyful moment that could go on forever. The masterpiece stands permanently displayed in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Speed (1922) exemplifies the attitude of Art Deco to perfection. The bronze female form, nude and in profile, lies prone and facing forward, stretched like a panther in pursuit. One leg is bent, balanced on a globe, and the arms are arched like a diver. The sculpture exerts such a sensation of movement, you imagine if you turned away and glanced back, the racing figure would be gone with only its pedestal left behind.

Although Frishmuth remained loyal to the classical traditions of symmetry and form in her craft — and called the modern art form “spiritless” — her work in stone suggests something a little less than classic Frishmuth. Pou Pou (1941) a cast of the artist’s cat from her personal collection, seems cold and perhaps spiritless, taking the artist’s point to her own task. The medium used to depict the feline was cement with industrial paint, a surface not conducive to contrasts and light.

Felines aside, Frishmuth’s models were mostly dancers and her challenge was to render them in motion. Her theme was to evoke joyful feeling in her subjects rather than present an iconic statue of appearance, an assessment easily given to Pou Pou. As fine a rendering as it is, it does not invite an exuberant response.

An impressive body of work was produced during her New York sojourn. She exhibited at prestigious venues, including the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-1940). As the Great Depression of the 1930s settled in, she closed her studio and left New York behind, returning to Philadelphia, her place of birth. She remained active in the arts and exhibited with the Philadelphia Ten, a group of talented and progressive female artists devoted to encouraging women in the arts. Although she continued her craft in the years following New York, her popularity and fame remain cast in the Deco period.

Sotheby’s New York sale on May 23 included the 61-inch bronze Joy of the Waters, which Frishmuth modeled in 1917 and cast after 1920. It doubled its reserve, selling at $324,000 (including the buyer’s premium). Christie’s New York sale on May 24 sold another Frishmuth bronze, Sweet Grapes (1928), exceeding the reserve and hitting the hammer at $31,200 (buyer’s premium included).

Heritage Auction Galleries sold nine works by Frishmuth in their April 25 auction in Dallas. Laughing Waters (circa 1929) from an edition of 40, sold with the buyer’s premium for $40,630. Rhapsody (circa 1925) fetched $28,680 (including premium). Pou Pou (1941), the rare cement cast of Frishmuth’s Persian cat, stayed well within its reserve, selling at $10,157 (including premium).

The Rago sale of American sculpture held on May 20 sold Frishmuth’s 1910 bronze Untitled (Girl with Frog) for $5,400 (including the buyer’s premium), an impressive number for the smaller work done as an ashtray and standing just under 5 inches in height.

The market for Frishmuth’s bronze beauties has maintained a strong record in sales for several decades. The bronze bookends called Pushing Men (1912) continue to bring $2,000 to $4,200 whenever they show up at auction. With the spring season behind, indications remain favorable for Frishmuth’s steady following.

Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.