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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bessie Potter Vonnoh and Lost-Wax Casting

I recently read Julie Aronson’s Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Sculptor of Women (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008), one of only a handful of books devoted to women sculptors of the early 20th century. Aronson takes us through Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s (1872-1955) life as a sculptor, from her development through her successes, and the works that she produced in each stage of her career. Unlike some of her peers, (for example see blog post on Evelyn Beatrice Longman), Vonnoh was proud to produce stereotypical “women’s sculpture” with feminine subjects such as mothers with their children and girls dancing. Most of her works are small bronzes, and many are statues for gardens and fountains. Aronson writes in her introduction, “Although [Vonnoh] dwelt on the themes of American women and children found in abundant contemporary paintings, Vonnoh was recognized as the first in the nation to render such everyday themes in sculpture and was thought to have brought to them her own exquisitely sensitive approach.”

As a supplemental chapter to Aronson’s discussion on Vonnoh’s life and work, author Janis Conner (“After the Model: Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s Early Bronzes and Founders”) takes a unique approach and examines in detail the bronze statues that were cast by three founders employed by Vonnoh. She explains and illustrates how each cast is unique due to the founder’s “casting process and finishing technique.”

Unlike painting, where you can pick up a brush and some paint and produce something fairly quickly, the process of creating bronze sculpture is more complicated. Although there are several different processes, most of Vonnoh’s works were cast using the lost-wax method (or cire-perdue). Vonnoh would have created a clay or plaster model, and employed a founder or foundry to create the bronze sculptures from the artist’s model. (Roman Bronze Works, a large New York foundry established in 1899, cast many of her works using this method.)

Essentially, the founder makes a negative space of the artist’s model using a multi-step process. First, a rubber mold is made around the model, and a more sturdy, plaster or fiberglass, mold is made around the rubber mold. These are made in halves, so that it can then be opened and the original model removed. The rubber mold will retain all the features of the model. The halves are then put back together and molten wax is evenly poured into the mold to create a copy that will retain all the characteristics of the rubber mold. Once the wax copy hardens and is released from the rubber mold, the artist can retouch the wax and the founder can remove signs of the process. Next, a ceramic shell is made outside the wax copy and fired, during which time the wax melts out. This is the point where the negative space is the original artist’s model. Next, the ceramic shell is re- heated and placed in a tub of sand. Heated metal is then poured into the shell. After it cools, the shell is hammered away, and the bronze version of the artist’s model is revealed. At this point the bronze is polished and patina is applied.

I’ve simplified the explanation of the process and there are many variations in materials and techniques that are employed. The lost-wax process became popular because it was thought to provide greater detail in retaining the artist’s original work, and it allowed (at relatively low-cost) multiple casts to be made from one mold. Vonnoh’s small bronze statues are a good example of this new trend in America in the late 19th to early 20th.

Imagine Vonnoh’s In Arcadia going through the lost-wax casting process. Neither the idyllic and popular subject matter (Pan playing a flute for a nymph), nor the fact that the artist is a woman, diminish the value of the artistic composition or the complicated process of casting it in bronze.

For a fantastic history of bronze casting in America, see Michael Shapiro’s Cast and Recast: The Sculpture of Frederic Remington (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981). Part one includes descriptions and illustr
ations detailing both sand- and lost-wax casting and it is much more enlightening that my own paragraph summary.

Pictured, top: Clay model for Vonnoh's Girl Reading, photographer unknown. American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection.
(A bronze cast is in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Pictured, center: Clay model for Vonnoh's Girl Dancing, photographer unknown. American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection.

Pictured bottom: Bronze cast of Vonnoh’s In Arcadia in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Another cast is owned by the Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, Illinois.)

For further research on Bessie Potter Vonnoh:

The Archives of American Art has digitized the entire collection of Bessie Potter Vonnoh Papers, circa 1860-1991 bulk 1890-1955.

Sculptures by Bessie Potter Vonnoh listed in the Inventory of American Sculpture.

Slideshow of historic photographs of Vonnoh’s sculptures in the American Art Museum's Photograph Archives.

--Nicole Semenchuk, Research and Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Extremely thorough Nice informative! The pictures were great and you explained every process very well, thank you. Nice ring by the way.