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Friday, August 19, 2011

Sally James Farnham

Sally James Farnham’s art career began accidentally when her husband gave her clay for a distraction while she was recovering in the hospital from an unknown illness. Not even three years later her design was selected from 16 submissions to create her first public monument, the Soldiers Monument in Ogdensburg, New York.  Just as Anna Hyatt Huntington became renowned for her public monument of Joan of Arc, Sally James Farnham’s most noted sculpture is a monument to Simon Bolivar located in Central Park, New York City (commissioned by Venezuela in 1919; dedicated in 1921).

When I started writing this article I knew very little about Farnham. I wanted to feature her in this series on American women sculptors because of this phenomenal photograph of her standing next to the heroic-size clay model of the Bolivar monument (from the Juley Collection).  The scale of the sculpture stuns me—the horse’s hoof bigger than the artist’s head. Seeing this reminds why sculpture is such an amazing medium and why those who make it are to be admired as incredibly skilled artists.

Farnham was born in 1869 in Ogdensburg, New York and was a doting daughter and society wife for thirty two years before she began sculpting.  Frederic Remington was a close family friend and he provided feedback and support during those first critical years of her career (he died in 1909). Farnham never had formal art training and was adamant that this didn’t make her any less of an artist. She was also very defensive of her status as “sculptor” not “sculptress” which often implied lesser.

The Frederic Remington Art Museum published the first monograph on Farnham in 2005: The Art of Being an Artist by Peter H. Hassrick. In this book I learned that Farnham, in addition to being defensive of her lack of training and her gender, had a great sense of humor.  Hassrick tells the following story:

A member of the Rochester committee called [Farnham] to ask if the artist might come up to review the site [for Defenders of the Flag, Mount Hope Cemetery]. Sally demurred, saying that she was busy on other work and would not be free for about six weeks. The committee phoned again a couple of months later, inquiring if she had completed the other project. She replied that the job was indeed “satisfactorily accomplished...and it weighs about ten pounds. I am nursing him at present and have my oldest boy to install in school and am moving into town for the Winter, and I also have a few guests to entertain, but I think I can tackle your monument next week.”
And she wasn’t shy. In fact, upon seeing her figure of Victory that stands atop a tall column on the Ogdensburg Soldiers Monument with her knee bent and drapery parted, Remington commented to Farnham: “I’m no judge of women’s faces but you’ve got a leg and a knee there that will make you famous.”  There is a clear element of fun in many of her sculptures, but contrary to Remington’s joke, it was her skill that made her famous, and her incredible monument of Simon Bolivar and her exquisite portrayal of the equestrian.  Hassrick writes:

Artists like Farnham, Longman, and Hyatt gained recognition for their presentation of plastic form and emotional context. Because of the powerful sculptural form of Hyatt’s Joan of Art, for example, she was compared with Proctor as a producer of major American monuments. Hyatt and Farnham were singled out as the first women in the nation to take on  the complex task of sculpting equestrian monuments.

Farnham was a fascinating woman and a talented sculptor who should be remembered today as much as her counterparts, Anna Hyatt Huntingon, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Evelyn Beatrice Longman.

Pictured, top to bottom:

Soldiers Monument, detail of Victory (American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection)

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

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