Native son: Renowned sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt remembered at Slater

Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt work in the region includes John Winthrop's likeness on Bulkeley Place. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt work in the region includes John Winthrop's likeness on Bulkeley Place. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

You’ve probably noticed them around the area — bronze statues of historical figures from Revolutionary times. They stand quiet and familiar, yet thousands of people pass by them every day without much of a second thought.

Statues of Nathan Hale watch students walk to and from class on the campuses of both Mitchell College and Yale University. Gov. John Winthrop overlooks the intersection of Hempstead Street and Bulkeley Place in New London. Then there is the portrait bust of Capt. James Avery sitting on a pedestal in a memorial park next to the CVS in Groton. Ask any of the region’s natives if they know of these statues, and they’ll say yes, but ask them who made them and they might, well, come up with nothing.

Their creator, Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917), was a Norwich native who went on to become one of the most renowned sculptors of his time.

Though he was commissioned on several occasions by the U.S. government — his works stand before the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and in front of the state Capitol building in Hartford, among several other locations throughout the country — Pratt’s notable career has been almost entirely forgotten.

“You would think in Connecticut, where he is a native and his works are publicly accessible, that everyone would know him, but no,” says Vivian Zoë, director of the Slater Memorial Museum of Norwich Free Academy. “His work somehow got lost in the shuffle of history ... and I’ll sadly admit that Slater, too, has ignored its own native son.”

That is until now, with the Slater Museum’s newest exhibition “Bela Lyon Pratt: Sculptor of Monuments” — a show that at once seeks to showcase the life and works of this Norwich-born artist in both an expansive and detail-oriented exhibition while also trying to answer why Pratt has been forgotten since his death in 1917. It will run until Jan. 15.

Located in the Converse Art Gallery, the show features dozens of small-scale statues that fill the large showing space. Particularly, Zoë points out Pratt’s mastery in rendering the female form — even if that was idealized, she says.

“You can see the compassion he was able to work into their faces, his technical ability. They are just beautiful,” Zoë says.

Sculpted from life

For anyone more curious about Pratt's local monuments, information about those are on display over several large typed poster boards. The show also includes the original plaster cast to Pratt's Capt. James Avery, and a 3-foot miniature version of his 6-foot Nathan Hale statue. Today, six replicas of Pratt's 6-foot Nathan Hale can still be found around the country, as well as twenty 3-foot replicas. While the authenticity of Mitchell College's 6-foot statue of Nathan Hale has been disputed, Zoë says that she is certain it is an authentic Pratt.

It should be noted there were no photos of these historical heroes for Pratt to work from, forcing the artist to project his idealized version of how each hero should look. Captain Avery’s face, for example, has a square jaw and broad shoulders, while Nathan Hale’s rendering is of a thinner man with a noble, yet idealistic young face.

But for Zoë, this in no way takes from Pratt’s mastery of sculpted portraiture, she explains while pointing out works of his mother and Henry Lee Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Both were sculpted from life, Zoë says, meaning that first, Pratt would work with photographs of the person, sculpting their rudimentary proportions into oily clay, and later would work as they sat before him so he could capture the more delicate details of their face.

“There is a certain simplicity in their beauty, in my opinion. I wouldn’t label his work as extravagant; it’s very natural,” says Dayne Rugh, the museum’s director of education. “He was someone who understood the concepts of what it takes to sculpt something beautiful. He was quite gifted.”

Born and raised in Norwich, Pratt showed immense artistic talent from a young age, a gift that was fostered by his family of educators and artists. It is believed that Pratt attended and graduated from the Norwich Free Academy, although that fact cannot be confirmed, Zoë says.

At just 16 years old, Pratt began to study art at Yale University’s School of Fine Arts in 1883. After graduating, Pratt enrolled at the Art Students League of New York, where he took additional classes and met Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s most renowned sculptors, remembered for embodying the ideals of the “American Renaissance.” Saint-Gaudens eventually became Pratt’s mentor, teaching him techniques that helped catapult Pratt to fame. At the same time, Saint-Gaudens’ fame ultimately overshadowed Pratt’s.

After studying for two or three years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the late 19th century, Pratt returned to the U.S. at the request of Saint-Gaudens to assist in the making of the famed Madison Square Garden monument known as “Diana of the Tower.” In the letters that Pratt wrote to his mother, he revealed that he designed the piece, though Saint-Gaudens took the credit.

Simultaneously, Saint-Gaudens encouraged Pratt to travel to Chicago for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition to work on two pieces titled “The Genius of Navigation.” Both stood on either side of the main gate, a large arch similar to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, to the exposition.

Here too, Pratt’s involvement with these pieces was clouded by the notoriety of the three other sculptors who helped create them: Hermon MacNeil, Frederick MacMonnies and Alexander Stirling Calder.

“He has certainly fallen victim a lot to more well-known figures, such as Saint-Gaudens,” Rugh says.

In a commission from the U.S. Mint in 1907, for example, Pratt created the face designs of the $5 and $2.50 gold coins — a project that he took over after Saint-Gaudens died the same year. Before passing, Saint-Gaudens had completed the $20 "double eagle" gold piece and the $10 “Indian Head" gold eagle, both minted from 1907 to 1933 and both of which are considered some of the most beautiful American coins ever to be minted. They are extremely valuable today, Rugh says. Those coins, however, have subsequently dwarfed Pratt’s more accurately depicted designs of an eagle and Native American seen on the $5 and $2.50 coins in the same coin set.

“Historically and collectability-wise, Saint-Gaudens' coins are certainly more valuable,” Rugh says. “Overall, Saint-Gaudens is certainly more recognized across the country than, of course, Bela Pratt. And that just depends on how history gets told and retold over the years. It is heavily dependent how future historians interpret history. And sometimes names, such as Bela’s, just get lost in the mix.”

m.biekert@theday.com

Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt created the Nathan Hale statue at Mitchell College. The Slater Museum in Norwich is holding an exhibition of Pratt's work through Jan. 15.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt created the Nathan Hale statue at Mitchell College. The Slater Museum in Norwich is holding an exhibition of Pratt's work through Jan. 15. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Bela (with moustache) and associates, left to right, Hermon MacNeil, Frederick MacMonnies and Alexander Stirling Calder working on the figures for the Peristyle of the Watergate for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893. (Courtesy of Cynthia Sam)
Bela (with moustache) and associates, left to right, Hermon MacNeil, Frederick MacMonnies and Alexander Stirling Calder working on the figures for the Peristyle of the Watergate for the World’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893. (Courtesy of Cynthia Sam)

If you go

What: “Bela Lyon Pratt: Sculptor of Monuments”

Where: Slater Memorial Museum, 108 Crescent St., Norwich

When: Through Jan. 15; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Admission: $3 adults, $2 seniors and students, free under age 12

Contact: (860) 887-2506; www.slatermuseum.org

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