A Saint Louis native, Bessie Onahotema Potter Vonnoh produced genre statuettes depicting domestic and feminine subjects that not only captured a refined segment of turn-of-the-century society, but also contributed to the vitalization of small bronze sculpture in America. In 1886, she enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago and studied drawing and painting on and off during the next several years. There she took modeling classes with the sculptor Lorado Taft and later assisted him with decorative sculpture for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, one of a group of talented women apprentices. Potter also modeled an allegorical figure, Art, for the Illinois State Building. In 1894, Potter set up a studio in Chicago and began her professional career. Her stated artistic objective, as she told an interviewer in 1925, was to “look for beauty in the every-day world, to catch the joy and swing of modern American life.” Recognition came first with subtly tinted plaster portraits of society ladies and figures of contemporary women in Gibson Girl dress that the sculptor called “Potterines.”
Potter traveled to Paris in 1895 and visited Auguste Rodin in his studio. The following year, she modeled her most successful effort, A Young Mother (06.306), which has defined her artistic identity to this day. With the instant popular success of this piece, her name became synonymous with sculptural representations of motherhood in which psychological mood takes precedence over physical description. Similar maternal compositions followed (06.298), as did graceful statuettes of modern women reading and dancing (06.305). Her plastic handling of surface in which detail is secondary to touch was a hallmark of her mature style and reflects a familiarity with contemporaneous French academic practice. In particular, the work of the French Beaux-Arts sculptor Jules Dalou provided a model, notably such widely known compositions as Maternal Joy (1872), reproduced in stoneware and porcelain. Potter’s most impressionistic composition, Daydreams (1898; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), depicting two girls lounging on a sofa, parallels the contemporaneous paintings of female leisure by such Americans as Edmund Tarbell (67.187.141) and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
After 1907, Vonnoh increasingly garbed her dancers in generalized Greek-inspired classical dress. Compositions such as The Scarf (1908; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) elicited comparisons to ancient Tanagra figurines. The popularity of these genre pieces was fueled by their exhibition and the critical reception accorded them at venues such as the National Academy of Design, the Society of American Artists, and the National Sculpture Society in New York, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Furthermore, the large editions of casts produced beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, primarily by Roman Bronze Works, the premier bronze foundry in New York, confirm that the sculptor’s artistic standing was secure.
After an eight-month trip to Europe in 1897, Potter moved to New York and began work on a commission for a colossal bust of Major General S. W. Crawford for the Smith Memorial (1898–1901) in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. She also created a statue of the actress Maude Adams known as The American Girl (1899–1900), intended for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris. After bringing these projects close to completion, in 1899 she married the portrait and landscape painter Robert W. Vonnoh (1858–1933), she met in Lorado Taft’s studio. Their careers became closely linked, and they frequently exhibited together in two-artist shows, including ones in 1913 at Montross Galleries, New York, and in 1916 at the City Art Museum, Saint Louis. Bessie Potter Vonnoh also had solo exhibitions; most significant were those at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in March 1910 and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now Brooklyn Museum of Art) in March 1913. She was a member of the Lyme Art Association in the Connecticut town where she and her husband had a summer home. She was elected a full academician at the National Academy in 1921, that year earning its Elizabeth N. Watrous Gold Medal for Allegresse (1920; Detroit Institute of Arts).
In the 1920s, Vonnoh turned principally to lifesize fountain pieces, following in the footsteps of Janet Scudder (06.967). The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bird Fountain (1923–27), a birdbath with two children, animals, and birds, is in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Sanctuary, Oyster Bay, New York. The thematically similar Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain (1926–37) was dedicated in 1937 in the Conservatory Garden of Central Park. After her husband’s death in 1933 in the south of France, Vonnoh’s sculptural output diminished. She remarried in 1948. Her husband, Dr. Edward L. Keyes, died after only nine months of marriage and she survived him for six years. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, which received a bequest from Vonnoh, has the largest public holding of her sculptures. To the Metropolitan she bequeathed a portrait of herself as a young art student by William Merritt Chase (55.118).
Tolles, Thayer. “Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bess/hd_bess.htm (April 2012)
Aronson, Julie. Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.
Conner, Janis, and Joel Rosenkranz. Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893–1939. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.