American art: Bessie Potter Vonnoh

After yesterday’s post on Paul Manship, I am in a sculptural frame of mind.  My mind turns to the intersection of two of my favorite subjects: horticulture and sculpture.

In no place on earth do these two subjects (and one more–which you will find out at the end of this post–it is a secret until then) come together better than in the Central Park Conservatory in this famous New York park.  If you have never been to this garden, put it on your bucket list.  Here is a photo and some information from the Conservatory’s website:

Conservatory Garden in Central Park

“The Conservatory Garden‘s….main entrance is through the Vanderbilt Gate, on Fifth Avenue between 104th and 105th Streets. This magnificent iron gate, made in Paris in 1894, originally stood before the Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street.”

That certainly sets the stage. Thank you Conservatory website.

Now, back to Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

So, who was this artist and what is this gorgeous monument in New York, surrounded by a pond of lilies, all about?

Bessie Potter Vonnoh (BPV) was born in St. Louis in 1872 and grew up in Chicago.  Her enlightened mother encouraged her to study at the Art Institute, where she was fortunate to study with one of the most well-known sculptors of the time, Loredo Taft.  This  was a critical moment both for Taft’s life as well as for the art life of the United States.  In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago and Taft was commissioned to create an entire sculptural program to decorate the exterior of the Horticultural Building, an important venue at the Expo, and BPV became a valued assistant. She also produced an independent commission, the Personification of Art, for the Illinois State Building.


Indeed, the 1890s were a decade of important events in her life.  In 1895 she met Auguste Rodin in Paris and enjoyed some critical success, as well as receiving an important civic commission back in the U.S..  Four years later the sculptor married impressionist painter Robert Vonnoh. In the French Exposition Universelle of 1890, BPV won a bronze medal for two works.

“The Belle Epoch” in the U.S. was a great time of World’s Fairs, and art played an important role in all of these expos.  BPV enjoyed successful participation in many of these, including  the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo, NY) and at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St Louis, MO).

Just for fun, allow yourself to get lost in this delightful, idealized bird’s-eye view of the fairgrounds at Buffalo. It gives you a sense of how wonderful these artificial grounds must have been. You could also watch the Judy Garland classic movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, for another fun introduction to the big expos of the time. I digress.

In 1913 BVP was fortunate to have a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and a few years later she became the first woman elected to the then-prestigious National Academy of Design.  While this was a great honor–an acceptance into the established art world–it also signals BVP’s holding pattern in the conservative camp of American art through the next decades of her life (she died in 1955).

Vonnoh even exhibited at the famed Armory Show in 1915.  One can about imagine her reaction to the modernist works she saw there!

Armory show notwithstanding, sculpture designed specifically for garden settings became a very popular art form for early 20th century American patrons of art and BPV enjoyed success working in this format. The lovely Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain in the Central Park Conservatory is, I think, her finest example.

You may know that Frances Hodgson Burnett was a British/American playwright and author, perhaps best-known today for her wonderful children’s classic and one of my own very favorite books, The Secret Garden.  Here is a cover of the book when it was first published in 1911.

At the beginning of this post I said that BPV’s sculpture in Central Park is a wonderful intersection of sculpture and horticulture.  Now you see that it also includes children’s literature.  What could be better? Art, literature, horticulture;  I love them all.

4 thoughts on “American art: Bessie Potter Vonnoh

  1. Pingback: Armory Show art, a century later | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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