William MacMonnies was a native of Whithorn. He emigrated to the United States and made a fortune in the grain business which he lost during the civil war. William married Juliana Eudora West, who was a relation of Benjamin West the history painter and President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Their son, born in 1865, was Frederick William MacMonnies who became a member of the great trio of late 19th century American sculptors with Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Indeed, it was the studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens which Frederick entered as an apprentice in 1880. Four years later he left for Paris to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, winning the highest award given to foreign students twice. This encouraged him to open a studio in Paris where he began to create some of his most famous sculptures which he submitted annually to the Paris Salon. In Paris, he married a fellow American artist, Mary Louise Fairchild.
In 1889 he was awarded an Honourable Mention at the Salon for his Diana and this led to important American commissions, including the Nathan Hale memorial (above) and the decorative Pan fountain sculpture (below) for “Rohallion” the New Jersey mansion of banker Edward Adams, who opened for him a social circle of art-appreciating New Yorkers.
Until the outbreak of World War I, when he gave up his grand household establishment in Paris, Macmonnies travelled annually to the United States to see dealers and patrons, returning to Paris to work on his commissions.
In 1891 he was awarded the commission for the centerpiece of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The sculpture of Columbia in her Grand Barge of State, in the vast central fountain of the Court of Honour, was truly the iconic figure at the heart of the American Beaux-Arts movement. This large decorative fountain became the focal point at the Exposition and established MacMonnies as one of the important sculptors of the time.
MacMonnie modelled the Princetown Battle Monument in 1914. It is a bas-relief, with George Washington on horseback sternly refusing defeat and inspiring his battle-weary troops to victory. He emerges above a mass of figures representing the chaos of war. Among the troops is a young woman personifying Liberty and a drummer boy. Perhaps a reference to the figures in the painting by Delacroix, Liberty on the Barricades. The sculpture was originally intended to be cast in bronze, but by 1918 it was decided it should be carved in stone. This was done in situ by the Piccirilli brothers. Completed in 1922 it was dedicated by US President Warren G. Harding.
His most controversial statue, originally installed at New York’s City Hall Fountains in 1919, was moved to Queens Borough Hall in 1941. The statue was criticized because it features a man, Virtue, trampling numerous nude women, representing evil sirens. It was installed in Green-Wood in December 2012.
As their fortunes improved, Frederick and Mary MacMonnies moved to Giverny, a few miles from Paris and a budding artists’ colony established by Claude Monet.
In fact MacMonnies became an intimate friend of Monet, in part through his long residency in the village. Frederick and Mary rented various villas before finally settling in and converting Le Mourier, ironically with his father’s connection with Whithorn, this had been the village priory! There they became known to their friends as ‘the MacMonastery’. In the grounds of their house they developed a formal terraced garden which, some argued, came to rival Monet’s own. When not at his studio in Paris, MacMonnies worked on his sculpture in a barn in the gardens, while his wife Mary worked in a studio inside the house, which also doubled as their daughters Berthe’s nursery.
They had three children: Berthe (1895), Marjorie (1897), and Ronald (1899), who died of meningitis two years later. The couple were divorced in 1908, and he married his former student Alice Jones in 1910.
MacMonnies lived out most of his life as an expatriate in France, had only one solo exhibition during his life, and died of pneumonia in relative obscurity in 1937.
First published December 2009