Thursday, March 20, 2008
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Although it was years before I realized that there was more to the story, the first I heard about the Ponca City Pioneer Woman statue and the competition that helped produce it, was while reading "Between Sittings", sculptor Jo Davidson's autobiography. In it he relates how he was introduced to oil magnate E.W. Marland in Paris in probably 1925. There Marland sketches out an ambitious sculptural program that he has imagined involving numerous statues based on the theme of the settling of the American West and attempts to persuade Davidson to take it on. When Davidson declines Marland replies that he could pay for it, prompting Davidson to come back with "I don't doubt it for a minute, but I don't see myself working for you for the rest of my life."
Marland ultimately convinced Davidson to go to Ponca City, Marland's then home town, and create three statues for him: one of Marland and one of each of Marland's adopted children, Lydie and George. Marland further has his architect, John Duncan Forsyth (another story for another day) build Davidson a studio on the grounds of his estate, using the beams from his first oil derrick as roof beams. This studio is now the Baker Bryant Museum, but I am getting ahead of the story.
While Davidson was producing his three Marland statues E.W. told him of another project that he has in mind, "E.W.'s most cherished dream." Davidson writes, " It was to be a twenty-five foot figure, which he planned to put up on a hill where it could be seen for miles.......... E.W. brought his friends to see what I was doing. He acted as if he was the sculptor, and in conversation would say that he was doing the figure - that I was his hands."
Shortly thereafter Marland informed Davidson that he had invited a number of other sculptors to submit models for the monument. It is interesting (at least to me) that Jo Davidson, arguably America's greatest portrait sculptor, created a Pioneer Woman whose massive sun bonnet all but obscures the features and face of the woman. I can only assume that this was the result of his being Marland's hands.
At that point Marland sent out invitations to many of America's leading sculptors, offering them $2,000 (the exact amount is under debate - this is the figure I believe) to produce a three foot tall model for the statue. He further proposed that the models tour the United States and that the American public vote as to which of the models would be erected in Ponca City. Several sculptors turned Marland down, including Malvina Hoffman and Anna Hyatt Huntington, leaving him with an even dozen artists, all males. The artists who submitted models were, besides Davidson, Mahonri Young, Bryant Baker, John Gregory, Wheeler Williams, Maurice Sterne, A. Stirling Calder, Mario Korbel, Arthur Lee, F, Lynn Jenkins, Hermon MacNeil and James Earle Fraser. The models were to tour America and everyone who visited the sites where they were exhibited was allowed to vote for their favorite.
It is worth a quick look-over the models, for those so inclined, and check to see which pioneer women attributes were used. Bonnets, babies. boys, books, guns and faithful dogs can all be found in varying degrees.
Mahonri Young's biographer Thomas Toone relates that Young produced not only the required three foot tall statuette, but also a plaster version of the entire Pioneer Memorial as he envisioned it, replete with detailed bas reliefs of western scenes around the base of a massive pedestal and platform, on top of which the pioneer woman "holds her child in the embrace of a Renaissance Madonna."
A pair of spirited bison guard the stairs leading up the base. Unfortunately the voting public in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and finally, Ponca City, was not privy to Young's vision and his work showed poorly in the balloting. Young, who described not winning the competition as the worst disappointment in his career, did manage to get some of his ideas out in later works.
Toone also adds that the winning sculptor, Baker Bryant used, "a professional actress as his model, which produced a glamourous figure, representing Western myth more than reality." A claim that can be (opinion) leveled against a large number of American monuments. But "American Myth vs American Reality" needs to be explored another day. More interesting -to me- than who the model might have been were the comments made about the winning design by Donald De Lue, at that time Baker Bryant's assistant. De Lue's biographer, D. Roger Howlett makes several interesting points about the Pioneer Woman statue.
"it was especially on the "Pioneer Woman" that De Lue manifest his talent. . . .... Baker claimed that the conception and movement of the final monument was developed in an eight-to-ten inch sketch model made by him a few hours after he learned about the competition. De Lue executed the thirty-three inch competition model for the sculpture in 1927, with Baker supervising and completing the face."
James Earle Fraser, according to A.L. Freundlich, based his almost Impressionistic statue on his favorite aunt, Dora, who was herself a pioneer woman. This model is unique among the ones submitted to the competition, and perhaps in the entire world of Pioneer Women Statues, in that the woman, caught breast feeding her child, exposes a bare breast. No stranger to multi-tasking, she still manages to hold on to her rifle while feeding the baby.
When the tour of the models was over, Baker's Pioneer Woman had won first place, out-balloting John Gregory's effort 42,478 to 37,782. "De Lue set to work in 1928 and 1929, modeling it in Baker's Brooklyn studio, working with Jean La Seure, the enlarger. De Lue later remembered: "One day Bryant decided he would work on it, and did some work. I said, 'Look, Bryant, if I were you I'd get the hell out of here, because you're not helping at all,' He said, 'Thank you very much.' and he went." (Howlett)
The Ponca City Pioneer Woman statue was dedicated on April 22, 1930, in a ceremony that included a live radio message and some marginally off color commentary by the Oklahoma humorist, Will Rogers.
Many years after the competition Wheeler Williams' model was re-discovered, enlarged, cast, and now sits in front of the public library in Liberty, Kansas.
An interesting aside is that although Jo Davidson fared poorly in the model balloting he was later commissioned to create a monumental statue of Will Rogers, versions of which can be found in the Will Rogers Museum in nearby (to Ponca City, anyway) Clairmore, OK and in the Statuary Hall collection in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., as one of the two Oklahoma statues that reside there.
I have often asked myself, "Why did EW go through all the trouble and expense to pay for and run the competition and then tack on the considerable added expense of the statue its self?" One quick answer is that he was an oil boom man, and could afford it. Years later, after J.P. Morgan and his banking cohorts ended up with all EW's wealth he might have wondered if it was money well spent, but I suspect that he was happy to leave the statue behind as his legacy, figuring that had he not spent those sums, the New York bankers would have gotten that too. But then late one night, when "historical research by divine inspiration" often takes place it occurred to me that Marland, who was later to become the governor of Oklahoma, might have been planning his political career even has he planned his monument. Only half a decade (1920) before the statue's life was set into motion the XIX Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women in America the vote. What better way to begin to win that vote, both locally and nationally could there be than to erect a monument to the Pioneer Women?
An excellent account of the Pioneer Woman statue competition and the fate of the 12 models that toured the country, including some fine photographs and a slightly different take on the whole event, can be found here.
Besides a lot of interesting information and images, I also picked up from Hugh a comfortable copyright tag. Thanks H.
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