The Calder Family Legacy: Sculpting a City’s Image

Richard Friswell
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William Penn atop City Hall, Philadelphia, PA

The boulevard runs straight as an arrow from a towering city hall to the front door of its eponymous museum of art. Fashioned after Paris’s 19th century, Baron Hausmann-designed thoroughfares, Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the mile-long artery that daily pumps new life into this historic setting. And standing atop City Hall tower, a beneficent, 27-ton, 37-foot tall sculpture of Quaker, William Penn, hand out-stretched, surveys all. Today, this metropolis still bears the name he first assigned to it in the 1660s—phila-delphia, the city of ‘brotherly love,’ in his very own sprawling “Sylvania” (Latin for “forests” or “woods”), gifted to him by King Charles II. The towering figure faces northeast, toward Penn Treaty Park — the site where, legend has it, Penn once signed a treaty with the native Lenni Lenape. With his right hand he gestures in that direction, while his left holds the Charter of Pennsylvania. xxxxxx

City Hall, Philadelphia (center). Photo: R. Friswell

Below the towering figure of Penn (often mis-identified as Benjamin Franklin), eight bronze sculptures stand high on the tower of this imposing edifice. Built in the Second Empire mode of French Renaissance Revival architectural style, Philadelphia City Hall is the nation’s largest municipal building (even larger than the US Capitol Building). Begun in 1871, it took over 30 years to complete. The first floor is built of solid granite — 22 feet thick in some places — supporting a brick structure faced with marble. The 548-foot tower is the tallest masonry structure in the world without a steel frame. By 1901, it was completed, with some 88 million bricks making up the structure. The only steel to be found is in the upper-most clock and sculpture tower.

Calder’s 37′-tall William Penn, prior to installation on top of city hall (c. 1900). Courtesy: City of Philadelphia, Dept. of Records

Once it was finished, a critic wrote of the structure,“…the folly at Broad and Market Streets, this monstrous, inchoate municipal place.” Ultimately, better taste prevailed, and today the building stands as a marvel of 19th century design and engineering. Until the 1980s, municipal ordinance prohibited any other structure in the city to rise higher than “the brim of Billy Penn’s hat.” Developers finally convinced city officials that if Philadelphia were ever to enter the modern age, taller skyscrapers would have to be permitted. The city skyline grew rapidly from that point, onward.

Alexander Milne Calder, Ethnic motif columns in Philadelphia City Hall (c. 1890), carved marble. Photo: R. Friswell

All of the 250-plus sculptures—both above the street and within the confines of the building—were designed by Alexander Milne Calder (1846 – 1923), over a twenty-year period. Executed in bronze and marble, they were completed in a rich, allegorical style, typical of the period. On the tower below William Penn, the south corners feature large bronzes of Swedish adults and children. (Swedes settled the southern parts of the region before Penn arrived in the area). On the north corner, four eagles perch between the figures of Native Americans. The hundreds of sculptures on the building proper cover a wide range of subjects: symbolic figures, animals and ethnic groups from Europe, Native America, Africa and Asia.


Alexander Calder with head of Wm Penn, Tacoy Iron Works (1881). Courtesy: City of Philadelphia, Dept. of Records.

Alexander Milne Calder, the first of three generations of artists who would leave their mark on the city, was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, the son of a tombstone carver. He began his sculpting career in Scotland, while attending the Royal Academy in Edinburgh, and moved to London to work on the Albert Memorial. Calder immigrated to the United States in 1868, settling in Philadelphia, where he took classes with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. With the commission to produce the prominent sculptures found on City Hall, and other important assignments, Calder’s reputation as craftsman and egalitarian visionary evolved, very much in the spirit and intent of the city’s founding father.

Thomas Eakins, ‘The Gross Clinic’ (1875). Coll: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Alexander Stirling Calder (1870 — 1945), an American sculptor and teacher, was the son of Alexander Milne Calder. Like his father, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he also studied under Thomas Eakins. He apprenticed as a sculptor the following year, working on his father’s extensive plan for Philadelphia City Hall. His first major commission, won in a national competition, was for a larger-than-life-size statue of Dr. Samuel Gross (1895–97) for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. Calder replicated the pose of Dr. Gross from Eakins’s 1876 painting, The Gross Clinic.

In 1912, he was named acting-chief (under Karl Bitter) of the sculpture program for www.artesmagazine.comthe Panama-Pacific Exposition, a World’s Fair to open in San Francisco, California in February 1915. He occupied a studio in New York City and there employed the services of Audrey Munson, well-known artist’s model and future silent film star, who posed for Star Maiden (1913–15). For the Exposition, Calder completed three massive sculpture groups, The Nations of the East and The Nations of the West, crowning triumphal arches, as well as a fountain group, The Fountain of Energy. Calder was also commissioned to create larger-than-life sculptures for the Washington Square Arch in New York City. George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, Accompanied by Fame and Valor (1914–16) was sculpted by his co-creator, Hermon Atkins MacNeil; and George Washington as President, Accompanied by Wisdom and Justice (1917–18), above, left, by Calder. This pair are sometimes referred to as Washington at War and Washington at Peace.

Alexander Stirling Calder, The Swann Memorial Fountain (1920-21), Philadelphia, PA. Photo: R Friswell

Most notably, for Philadelphia, two of Calder’s major commissions of the 1920s were the Swann Memorial Fountain (1920–24), occupying a prominent location at Logan Square, halfway between City Hall and the Museum of Art, and a work for the architectural sculpture program for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (completed, 1931). The Swann serves as a cooling-off spot for city residents on a summer’s day. It is also known as “The Fountain of Three Rivers.” Calder’s three main figures represent the city’s major waterways: the Delaware, Schuylkill and Wissahickon Rivers.

Stirling Calder carried forward the family lineage for allegorical and thematic sculpture Alexander_Stirling_Calderin the classical style. Very much a traditionalist, his prominent fountain in the heart of the city embodies many of the same motifs of democratic inclusiveness, representationalism and symbolism inspired by nature, as his did his father before him. It was only in the next, third generation that the observer discovers a dramatic break with tradition.

Left: Alexander Stirling Calder at work on ‘Star Maiden,’ with Audrey Munson as his model (1913-15).

Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976), American sculptor and progeny of the two previous ‘Alexanders,’ was known as the originator of the mobile, a type of kinetic sculpture made with delicately balanced or suspended components which move in response to motor power or air currents. Calder’s stationary sculptures are called stabiles. But his involvement in the field began early, in his father’s studio. In 1902, at age four, ‘Sandy’ Calder posed nude for his father’s sculpture, The Man Cub, which is now located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. In 1915, Calder decided to study mechanical engineering. For the next several years, he held various engineering jobs, including one as a hydraulic engineer and draughtsman for the New York Edison Company. In June 1922, Calder found work as a mechanic on the passenger ship H. F. Alexander. While the ship sailed from San Francisco to New York City, Calder worked on deck off the Guatemalan Coast, witnessing simultaneously the sun’s rising and moon’s setting on opposite horizons. He described in his autobiography, “It was early one morning on a calm sea, off Guatemala, when over my couch—a coil of rope—I saw the beginning of a fiery red sunrise on one side and the moon looking like a silver coin on the other.”

Alexander (‘Sandy’) Calder (1898-1976), circ. 1947.

The H.F. Alexander docked in San Francisco and Calder traveled to Aberdeen, Washington, where his sister lived. There, he took a job as a timekeeper at a logging camp. The mountain scenery inspired him to write home requesting paints and brushes. Shortly thereafter, Calder decided to move back to New York to pursue a career as an artist.

Once in New York, he enrolled at the Art Students’ League, studying briefly with Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks and John Sloan. While there, he worked for the National Police Gazette where, in 1925, one of his assignments was sketching the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Calder became fascinated with the circus, a theme that would reappear in his later work. In 1926, Calder moved to Paris, where he established a studio. Three years later, while traveling by boat from Paris to New York, Calder met his future wife, Louisa James, grandniece of author Henry James and philosopher William James. While in Paris, Calder befriended a number of avant-garde artists, including Joan Miró, Jean Arp, and Marcel Duchamp.

Alexander Calder, ‘Lily of Force’ (1945). Private collection.

By 1962, Calder was settled into his new workshop Carroi, one of futuristic design overlooking the valley of the Lower Chevrière to Saché in Indre-et-Loire, France. He readily offered his gouaches and small mobiles to his friends in the country. He even donated to the town a stabile trônant (enthroned stabile), which since 1974 has been situated in front of the church: an anti-sculpture, freed from gravity.

Calder began, in the 1940s, to cut shapes from sheet metal into evocative forms, hand-painting them in his characteristically pure hues of black, red, blue, and white. The artist created a small group of works during this period with a hanging base-plate, for example Lily of Force (1945), Baby Flat Top (1946), and Red is Dominant(1947). His 1946 show at the Galerie Louis Carré in Paris, comprised mainly of hanging and standing mobiles, made a huge impact, as did the essay for the catalogue written by French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. By the late 1950s, Calder produced mobiles almost exclusively for close friends and family.

In 1951, Calder devised a new kind of mobile/stabile combination, related structurally to his constellations. These “towers,” affixed to the wall with a nail, consisting of jutting wire struts and beams, with moving objects suspended from their armatures.

Alexander Calder, ‘Ghost,’ metal rods, painted sheet metal. Coll: Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Estate of Alexander Calder / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Best known today for these gravity-defying mobiles, ‘Sandy’ Calder redefined sculpture for a new generation of collectors and museum goers. His work, Ghost, hangs high above the heads of visitors in the Great Stair Hall Balcony of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This triple siting—beginning with his grandfather’s work at City Hall; to his father’s sculpture featured prominently at the Swann Memorial Fountain, halfway to the museum; to the museum mobile installation at the far end of the road—spotlights this family troika of sculptors, fondly referred to in Philly as, ‘The Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ Amen.

By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor

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  1. Teresa Fullerton December 3, 2015 11:16 am

    The Calders are my relatives that my grandmother had wrote down for me in 1973 of her/our family history. And it was not until today that I decided to look into some of the names she had written down. Just at a glance of the dates he seems that Alex Calder was her cousins.

  2. Teresa Fullerton December 3, 2015 6:26 pm

    Now after checking all the dates, my grandmother was the granddaughter of Alexander Milne Calder, then niece of Alex Stirling, then cousin of the last artist. What a pleasure of this knowledge.
    Glad to be a relative of a Calder(wood).

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