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Gaston Lachaise

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Biography

One of the principal sculptors working in the United States in the early 20th century, Gaston Lachaise was born in Paris March 19, 1882. Encouraged by his father, an expert cabinetmaker, he began studying the applied arts at the age of 13 at the École Municipale Bernard Palissy, and three years later entered the École des Beaux-Arts, where he received formal classical training in sculpture. Around 1902 or 1903 he met and fell in love with Isabel Dutaud Nagle (1872-1957), an American woman of French Canadian descent who was in Paris overseeing the education of her young son. When she returned to her home near Boston in 1904, Lachaise vowed to follow her. After briefly working for the master jewelry and glass designer René Lalique in order to pay for his passage, he arrived in America in 1906, never to return to his native land. For the next fifteen years he earned a living as a sculptor’s assistant- his most noteworthy association was with Paul Manship from 1914 until 1921. Even as he assisted others, Lachaise created his own art. 


In 1918, (eight months after he became an American citizen and married Isabel), Lachaise began his meteoric rise in the New York art world with his first solo show, held at the Bourgeois Galleries, which featured his challenging, heroic-sized Woman (Elevation). By the mid-1920s, his genius was recognized by both critics and patrons and he was considered to be the most innovative sculptor in America. In early 1935 he was honored with the first retrospective given to a living sculptor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His brilliant artistic career was cut short by his pre-mature and unexpected death from acute leukemia in mid-October of that year.

Lachaise’s personal idiom was developed during the first decade of the twentieth century with his encounter with Isabel. But it was not until his arrival in New York, that he realized his principal manifesto- his concept of "Woman" as a force of Nature based on his wife’s image. In his own words he described his many sculpted images of the female nude in contrasting terms- vigorous, robust, and massive yet in repose, serene and eternal. Gaston Lachaise was an extremely versatile sculptor, technically expert in several medium and accomplished with both ideal and commercial effort. Lachaise created remarkable portraits of the literary, social and artistic figures of his time, including E. E. Cummings, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Marianne Moore and Lincoln Kirstein. His work was also chosen for several major New York architectural commissions – including the AT&T Building and Rockefeller Center. And the more commercial aspect of his sculptural output - the production of fountains and decorative bronzes, primarily depicting animals – offered him some financial relief. Yet Lachaise’s artistic legacy is closely bound to his depictions of "Woman." Even the rarely seen late works, which are extreme manipulation of his ideal of the human anatomy, are still surprisingly erotic and emotional and avant-garde. 

Called by ARTnews as the "greatest American sculptor of his time," he played a critical role in the birth of American Modernism, pushing the boundaries of nude figuration with his innovative explorations of the human body.

Exhibitions