Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980) is relatively unknown today, yet during her active period she was one of the most widely known and highly admired artists of the time. Her joyous depiction of the female nude, usually in dynamic poses drawn from dance movements, is the epitome of romantic realism in sculpture.
Born in Philadelphia at the height of Western culture, and most active in the 1920s and early 1930s, she was as much the creator of her time as influenced by it.
Frishmuth was taken to Europe by her mother at a young age, received her early education in Switzerland, and was introduced to sculpture at nineteen. She studied briefly in Paris with Rodin, and later became a sculptor’s assistant in Berlin.
After moving back to New York, she studied anatomy by dissecting bodies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and taking classes at the Art Students League from Gutzen Borglum (who later created Mount Rushmore).
After winning the prestigious St. Gaudens award in 1910, she established an art studio on Park Avenue, and in 1913 moved to a converted stable in Sniffen Court (at 152 East 36th Street — not far from where Ayn Rand would later live). This new home became her sculpture studio for the most important years of her output, as she herself would later say. "I did my best work in my studio-home in Sniffin Court."
Among her most well-known and best-loved pieces, a large version of The Vine is housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum, but a nearly identical copy (though much in need of repair) stands in the outdoor sculpture garden on the UCLA campus. (The original is only twelve-and-a-half inches high, and there were 350 castings of that version, which were highly prized by collectors.)
In 1925, Frishmuth completed Crest of the Wave, versions of which can be found in St. Paul and elsewhere.
Her figures combine classical elements of form with the dynamic spirit that entered the arts in the 1920s. Frishmuth would often play music on the Victrola for her dancer models and then capture their movements, a very different way of working from the traditional method of models in static poses. That said, one of Desha's most notable qualities was her well-known ability to hold the most difficult static poses without moving for long periods.
Though Frishmuth herself said that her work was created to "express the joy of living," her pieces were not all of one mood. They range from the exuberance of Joy of the Waters (1912), to the dynamism of The Hunt (1921, Dayton Art Institute), to the Art Deco-style Speed (1922, Ohio University), which was completed while she worked for a short time at Gorham Co New York City. (She was employed by them modeling ashtrays, bookends, and small figures which they cast and sold.)
There is also the quiet, loving serenity of Temptation (1922, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts), and the sheer loveliness of Sweet Grapes (1928, Majestic Theatre, San Antonio, TX), versions of which range from nineteen inches to five feet.
From personal accounts, her childhood was a happy one, she was honored in her time, and was pleased with what she'd accomplished — an example that an artist can create great and beautiful work without great suffering.
For reproductions of Frishmuth's works, see the James Halpern collection.
Jeffrey Perren is a novelist with a background in Physics and Philosophy. His latest novel, The Geisha Hummingbird (in progress), is the story of a ship designer whose fiancé disappears on the eve of her wedding, amidst a whirlpool of industrial espionage.