The Cyrus Dallin Story

“Art is as necessary and universal as any other product of human energy … and has always been the capstone of every civilization.”

- Cyrus Dallin, 1893

 

Northeast Fine Arts works to refresh the public memory of sculptors who told the story of America through their work. As a result, we find ourselves retelling the stories of the artists themselves. Few artists have a story worth telling more than Cyrus Dallin’s. For this reason, we will focus Spring 2012 on Cyrus Dallin to commemorate his 150th birthday.

 

Youth and Discovery

 

Cyrus Edwin Dallin was born November 22, 1861 in Springville, Utah to pioneer parents. The setting of his childhood was a frontier backdrop replete with the characters identified with the Rocky Mountain West: cowboys, miners, and Native Americans.Young Cyrus Dallin Though he was raised basically as an unbaptized Presbyterian, Cyrus’ youth was spent among a community of Mormon settlers. At the time, Springville, Utah was a cluster of single room cabins surrounded by an adobe wall. Springville is located at the mouth of a canyon carved by Hobble Creek beneath the tall Wasatch Mountains. Its location attracted frequent contact with members of the local Ute and Paiute tribes, who regularly camped near the settlers in order to trade. Young Cyrus Dallin interacted extensively with these groups of Native Americans, and he played with their children within their camps along the banks of the creek. Along those creek beds, Cyrus
also learned to mold clay from his mother who used it to form toy figures for her children.

 

Dallin’s break occurred at 18 while working in his father’s struggling silver mine. His crew hit a vein of white clay, and Dallin used it to form busts of a man and woman. These received accolades among the crew and others in town. The mining foreman was a Bostonian with connections back home. Through his own initiative, the foreman approached other local businessmen to raise funds to get Cyrus to Boston to work as an understudy to Truman H. Bartlett, an established sculptor.  Years later, Dallin still referred to the mining foreman appreciatively as “the man who discovered me.”

 

Boston and Paul Revere

 

After his arrival in Boston, money was a constant worry for young Cyrus. His clothes were shabby and he was often hungry. An arrangement was made whereby the “Utah boy” earned his keep while doing odd jobs around the studio. Mr. Bartlett made Dallin’s tuition free, and Dallin made rapid progress. Not long after his arrival, Mr. Bartlett wrote the Salt Lake City newspapers about Dallin: “[h]e has made such fine progress that I wish you to know about him… The lad has a fine talent for sculpture, and if properly educated will be an honor to himself and to those interested in him. Natures so evidently artistic are rare, and for one to spring out of the life of the far West is something to be marveled at and admired…” Eventually, Dallin’s hunger, exhausting workload and the drafty studio overtook his health and finances. At Mr. Bartlett’s suggestion, he began to work full time in the terra cotta works behind the studio. As his attendance in art school dwindled and Mr. Bartlett’s supervision refused to tolerate stylistic independence, Dallin found new employment at a granite monument company in Quincy. Bartlett was furious.

 

Dallin’s first public recognition was a frustrating yet formational experience. His anonymous entry in an 1883 competition for the commission a sculpture of Paul Revere won unanimous committee approval, and Dallin bested the leading sculptors of the era. Paul Revere No. 5Daniel Chester French took second place, and wrote Dallin a magnanimous note of congratulation. When the town learned however that their unknown winner was “a mere youth hailing from the Godless West,” as one paper reported, the committee refused to accept his entry. Dallin begged the committee to accept a second model.

 

Another competition was held between the three finalists and Thomas Ball, who had returned from Europe. Improbably, Dallin won again and seemed destined to see his model cast full-size and placed in Copley Square. Again, however, the commission stalled as the committee disregarded his winning entry and negotiated with Ball for months. Dallin returned to Utah in search of work but rushed back to Boston when the committee suggested that it might accept his entry with “some alterations.” Repeated requests eventually turned into a complete reworking of the model into a third full version. A third model led to a fourth. When most of the committee met Dallin for the first time late 1884, they became even more concerned when they discovered he was a beardless 23 year-old. Eventually, a contract was signed and the third model accepted.

 

After the contract was signed, however, Dallin’s former teacher interfered and began to denounce Dallin publicly as incompetent. The Boston Transcript printed Bartlett’s scathing public letter: “[i]t is the most outrageous piece of effrontery and lack of intelligence on the committee’s part to have selected that model… [T]he author of it is but a young man from Utah, who has never done, and never will do anything worthwhile.” Public funding dropped off immediately. The committee solicited critiques of Dallin’s work from prominent artists. Dallin found faint praise but was unable to overcome Bartlett’s attack. The contract stalled indefinitely.

 

With work in Boston slow and the Revere process impossible, Dallin resolved to go to Paris to study and build a reputation that was not so easily disregarded. His fiancée, writer Vittoria Colonna Murray, helped convince wealthy relatives to support his trip. In 1888, Dallin forged ahead after six years of setbacks and frustration in Boston. Later, he reminisced, “I was disappointed—but not defeated. I learned that life is full of disappointments. But I have also learned to leave disappointments behind me and go on to something else.”

 

Frontier Story Formed in Paris

 

Paris became as liberating to Dallin as Boston had been repressive. Dallin enrolled in the Academie Julian and studied under Henri Michel Chapu, who proved to be kind hearted, even paternalistic. Dallin reflected that “[h]e was a wonderful man—a rare spirit.Cyrus Dallin Young Man When he put his hand on my shoulder, he seemed to send an occult influence into my soul. It made me feel good; that life is meaningful and worth living, just to meet him and hear his criticism of my work. His ability to recognize beautiful, finished work made you feel that within yourself the same elements might exist.” Later when Dallin began to teach, he sought to incorporate this same spirit.

 

In Paris, the Boston Post interviewed Dallin and reported that “Dallin is still a young man, and he has the advantage of not being hampered by conventional ideas which often overmaster men who have been dominated by Academic schools and ways of expression.” In fact, Dallin found that his premier training in Paris connected him to his frontier past. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show remained on tour in Paris, and Dallin began to spend time there modeling the native people in Cody’s show. In 1890, Dallin submitted A Signal of Peace, his first major equestrian of a native subject, to the Spring Salon. His European audience hailed it with an honorable mention, one of the highest awards ever bestowed on an American sculptor at that point. Jubilant, Dallin returned to Boston to marry Vittoria.

 

Settled in Boston, Final Victory

 

Dallin’s success in Paris did not inoculate him from further disappointment. Upon returning to Boston, he found that his molds and work from before his departure were missing from the foundry where they had been entrusted. Dallin with Massasoit 1920Destitute and without commissions, Dallin left Boston with his new bride and returned to Utah in hopes of getting back on his feet. In Utah, the Mormon Church asked Dallin to create a statue of Moroni, a figure in the Book of Mormon. Dallin hesitated because he “didn’t believe in angels,” but eventually accepted the commission. Dallin’s Angel Moroni today remains atop the LDS temple in Salt Lake City and has become a symbol of the church.

 

Dallin’s wife, a cultured Bostonian, did not embrace frontier life and the people in it. They returned to the Northeast, and after another stint in Paris with their young family, settled in the town of Arlington on the outskirts of Boston where they generally remained for the rest of their lives.Dallin working on Revere No. 5 During his 40 years in Arlington, Dallin continued to tell the American story. Cyrus Dallin became a leading sculptor of his generation, creating over 260 works including well-known sculptures of Paul Revere, Appeal to the Great Spirit, and other Native American and patriotic works. His poignant portrayals of American history and Native Americans began to appear in public spaces around the country and he changed the face of America’s public art.

 

Dallin never gave up on Paul Revere. It became his lifelong obsession, and in 1941, 57 years after submission of his first model, Dallin succeeded in seeing a full-size casting of the Revere—his seventh iteration—dedicated in the shadows of the Old North Church. Dallin’s life was filled with disappointment and hardship, but his unshakable determination left a body of work and legacy that rivals any American sculptor.

 

“The lowlands and the plains may produce the painters, but it remains for the mountains to produce the sculptors."
- Cyrus Dallin

 

Northeast Fine Arts is grateful to partner with the museums in the places of Dallin’s birth and death to honor the life and work of this great American. We hope you will share in our celebration of his 150th birthday and in his unique contribution to America’s cultural and historic legacy.