West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



The following essay segment appeared in pages 14-15 of the catalogue titled Women's Work, Early Wisconsin Women Artists, published in 2001 by the West Bend Art Museum. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


Helen Farnsworth Mears

essay segment by Laurel Spenser Forsythe


Nellie's talent developed early. Aided by her father's knowledge of human anatomy and a natural ability for sculpting, she entered a work called Apollo in the Winnebago County Fair at age nine and was awarded a prize. By the time she had reached adolescence, she was given an inheritance by an aunt, Helen Farnsworth, and changed her name in honor of her aunt's legacy. She used the sum to pursue formal training in art. Mears studied with Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago for six weeks and then traveled to New York City for further study and training at the Art Students League with the support of a patron, Alice Greenwood Chapman of Milwaukee.

During this period, Mears was given her first commission to create "an heroic figure." Mears sculpted a dramatic, full-sized female figure draped in a flag with her hand cradling the neck of an eagle. She was awarded a $500 prize by the Milwaukee Women's Club for the work, Genius of Wisconsin. It was exhibited in the Wisconsin Women's Memorial of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago after being executed in marble by New York's Piccirilli Brothers. Today Mears' Genius of Wisconsin stands in the State Capitol Building in Madison.

From this early success Mears went on to study with one of America's premier sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who had seen her work at the Columbian Exposition. Mears benefited substantially from her training under Saint-Gaudens, both in terms of opportunities for work and in developing competence in her craft. His influence on her work is unmistakable, particularly in her bas-relief portraits. Her bas-relief of Saint-Gaudens was cherished by his family and is exhibited at his homestead and studio (a national historic site) in Cornish, N.H. Other bas-relief portraits executed by Mears include her portrait of composer Edward MacDowell and that of her mother, Elizabeth Mears.

In addition to excelling in the art of the bas-relief portrait, Mears developed several significant architectural pieces, including one much admired by Saint-Gaudens, The Fountain of Life. Like her other architectural works, Angel of Truth (a memorial to Mary Baker Eddy) and The Fountain of Joy, The Fountain of Life was never executed in bronze and the plaster models have been lost or destroyed. Among the few lasting examples of her monumental sculpture is Mears' statue of Frances E. Willard. This important commission came in 1900, and the work stands today in marble in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.

Perhaps Mears' finest works are among her figures and groups, which are well represented in this exhibition. The Urn depicts a gracious female form bending with the weight of a heavy vessel. The proudly feminine pair Dawn and Labor stride with determination toward some unseen opportunity. The End of the Day, based on Mears' actual observation of a toil-worn New York City laborer, depicts a man beaten down by the brutal physicality of his daily work. Tiny and exuberant, the Playing Rabbit (from the Fountain of Joy) and the contemplative Reclining Cat exhibit charm because of their small scale, but they also display the artist's formidable skill in modeling. In quite another example of Mears' mastery of her art, the lovely Reclining Eve admits to an eroticism that is as sweet as the serpent's proffered gift.


About the author:

As of the October, 2001 date of publication of this essay segment, Laura Spenser Forsythe was Curator of Exhibitions, Education and Collections at the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


This reprinted text is Copyright © 2001 West Bend Art Museum and is reprinted with permission of the Museum.

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