Lorado Taft And The White Rabbits
Lorado Taft moved to Chicago when he returned from Paris in 1886 and established a small studio in the downtown area. He began a teaching career at the Art Institute of Chicago and soon became involved in the work and planning for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Head architect for the exposition Daniel Burnham assigned Taft to work with architect William Le Baron Jenney. Jenny designed the Horticultural Building for the fair, and Taft created two sculptural groups for the structure. Noted sculptors from all over the country created other artistic works to complement the other buildings. Burnham expressed concern that the many sculptures might not be finished on time, so he added to Taft’s responsibilities. When Taft requested the assistance of several of his female students, Burnham replied: “Hire anyone, even white rabbits if they’ll do the work.” As a result, a group of gifted women sculptors who became known as the “White Rabbits” emerged. The artists included Helen Farnsworth Mears, Enid Yandell, Mary Lawrence, Julia Bracken, Carol Brooks MacNeil, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Margaret Gerow, and Janet Scudder. Under the mentorship and tutelage of Lorado Taft, these women became famous sculptors and created numerous works of art.
Helen Farnsworth Mears was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and later studied art in Paris and New York City. While living in New York, she studied with Augustus St. Gaudens and later became his assistant. One of her most important works was her marble statue of Frances W. Willard, the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a supporter of women’s suffrage. Mears’s statue of Willard is one of two representing the State of Illinois in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U. S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Enid Yandell was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and attended the Cincinnati Art Academy where she won a first-prize medal upon graduation. She co-authored Three Girls In a Flat, an account of her participation in planning the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She was the first woman to join the National Sculpture Society in 1898.
Mary Lawrence was born in New York City and studied art with Augustus St. Gaudens at the Art Students League in New York. While St. Gaudens was working in Chicago to prepare for the World’s Columbian Exposition, he recommended that Lawrence be commissioned to create the statue of Christopher Columbus that would be placed at the entrance of the Administration Building. Critics resented the fact that Lawrence was given this prestigious assignment because she was a woman. Julia Bracken was born in Apple River, Illinois, and later studied with Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was awarded a commission to create Illinois Welcoming the Nation for the fair. This statue was later cast in bronze and now welcomes politicians and visitors to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Bessie Potter Vonnoh was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and enrolled in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of fourteen. She received instruction from Lorado Taft and worked as one of his studio assistants. She was commissioned to create the Personification of Art for the Illinois State Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She later exhibited her work at both the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was awarded a Gold Medal. Janet Scudder was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and moved to Chicago in 1891 to join Lorado Taft’s “White Rabbits” group. She was commissioned to create figures for the Indiana and Illinois buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Scudder was an active feminist and suffragette and often marched in parades involving women’s issues. She resisted the contemporary practice of having separate expositions for male and female artists.