Monday, May 14, 2012
Fountain of the Great Lakes
Fountain of the Great Lakes
Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Dedication: September 9, 1913
Architect: Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge
GPS Coordinates: N 41° 52.731 W 087° 37.407
A remark by famed Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham convinced Lorado Taft that he should create one of his most famous sculptures, Fountain of the Great Lakes. Burnham complained that the sculptors who designed art for the 1893 Columbian Exposition failed to produce a single work representing the natural resources of the Great Lakes. For inspiration for the sculpture, Taft turned to the Greek myth of the Danaides, forty-nine sisters who were sent to Hades for killing their husbands on their wedding nights. As punishment for this crime, the sisters were eternally condemned to hopelessly carry water in sieves. Taft envisioned a fountain with five female figures each representing one of the Great Lakes. Each statue would hold a conch shell, and the water would flow from the shells in the same way that the water passes through the Great Lakes system.
Lorado Taft assigned five of his women sculpture students to design a plaster study sculpture called The Spirit of the Great Lakes in the spring of 1902. Nellie Walker, Angelica McNulty, Clara Leonard, Lily Schoenbrun, and Edith Parker were each responsible for sculpting one of the individual women. By January of 1906, Taft cast a plaster version of the sculpture that he then showed to a Ferguson Fund trustee. On December 16, 1907, the Ferguson Fund trustees awarded a contract to Taft to commence work on Fountain of the Great Lakes. Site selection concerns and legal problems delayed the project for several years. Finally, in May 1913 a plaster model of the sculpture was sent to the Jules Berchem foundry for bronze casting. Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge of Boston, the architects of the original building of the Art Institute of Chicago, designed a base for the sculpture. A pool surrounded a pedestal on which the fountain was placed and two fish served as waterspouts. The fountain was originally placed along the south wall of the original Art Institute building, but was relocated to the west side of the Morton Wing addition in 1963 where it stands today. Unfortunately, a bronze bas-relief portrait and a quotation of Ferguson on the backside of the fountain are hidden from view in the current location. Landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley designed the gardens that surround the fountain.
Fountain of the Great Lakes was the first commission funded by the trustees of the B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund. Benjamin Franklin Ferguson was a Chicago merchant and philanthropist whose one million dollar gift to a charitable trust fund helped finance many Chicago public monuments and sculptures. The terms of Ferguson’s gift specified that the Art Institute of Chicago could select artists and sites for “the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments, in whole or in part of stone, granite, or bronze in the parks, along the boulevards, or in other public places within the city of Chicago, Illinois, commemorating worthy men or women of America or important events in American history.” In article an from an April 1905 edition of the Chicago Tribune, the writer stated: “No other city in the world has such a fund available as that left by Mr. Ferguson, and officials of the Art Institute, artists, and devotees of municipal art freely predicted that the bequest would make Chicago the richest city in the world in sculpture and the Mecca for artists.”
Fountain of the Great Lakes was dedicated on September 9, 1913. Charles L. Hutchinson, president of the Board of Trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, presented the sculpture to the assembled audience. John Barton Payne, president of the Board of South Park Commissioners, accepted the sculpture. Hutchinson spoke first and said: “This is but one of many monuments which will in time be erected and add greatly to the beauty of our city. They will give pleasure and inspiration to thousands of our fellow citizens by recalling to memory great Americans and events, notable in the history of our country. Think of all that will be accomplished in the course of a hundred years through the generosity of Mr. Ferguson. It is difficult to conceive of the glory of it all, made possible by his farsighted benevolence. We are fortunate in having among our citizens a great artist, Mr. Lorado Taft. For several years, he worked faithfully to give adequate expression to one of his noble conceptions. The city is to be congratulated upon possessing an artist capable of creating this beautiful fountain, and at the same time a citizen so generous and of such great vision as to enable the artist to put his ideas in permanent form.”
In his acceptance speech, John Barton Payne said: “In accepting this splendid monument for and on behalf of the South Side Commissioners, I speak not only for the Commissioners but also for the people of the City of Chicago. It is singularly appropriate that the first great work, the result of the splendid bequest of B. F. Ferguson, should typify the Great Lakes. Bodies of water have always been the subject of song and story. Rome celebrated its Tiber, Florence its Arno, Paris its Seine, London its Thames. Well may Chicago celebrate our great chain of lakes, our inland seas, Erie, Ontario, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. How wonderfully these names lend themselves to poetry, song, and story, and how the rivers fade into insignificance when compared with these Great Lakes! Lorado Taft, one of the great sculptors of this age, has placed a crown upon the forehead of our Great Lakes.”
In his dedication address, Lorado Taft explained his thinking behind his artistic creation: “The motif of the group is not profound. I have sometimes wondered if it were not too obvious. ‘Lake Superior’ on high and ‘Lake Michigan’ at the side both empty into the basin of ‘Lake Huron,’ who sends the waters on to ‘Lake Erie’ whence ‘Lake Ontario’ receives them. As they escape from her basin and hasten into the unknown, she reaches wistfully after them as though questioning whether she has been neglectful of her charge. The exigencies of placing have made her reach toward Saint Louis instead of the Saint Lawrence, but you are requested to overlook this solecism. But we are gathered here for another purpose. We come to do honor to a good man, a man of imagination and vision. I never met Mr. Ferguson, but I wish that I had. I remember what a thrill I felt when the significance of his unprecedented benefaction first dawned on me. I felt that I should have known him. I wanted to thank him personally in the name of all Chicago, the Chicago of today and of the many tomorrows.”
For further reading:
Bach, Ira J. & Mary Lackritz Gray. A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Exercises At The Dedication Of The Ferguson Fountain Of The Great Lakes: Chicago, September 9, 1913.
Garvey, Timothy J. Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Graf, John & Steve Skorpad. Chicago’s Monuments, Markers, and Memorials. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.
Hilliard, Celia. “The Prime Mover:” Charles L. Hutchinson and the Making of The Art Institute Of Chicago. Chicago, Illinois: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2010.
Moulton, Robert Hunt. “Chicago’s Dream of Civic Beauty Realized in the Symbolic Marble of Lorado Taft’s ‘Spirit of the Great Lakes’.” The Craftsman. Vol. 25, 1913.
Riedy, James L. Chicago Sculpture. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Weller, Allen. “Lorado Taft, the Ferguson Fund, and the Advent of Modernism,” in The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910-1940. Sue Ann Prince, ed. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.