By Regina Armstrong Hilliard.
One of the most interesting figures in contemporary American art is Mr. George Grey Barnard, the sculptor, whose work - notably his statues exhibited at the Salon of the Champ de Mars in Paris - has received the unqualified praise of the world's greatest critics. Here is a man worthy to be ranked with Michelangelo, some of them have been enthusiastic enough to say; for not only is his work different from that of any other modern sculptor, but he has created a new interpretation of man and of nature, and in his conceptions are the virility and freshness of eternal youth, and, directing it, a wise and classical temperament.
Mr. Barnard was born in Pennsylvania, the son of an Indiana clergyman, but most of his childhood was spent in or near Chicago. When he was about five years of age he made friends with a retired sea captain, whose geological collection, gathered from all parts of the world, first directed the childish impulse toward that knowledge of nature which was the beginning of his artistic life. He roamed the fields and woods for curious stones and shells, which he found more to be desired than toys, and more marvelous than story books.
The boy who found his chief interest in stones was father to the man who is today working out the epic of humanity in marble. Mr. Barnard is the essence of his work. He takes nature as his context, and man as a detail in the great unfolding plan.
Mr. Barnard's colossal group, "I Feel Two Natures Struggling Within Me," is well known. It shows the momentary triumph of the baser over the finer nature in man's self, and the energy and strength of the recumbent figure of the group are wonderful. The Metropolitan Museum of Art possesses this work, it being the gift of the Alfred Corning Clark estate, which also presented the bronze statue of the Great God Pan to Central Park. Into the latter figure, which has not yet been placed in position, Mr. Barnard has infused an effluence of adolescence and wild freshness that is the very ecstasy of the poet's dream of the wood god.
While Mr. Barnard has always broken away from tradition and conventionality in his character of design and expression, he has shown himself to be no less master of the quieter methods. A figure for a mausoleum, recently exhibited by him, is characterized by a refinement of treatment and delicacy of modeling that are exquisitely simple and chaste in effect. The work is known as "The Maiden and Pedestal," but it is said that it is the portrait of the young girl whose tomb it is to adorn.
The design of this work takes its conception from the inscription on the pedestal, which was written by the young girl a few weeks previous to her death, and in which life is likened to the bloom and decay of roses. The base is a conventionalized arrangement of rose branches and buds, with the inscription wrought from the falling petals which have drifted downward from a mass of blossoms in the maiden's arms. The figure is treated classically and is full of serene grace and thoughtful innocence.
In a conversation on art, recently, Mr. Barnard said that the artist must also be a seer - he puts down his material but as a medium for something that is beyond and intangible, and his art consists in making a living quality out of this. He deplores the lack of faith in the men of today. He concedes that godless men have been great, but he believes that art, as an expression of life, must have religion for its cornerstone.
Too often, today, the artist finds. it necessary to go into the decorative, and thus sacrifices his principles of art. It is needless to say that Mr. Barnard has not done this. If there have been sacrifices, they have been to keep his art inviolate. An instance of this maybe recalled in the fact that he refused a commission for ten colossal figures for the Congressional Library solely because he felt that in the ten months given him in which to execute the order, he could produce nothing that he would consider worthy.
Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. December 1898.