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Overview

American beaux-arts sculpture gained new prominence with a gift from the Wolf family, a representation of an iconic figure from early American history, Nathan Hale. The Gallery's first work by Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937), a star pupil of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is a moving bronze image of the young martyr of the American Revolution. It was given by Erving and Joyce Wolf in memory of their daughter, the Honorable Diane R.Wolf, who had kept it in her home in Washington. MacMonnies had won the commission for an eight-foot-tall statue of Hale (1755–1776) in a competition sponsored by the Sons of the Revolution in the state of New York. That group planned the monument that now stands in City Hall Park, New York, then believed to be the site of Hale's execution. The competition model, produced in Paris, won MacMonnies a medal at the Paris Salon of 1891, the first such award given to an American sculptor. Cast at the Gruet Foundry in Paris, this bronze is an exceptionally fine example of the sought-after reductions produced from the sculptor's model.

Hale, a young schoolmaster, was hanged as a spy by the British on September 22, 1776, reportedly after declaring, "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Without any portrait for guidance, instructions to the artists competing to create his image a hundred years later called for "a well-built young man of American type, dressed in simple costume of the end of the last Century—at the moment immediately preceding his execution by the British" (M. Smart, A Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies [1996], 86). MacMonnies made effective use of eighteenth-century costume details such as the ruffled shirt, whose torn and displaced neckline underlines the figure's fragility. Bound by ropes around his ankles and arms, his Hale stands erect, turning his face to the side as he confronts death with pensive self-possession, his fingers probing the air. The image shows both kinship and contrast with another celebrated monument to patriotic sacrifice, represented by a bust and bronze statuette nearby in the Ground Floor Sculpture Galleries—Auguste Rodin's Burghers of Calais, modeled 1884–1889, just before MacMonnies began to design his Nathan Hale. Both sculptors explore their subjects' states of mind at the moment before expected execution. Hale was hanged, but Edward spared the lives of the citizens of Calais.

Inscription

on proper left side of base: F MacMonnies 1890; stamped on proper right side of back of base: E.GRUET / JEUNE / FONDEUR / 44 bis AVENUE DE CHATILLON.PARIS.

Marks and Labels

FM: Gruet

Provenance

Erving and Joyce Wolf, Washington, D.C.; gift 2008 to NGA.

Bibliography
2009
Luchs, Alison. "Frederick William MacMonnies, Nathan Hale." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 40 (Spring 2009): 20-21, repro.