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Bela Lyon Pratt was born on December 11, 1867, in Norwich, Connecticut, to a family that prized education. His father, George Pratt, was a Yale-educated lawyer, and his maternal grandfather was the founder of an early music conservatory in Connecticut. His mother was Sarah Whittlesey Pratt. At age sixteen, Pratt began studying at the Yale University School of Fine Arts, where his teachers included John Henry Niemeyer (1839-1932) and John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926). Four years later, he entered the Art Students League in New York. There he took classes with William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Kenyon Cox (1859-1919), Francis Edwin Elwell (1858-1922), and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), who became a crucial mentor and model for his career. After working in Saint-Gaudens' private studio for a short time, Pratt went to Paris, where he trained with sculptors Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu (1833-1891) and Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900), and won several medals and prizes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. At Saint-Gaudens' invitation, he returned to the United States in 1892 in time to create two colossal sculptural groups representing The Genius of Navigation for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, thus becoming one of the new generation of sculptors whose careers were launched at the Chicago fair. At this time, he also began a twenty-five-year career as an influential teacher of modeling in the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and an advocate for the role of sculpture in public and private life.
Described as a mild-mannered, modest, and congenial man who loved music and the outdoors, Pratt married Helen Pray (1870-1965), a sculpture student. By 1897 the couple had four children, whom they raised in comfortable circumstances. Over the next few decades, Pratt created a wide range of work, from small portrait busts, reliefs, and memorial tablets to ideal nudes, fountain figures, and public monuments of heroic size. A number of his students became his assistants, helping to turn out this prolific array of sculpture characterized by a combination of technical skill, naturalism, and simple restraint that his contemporaries often described as quintessentially American.
Pratt created a gallery of sculpted portraits of Boston's intellectual community, some of which were featured at the first major exhibition of his works at the Saint Botolph Club in Boston in December 1902. His best-known portraits include busts of Episcopal minister Phillips Brooks (1899, Brooks House, Harvard University), Colonel Henry Lee (1902, Memorial Hall, Harvard University), and Boston Symphony Orchestra founder Henry L. Higginson (1909, Symphony Hall, Boston). His medals and coins included an early medal of Harvard University President Charles William Eliot (1894) and highly praised sunken-relief designs for gold coins in the amount of two and a half and five U.S. dollars.
In 1895-1896, Pratt won the prized commission for six female allegorical spandrel figures carved in granite above the bronze doors at the main entrance of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He also designed Philosophy, one of eight figures in the library's rotunda, and medallions of the four seasons for the library pavilion.
During a year abroad after his marriage, Pratt exhibited works at the salon in Paris, including a recumbent neo-Renaissance figure of Dr. Henry Augustus Coit for Saint Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire, which won honorable mention in 1897, and a life-sized Orpheus Mourning Eurydice, a nude that fit within French academic traditions, in 1898. He also created Floral Wreath for the esplanade of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, as well as other architectural sculpture for that fair, at which he was awarded a silver medal for his marble statuette of a nude girl.
In 1909, his terracotta reliefs of Music, Drama, and The Dance executed for the facade of the Boston Opera House received considerable attention. His large-scale permanent public sculpture included: a figure of a young soldier at Saint Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, in memory of 120 of the school's alumni who served in the Spanish-American War (dedicated 1906); The Andersonville Prison Boy in the National Cemetery, Andersonville, Georgia (1907), a memorial to Civil War soldiers who died in Southern prisons; the Butler Memorial for Lowell, Massachusetts (1909), a Beaux-Arts high relief of personifications of Peace and War reminiscent of the work of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931); and the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Malden, Massachusetts (dedicated 1910). His Whaleman's Monument in New Bedford, Massachusetts (1913), features a man, a boat, and a decorative wave in bronze against a granite background on which sculpted gulls fly above an inscription from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
Large-scale portrait statues included a standing figure of Connecticut Revolutionary War martyr Nathan Hale, dressed in homespun with hands tied behind his back, for Yale University (1908-1914); a seated Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem, Massachusetts; and a bearded Edward Everett Hale (1913), with hat in hand, cane, and heavy overcoat, placed on a low pedestal in Boston's Public Garden.
Pratt's long career intertwined with Saint-Gaudens' even after the older sculptor's death in 1907. Saint-Gaudens had begun work on, but never completed, designs for two groups of allegorical figures for the piazza of the Boston Public Library designed by McKim, Mead, and White. Pratt later was awarded a commission for personifications of Art and Science to stand in front of the library. Also, a controversy had developed over the suitability of a sculpture honoring minister Phillips Brooks, left incomplete at Saint-Gaudens' death but finished by his former studio assistants and installed on the lawn of Trinity Church, Boston, in 1910. Pratt was commissioned by an opposition group to make a replacement statue of Brooks in 1916, but a legal battle prevented its placement and it did not gain a permanent home until 1925 (North Andover common, Massachusetts). Pratt was active until his death of heart disease on May 18, 1917, when he was working on his statue of Alexander Hamilton for Chicago's Grant Park. A retrospective exhibition of 125 of his sculptures was held at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in the spring of 1918. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]