Inspired by a block of Greek marble pulled from the Tiber River near his Italian summer home, American Maurice Sterne allowed the marble's size and shape to determine the pose and gestures of Sitting Figure. Poised on a small square base, the nude is completely contained within the invisible block: with head bowed, she draws one knee up, folding the other leg beneath her. She holds her arms close to her torso, resting hands on shoulder and knee. Sterne carved each line and contour to return the viewer's eye to the figure's center. She gazes inward, in deep meditation, an image of calm and repose.
Sterne sought, in both painting and sculpture, to combine the lessons of tradition with the contemporary artistic environment that surrounded him. With his choice of subject and material, and by refining and reducing the image to its most concentrated, expressive form, Sterne refers to archaic Greek sculpture. But rather than polish the stone to imitate skin or use a drill to fashion locks of hair (as tradition may have dictated), Sterne preferred the texture of the natural marble. He used few finishing tools and, with the exception of the roughly finished base, achieved a consistent texture for the figure.
Sterne began his career as a draftsman and painter. From the beginning, critics recognized his deft use of line to describe the weight and volume of objects in his two-dimensional work. "[Sterne's] pictures convey something of the mass and weight which sculpture conveys," wrote one scholar. In Greece in 1908, he studied archaic Greek statues and was inspired to carve his first sculpture in stone. Several years later, he traveled to Bali to paint and sketch; it is thought he based Sitting Figure on a sketch he made of a Balinese woman from that time.
underside of base: MAURICE STERNE / FIRST VERSION / 1932
Acquired 1933 by Harlan Fiske Stone [1872-1946], Washington, D.C.; by inheritance to his wife, Mrs. Agnes Harvey Stone [1873-1958], Washington, D.C.; by inheritance to their sons, Lauson H. Stone, New York, and Marshall H. Stone, Amherst, Massachusetts; gift 1969 to NGA.
- Maurice Sterne: Retrospective Exhibition 1902-1932; Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1933, no. 174, repro.
- Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994: 223, repro.
- Penny, Nicholas. "The Evolution of the Plinth, Pedestal, and Socle." In Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe. Nicholas Penny and Eike D. Schmidt, eds. Studies in the History of Art 70, Symposium Papers 47 (2008): 461, 462 fig. 1.