Paul Manship

Considered the world’s greatest living sculptor in the 1920s and ’30s, Paul Manship is best-known for his towering, gilded bronze Prometheus fountain (completed in 1934) at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Born and raised in St. Paul, Manship studied art at the St. Paul Institute School of Art, the forerunner of today’s Minnesota Museum of American Art, from 1901 to 1903. He embraced the medium of sculpture—predominantly bronze sculpture—because he was colorblind. His subjects include Greek and Roman mythology, portraiture, and American history and folklore. But he had a deep and abiding love of animals, many of which, including Group of Bears, were created as public sculptural works for the Central Park Zoo and Osborn Memorial Playground in his adopted home of New York City.

The M holds 360 artworks by Paul Manship, one of the two premier collections of Manship’s work in the world, alongside that of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Both institutions were beneficiaries of Manship’s estate after his death in 1966.

Paul Howard Manship’s aesthetic practice stood on the threshold between the past and the present. Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Manship looked to the classical past for both artistic style and subject matter while he lived and worked in an era of remarkable progress and change. For a thirty-year period beginning just after World War I, he was lauded as one of America’s premiere sculptors. This was a time of great experimentation in the arts, the rise of the automobile, and the relaxing of social mores—a time associated with the Jazz Age and chronicled in the writings of another St. Paul native, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yet, in spite of progressive times, Manship’s elegant, small-scale figurative sculptures and large public art commissions were designed in a classical or archaic Greek style that idealized the human form. Virtually all cast in bronze, his widely collected work was admired for its technical mastery, finally crafted surfaces, and brilliant patination.[1]

Manship cultivated his taste for classicism in Rome, where he worked for three years after winning a Prix de Rome scholarship to the American Academy in 1909. He returned to New York City to live and maintain a studio in 1912, and took on Gaston Lachaise as his assistant from 1914 to 1921. Although his highly stylized work largely depicted mythological themes and graceful, noble animals, he also executed numerous war memorials throughout his career, as well as portraits of such noteworthy people as Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, and John Barrymore. As Harry Rand asserted in his catalog essay for a 1985 Minnesota Museum of Art retrospective of Manship’s work:  “He exploited the past, mining antiquity’s treasures of formal possibilities. He successfully adapted classical and oriental antiquity, the passport of his knowledge always visible, displayed to gain the spectator’s confidence.”[2]

His career escalated from the mid-1920s to 1937, a time when he and his family maintained a home and studio in Paris. In 1934, a particularly active year, he was commissioned to design the widely recognized, monumental gilded bronze Prometheus Fountain at Rockefeller Center Plaza in New York City and the Bronx Zoo’s bronze Paul J. Rainey Memorial Gateway, with its fanciful birds and beasts.

As the art world increasingly embraced abstraction, Manship’s stylized aesthetic, although officially praised, began to fall out of favor with critics in the 1930s. Nevertheless, a design-conscious, Art Deco-oriented public still coveted and collected his elegant streamlined figures with their symbolic poses, lustrous uninflected surfaces, and classical flourishes. “His predilection for monochromatic conception of form would stand him in good stead among the practitioners of Art Deco, in which surface pattern triumphed…Although this general taste grew from wide-scale preference for a machine age aesthetic, Manship’s needs and that of the general public converged. The artist was in the avant-garde of popular sensibility; he saw art performing a socializing and humanizing function.”[6]

In 1938, at age 53, Manship was commissioned to create one of his largest civic works, the monumental Time and the Fates Sundial for the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair (fig. 2).  Sited prominently on the fair’s Constitution Mall, the forty-eight foot high sculpture, with its gnomon soaring eighty feet in length, was advertised as the world’s largest sundial.[7] For the fair, Manship also created Moods of Time, a group of four sculptures representing Morning, Day, Evening, and Night that were placed near the Sundial.[8]

True to form, Manship turned to mythology for the Sundial theme. A central Tree of Life supports the gnomon and shelters three female figures representing the fates of classical mythology. Leading is Clotho, “the spinner,” who represents the future and holds a distaff from which she spins the thread of life. She is followed by Lachesis, “the disposer of lots,” or “the measurer,” who symbolizes the present. Lachesis measures the thread as it passes through her hands, assigning a destiny to each person. Last is Atropos, “the cutter,” who represents the past. Symbolizing the end of things, Atropos cuts the thread of life at death. The Tree’s higher branches over the figures of Clotho and Lachesis bear foliage, but the lower branches over the kneeling, hooded Atropos are barren.  Perched ominously in the Tree’s center fork is a raven, symbolizing death, who watches the cutting of the thread of life.[9] In a refined archaic style, Manship’s figures are virtually expressionless and their poses static, yet the compositionally complex work projects a sophisticated sense of line and formal resolution of its many elements that seduces the viewer into contemplating its theme.

For the World’s Fair, Time and the Fates was created from staff, a type of plaster, and later destroyed—as were most temporary works of art made specifically for World’s Fairs. In addition to the Minnesota Museum of American Art study, Manship created a smaller bronze version in 1939 that is now in Brookgreen Gardens’ collection of decorative figurative sculpture in South Carolina. Although not as monumental as the World’s Fair work, the gnomon of the Brookgreen Garden’s sculpture is sizable at 27 feet.

As with most art, Manship’s oeuvre has come into, out of, and back into favor. Following World War II, Manship’s popularity dissipated and critics frequently attacked him. Yet, he was fortunate to complete a healthy string of commissions until his sudden death in 1966, at age 80, in New York City. By the mid-1980s, with the decade’s renewed interest in design, Art Deco, and public sculpture, Manship’s oeuvre was reassessed.[10] His technical mastery and formal aesthetics were recognized anew and the fact that his work illuminates nineteenth century conventions more than twentieth century modernism was no longer a perceived liability. The Minnesota Museum of American Art’s 1985 traveling exhibition, Paul Manship: Changing Taste in America, shed new light on his many accomplishments and intuitive grasp of beauty, clarity, and balance in the three-dimensional form.

Ultimately, Manship believed that an artist was necessarily of his time and of “his age and its spiritual and material influences,” and thus must mediate those forces.[11] Although he looked to the nineteenth century and archaic Greek sculpture for inspiration, and was critical of modern art and the “machine age,” it is not surprising that his work was very much a part of contemporary art and that he drew from the commercial design trends of the Art Deco and streamlined 1920s and 1930s.[12] Indian Hunter and His Dog and Time and the Fates Sundial clearly express Manship’s multiple, and often conflicting, influences. The Minnesota Museum of American Art’s collection of Manship’s works is testimony to the art historical importance of Paul Manship, and to the continuing influence and impact of his oeuvre.

Essay by Mason Riddle, Independent Scholar


[1] Timothy J. Garvey, “Paul Manship, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a Monument to Echo the Jazz Age,” The Journal of Cultural Affairs 7, no. 3 (Fall 1984): 6, 15.

[2] Harry Rand, “The Stature of Paul Manship,” in Paul Manship: Changing Taste in America (St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Museum of Art, 1985), 27.

[3] John Manship, “Paul Manship: A Biographical Sketch,” in Paul Manship: Changing Taste, 134.

[4] Garvey, “Paul Manship, F. Scott Fitzgerald,” 4.

[5] Ibid, 11.

[6] Rand, “The Stature of Paul Manship,” 19–22.

[7] The MMAA owns the ink and pencil drawing and two bronze studies of slightly different sizes.

[8] “Art at the Fair,” Art News 38 (May 25, 1940): 14.

[9] William M. Stott, “Manship’s Once and Future Reputation,” in Paul Manship: Changing Taste, 113–115.

[10] John Manship, “Paul Manship,” 144–147.

[11] Paul Manship, “Credo,” in Paul Manship (New York: W. W. Norton / National Sculpture Society, 1917), 5.

[12] Garvey, “Paul Manship, F. Scott Fitzgerald,” 15.