- Historic Sites
The Shocking Blue Hair Of Elie Nadelman
He ignored the conventions of his day and became one of the greatest American sculptors of this century
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
While Nadelman’s classic marble and bronze works sold in his lifetime, for the most part the plasters and woods depicting contemporary archetypes did not do well. These, of course, are the pieces for which he now seems most famous—among them the woman at the piano, the tango dancers, the high kicker, the orchestra conductor. Although they are often thought to have been influenced by his interest in American folk art, these sculptures began to appear as early as 1917, quite some time before he began collecting folk art. Furthermore, the prototypes often were modeled in plaster rather than carved, as folk sculpture would have been. The fact that they were produced in multiples does heighten their relation to dolls and mannequins, evidence of Nadelman’s interest in all forms of representing the human body—classical or not. He tended to paint these figures differently or to add varied details, such as bows, in order to give each its own character.
In 1920 Nadelman married Viola Spiess Flannery, a widow four years his senior who had two grown daughters. She was wealthy, classically educated, and knowledgeable about the arts. They bought a town house at 6 East Ninety-third Street, where the numeral 6, carved in stone in one of Nadelman’s purest curves, still attests to the family’s sojourn there. They also bought and restored a run-down house on sixteen acres in Riverdale, north of Manhattan.
Perhaps spurred on by a 1920 summer stay at the Gloucester, Massachusetts, home of Henry Sleeper, a prodigious collector of Americana, the Nadelmans began to collect folk art. Over the next few years they amassed a vast and important collection, for which they built and administered a museum on their Riverdale property. With their son, Jan (my father), born in 1922, sometimes various friends of his, and a retinue of servants in tow, they would take off on collecting trips to Europe or New England. From medieval wrought iron to Hungarian tablecloths to Pennsylvania Dutch chalkware pieces and New England ship figureheads, they would find a place for it and duly study and catalogue it.
The Nadelmans’ charmed life, it seemed, could not go on forever. Like so many others, they lost out in the Great Depression, their fortune dwindling away during the thirties to the point where even their one remaining house was threatened. As clients and commissions vanished, servants were let go, travel was curtailed, and the house in town was sold, as was much of their land in Riverdale. Perhaps because no one could believe he needed the help, Nadelman was never employed on any of the WPA projects created to help artists. Worst of all, he could not get institutional backing for the beloved folk art museum, so the collection was dismantled in 1937, dispersed to such places as the New-York Historical Society, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collection, and the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters.
Nadelman, who had become an American citizen in 1927, had his last one-man show in 1930 in Paris. He now lived a quiet, somewhat forgotten life out in Riverdale but never ceased working. For a while he had a kiln for working in terra cotta, and he began using different-colored glazes for sprightly color elements. All sorts of single and paired women, some of them seemingly fused together, or fused to their lapdogs, appeared in various small and moderate sizes and, occasionally, near life size. And he kept drawing—even on scraps of paper when nothing else was at hand. These were often ideas for sculpture, but also simply drawings done for their own sake. He worked for a time with papier-mâché on similar figures and finally with plaster figures he cast from molds he made himself.
In the forties, although Nadelman seems to have lost his taste for the art world, he continued to enjoy popular American culture. On the cook’s night out, according to his son and step-granddaughter, bags full of deli fare in hand, the family would so to the movies, where he would keep up a running commentary, to universal shushing. He regularly dressed up to go into town to his bridge club, where he played in the company of experts. He also quietly consulted a specialist about a heart condition. As all the young people grew up and left the house, he became a faithful correspondent, especially in wartime, dispatching witty, cheering reports and encouragement from the home front. His letters were in literate English, with certain regularly appearing misspellings. He insisted, for instance, on writing out my father’s training battalion as the “thank destroyers,” while the number three he spelled “tree.”
Although he gave money to Jewish relief organizations and was concerned about the plight of Jews in Europe during the war, he did not have a particularly strong Jewish identity. In a letter declining an invitation to a Jewish Appeal benefit dinner in 1939 (he may not have been able to afford it), he wrote: “I personally feel equally strongly for the victims of every race. … This is not an arbitrary statement. I am merely trying to be faithful to my own sense of duty to the people whom all my life I have lived among. …”