On view October 15, 2017 through January 15, 2018
Opening reception, October 15; 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Free and open to the public.
Special event, December 10, 2017 for the artist’s birthday
Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917) was born in Norwich, Connecticut to Sarah (Whittlesey) and George Pratt, a Yale-educated lawyer. Together, Pratt’s maternal grandfather and great uncles Orramel, Henry and John Whittlesey, started the first American piano making company in
Salem, Connecticut. Orramel also founded, in 1835, the first music school, for women, in the country authorized to confer degrees to teach music, Music Vale Seminary, in Salem, Connecticut.
Sources place Bela attending the Norwich Free Academy. His brother, named Oramel and five years his senior, graduated from NFA in 1881. Bela entered Yale, where, at 16, he began studying at the School of Fine Arts, followed by study in Paris, at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, known for its use of plaster casts for drawing.
After receiving a certificate from Yale in 1887, at the Art Students League of New York Pratt took classes from William Merrit Chase (1849–1916), Kenyon Cox (1859–1919), Francis Edwin Elwell (1858–1922), and significantly, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), who became his mentor. After a short stint in Saint-Gaudens' private studio, Pratt trained with sculptors Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu (1833–1891) and Alexandre Falguière (1831–1900) at the École des beaux-arts.
In 1892, he returned to the U. S. to create two large sculptural groups representing The Genius of Navigation for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Pratt also produced sculptures for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, MO in 1904. In 1893, he began a 25-year career as an influential teacher of modeling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. By 1894, he was being squired around his hometown by William Albert Slater, who toyed with the idea of commissioning Pratt to create a staue for the Slater Memorial, but settled for a bas-relief portrait of his children, Eleanor and Willie (William Albert Slater, Jr.)
Pratt received numerous commissions for monumental public work and portrait busts for leaders of educational and cultural institutions around New England. He designed the figures representing Art and Science for the Boston Public Library; Literature, Science and Art for the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress; the Andersonville Boy on the grounds of the State Capitol, Hartford, Connecticut; Nathaniel Hawthorne in Salem Massachusetts; and Captain Nathan Hale for Yale University and placement at other sites. He became an associate of the National Academy in 1900. Helen Lugarda Pray Pratt (1870-1965), a sculptor herself, married Pratt and worked alongside him in Paris.
Following in his mentor, Saint-Gaudens’ footsteps, Pratt’s gold Indian Head U. S. five dollar and two-and-one-half dollar gold coins are known as the “Pratt coins;” Their unusual recessed intaglio Indian head, the U.S. mint's only recessed design ever in circulation was intended to reduce the effects of wear on the image.
On the centennial of his death and the Sesquicentennial of his birth, the Slater Memorial Museum will mount an exhibition celebrating native son Bela Lyon Pratt. To include 50 sculptural works and two-dimensional works of art, text and archival material, the exhibition will occupy the Slater Museum’s 3,600 square foot temporary exhibitions gallery. Bela and Helen had four children; grandchildren and great-grandchildren have become artists and the exhibition will pull their work into the presentation. With Pratt’s work largely to be drawn from private collections and to include work by his descendants, the exhibition will reveal his innate draftsmanship as well as his ability to sensitively capture human emotion, passion, strength, and fragility, rendered in bronze and marble. While his academic training clearly laid the foundation for his monumental figural commissions, his personal work, intimate figural works, evoke more subtle emotion.
Research for the exhibition has brought to light Bela’s earliest records and work from his youth to his professional commissions and personal passions like the smaller female figural work. Sources include the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and Yale University Art Gallery’s Bela Lyon Pratt Reading Room. Correspondence from Pratt to his mother, Sarah Whittlesey Pratt, addressing family and business concerns, including his years at the École des beaux-arts and his work as an instructor for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston have been plumbed. Most important, research has focused on unpublished family archives. Family members have been engaged and enlisted to provide documentation, objects and images. Descendants have come forward to lend three- and two-dimensional works, as well as personal artifacts. Bela’s great-granddaughters, Amy Laugesen, Jennifer Sims and Nicola Drew are lending works by Bela Pratt and their own for the exhibition. The museum’s cast conservator, renowned sculptor Robert Shure, with deep connections to Boston, has mentors who were students of Bela. Bob has conserved a number of works by Bela for family members and institutions and has contributed to the exhibition.
It appears that not since 1918 when the Museum of Fine Arts Boston mounted a posthumous retrospective of work by Bela Lyon Pratt has a comparable project been undertaken.