A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth-Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives

Anna Hyatt Huntington's Fawns Playing

By Charles Holt


American artist, Anna Hyatt Huntington, sculpted Fawns Playing [Figure 1in 1934. The sculpture depicts two fawns interlocked in what appears to be a dramatic battle scene. Fawns Playing is a bronze piece with many similarities and strong parallels to a piece by French artist, Louis-Antoine Barye, a famous naturalist sculpture from Paris.

Arab Horseman Killing a Lion [Figure 2], is a sculpture of a horse rearing over a lion that is speared to the ground by the horse’s Arab rider. Although there is nothing written stating that Huntington had any knowledge of Barye’s work “her general approach continued the French naturalistic tradition of Bayre” (Eden,13) suggests that Huntington picked up the mantle of French naturalist art knowingly or unknowingly. In this essay I will demonstrate that Huntington was influenced by Barye by comparing the similarities in their use of viewing angles, composition and texture as evident in the two pieces. In this manner, Bayre’s work can be viewed as a predecessor to Huntington’s work.

Fawns Playing and Arab Horseman Killing a Lion are sculptures that morph while simultaneously showing and taking away certain aspects according to viewing positions. It is important to note that this does not necessarily indicate an overall narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. Without spatially controlling the angles a viewer sees, or without creating a specific order in how one walks around the statue, it will not always be interpreted the same way. The artists, however, do allow the statues to continually be something new and take away the idea of the statue being static; a trait sometimes attributed to the medium. As a naturalist sculptor, Barye sculpted animals in a romantic, humanized fashion that brought emotions such as fear and excitement to a viewer’s imagination (Benge), much in the same manner that Huntington creates a dramatic and charged scene. Both artists utilized viewing angles, composition, and texture in order to give their statues life and bring emotion to their works.

Anna Hyatt Huntington and Loius-Antoine Barye

In 1876 Huntington came into the world and would become one of the most successful female artists of the 1900’s. Her subject matter was primarily animals (Strasnick, 2). Huntington spent her childhood around her father, a professor of paleontology at Harvard in Cambridge (Hagood, 198), and it was he who inspired in her the love for animals that would become evident in her statues. Another strong influence in her life was her sister, who taught her the basics of sculpting, which would also end up having a significant impact on her life path. Huntington took a special interest in horses, as they were her favorite animal. Much of her work can be found in public places, yet she remains relatively unknown. She has some public pieces displayed in New York City, including a large equestrian statue titled Joan of Arc (Hagood, 199).

There are many pieces of work by Huntington, but in particular, Fawns Playing exemplifies her understanding of viewing angles, composition, texture, and her ability to represent animals’ bodies in an anatomically correct form. The dimensions of Fawns Playing are 22 x 18 x 12 in.; 55.88 x 45.72 x 30.48 cm, but despite its smaller size, the statue manages to stay charged because it expresses numerous scenes captured in one still life figure. It was designed to be a tabletop piece that could be viewed from any angle and was most likely meant to be displayed on a table around 4-feet tall. There is careful detail in expressing texture that helps the piece keep its form as it is inspected from 360 degrees. Huntington’s use of composition is very complex, allowing a single frozen moment to become dynamic and morph depending on the viewing position.

Antoine-Louis Barye was born in Paris, France in 1796, and he died there in 1875, one year before Huntington was born (Walters Art Museum). This fact alone is proof that the two artists never met, but it does not mean that Barye’s influence couldn’t have reached Huntington after his death. Barye often made multiple copies of his work, even providing smaller table top versions so that the middle classes could also experience his works within their homes. His statue, Arab Horseman Killing a Lion, was made as part of a set of hunting scenes meant for a banquet table. The statue’s dimensions are 14 3/4 x 15 3/4 x 9 1/2 in. (37.5 x 40 x 24.1 cm) (Walters Art Museum). This sculpture was made in 1838 in Paris and currently resides in the Walter Museum in Baltimore. (Benge) Arab Horseman Killing a Lion is comparable to Fawns Playing because Huntington’s specialty was animal sculptures, but more specifically equestrian. Although fawns are not horses, they still hold similar anatomical features that allow for the two statues to be compared closely. The composition of both pieces and the subjects of fawns and a horse are closely correlated. Between the two artists, Huntington can be seen as furthering the animal sculptures that Barye had popularized with his earlier works.

The sculpture, Fawns Playing, depicts two fawns that are interlocked in what seems to be a dramatic battle scene. One of the fawns is reared up onto its back legs, increasing the verticality of the piece, and helping to demonstrate the dominance of one fawn over the other. The fawn’s two front legs are frozen in the moment of contact, and the second fawn appears braced for impact. The second fawn is hunched on its back legs and looks up into the face of the fawn that is making the contact. Both fawns are brown while the small base that they have been afforded is black. Arab Horseman Killing a Lion is similar in that it depicts a horse a reared back on its hind legs and its Arab rider. There is a lion sprawled on its back underneath the body of the horse, subdued by its attacker. This arrangement and scene are close to the stage that Huntington has created and is an important aspect in linking the similarities between the two.

Viewing angles are integral to both pieces, although they appear to hold even more importance in Fawns Playing. Both pieces are tabletop sculptures that are not life size. Barye’s piece is slightly smaller in size. The sizes allow for each piece to be viewed from many different angles due to their accessibility and the ways they can be displayed. When taking in Huntington’s depiction of the two fawns, it seems to contain a single moment, but while walking around it , the piece evolves and morphs. It continuously gives a viewer something new, while also taking something away. Figure 3 shows the side profiles of the fawns where the faces of the two are visible and the weight of the attacking deer is more apparent. Figure 4, which is captured from a slightly different angle hides the face and makes the fawn that is hunched back seem to have sturdier ground because the angling of the legs expressing it getting knocked back are hidden. Barye’s sculpture works in a similar way to Huntington’s, highlighted in figures 5-7 which show a few different angles.

Figure 5 shows the back of the horseman and the figure of the lion is not fully visible. As it is experienced from a slightly different angle in Figure 6, the drama of the scene continues to unfold and the lion can be clearly seen, as can the intensity on the horse’s face. Figure 7 shows the lion to be resisting with what life it has left, giving more charge to the statue. As mentioned earlier, Barye liked to make energized pieces of animals that evoke a sense of realism and fear. Fawns Playing is similar in this way because the piece is energized and expresses a certain level of fear in its composition.


Another key element that contributes to making this possible lies in the composition of the pieces. Huntington only allowed the two fawns a small plot of textured bronze representing a wooded setting that can barely contain the figures, as can be seen in Figure 8. In order to be able to inhabit the same base, one of the fawns has to rear up on its hind legs while the second fawn is hunching back on its hind legs, thus minimizing its horizontal space. The tension between the base and the figures helps add to the drama of the scene by suggesting that the slightest change in positioning would make one fawn fall from the flooring (see Figure 9). In Figure 10 of Barye’s piece, there is a similarly allotted space for the figures of the horse and its rider along with the lion to coexist on. The horse, like the attacking fawn, is reared up on its back legs allowing the figure to take up less space horizontally. Two of the front hoofs hang over the base, and the lion is sprawled on its back with the horseman’s spear pinning it down. There is a complexity in both of these compositions because it makes every slight detail count so that the whole statue, at each different viewing angle, can depict can depict a single event unfolding in time. This is very important to making a statue into a whole and getting a viewer to engage more with the work. The composition, as mentioned earlier is also integral in creating the drama of the scene. The positioning of the fawns makes them seem to constantly dance with one another. Details such as texture become very important because without it, the composition would not hold up and would not be able to maintain a convincing form.

The texture used in the two sculptures is detailed, and this contributes to their illusionism. As can be seen in figures 3 and 4 of Fawns Playing, the details in the muscularity of the fawns are finely expressed. The skin becomes tighter and smoother around the active muscles of the two fawns, as can seen in Figure 11, allowing for the light to play off the bronze. This had to be done in such a way that the effects of the reflecting light would work regardless of where the statue was being viewed from. Along with well-described muscular form, the texture also lightens both statues in areas depicting fur. This is evident in Figure 12, in the tails of the fawns, on their underbellies, and in their ears. When comparing the use of texture in Arab Horseman Killing a Lion, Barye understands the idea of tightened skin, lighting effects, and expressing lighter features like hair. The joints of his horse can be seen in Figure 13, and are very similar to Huntington’s expressive musculature in figure 11. Both artists use texture to make convincing animals, but also, they do so in such a way that it creates a cohesive whole that holds its integrity no matter from what angle it is viewed.

Final Thoughts

Anna Hyatt Huntington was strongly influenced by the famous French Sculptor, Antoine - Louis Barye. Clearly the two never had the opportunity to meet, so the manner by which Huntington picked up the French Naturalistic Tradition remains a mystery. Of course her childhood, surrounded by her paleontologist father and her sister, had a significant impact as far as instilling in her a love for animals and in passing on the skills in depicting animals, but it is equally likely that she had the opportunity to study Barye's work. Perhaps it was the compilation of all of these influences in her life that allowed for her to become the artist she is known to be today. One thing is certain, Fawns Playing is a perfect representation of Huntington synthesizing the composition of Barye's work in conjunction with his viewing angles and use of texture.

Works Cited

1) Eden, Myrna Garvey. "The Sculpture of Anna Hyatt Huntington in the Syracuse University Art Collection." The Courier 12.4 (1975): 13-28.

2) Strasnick, Stephanie. "Anna Hyatt: The Most Important New York Sculptor You've Never Heard of." ARTnews (2014): n. pag. Web.

3) Hagood, Martha N., and Jefferson C. Harrison. American Art at the Chrysler Museum: Selected Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings. Norfolk, VA: Published by the Chrysler Museum of Art, 2005. Print.

4) Inside the American Museum of Natural History. New York, N.Y: Films Media Group, 2012. Internet resource.

5) http://art.thewalters.org/detail/219/arab-horseman-killing-a-lion/

6) Benge, Glenn F. "Barye, Antoine-Louis." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 20, 2016, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T006669.

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