Lorado Taft (1860-1936), the first midwestern American sculptor, pioneered in large group compositions and in the use of nontraditional materials. His lectures and writing helped create a national concern for art.

Born in Elmwood, Ill., on April 29, 1860, Lorado Taft grew up in Urbana, along with the new State Industrial University (now the University of Illinois). There his preacher father, Don Carlos Taft, an Amherst graduate, taught a group of sciences, including anatomy. While working in the new art museum, 14-year-old Lorado decided to become a sculptor. After he received a master's degree in 1880, he left for Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He also broadened his outlook by contacts with the impressionist painters and with the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

In 1887 Taft settled in Chicago; in 1896 he married Ada Bartlett, by whom he had three daughters. To support the family, Taft taught at the Chicago Art Institute and lectured widely. He gave the Clay Talk on the processes of sculpture 1500 times. His research led to writing. Besides many articles, he published two books, American Sculpture (1903, updated and reissued in 1905 and again in 1969) and Recent Tendencies in Sculpture (1921).

Although Taft had made two decorative panels for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the subsequent depression delayed further commissions. On his own, and in freer style than in earlier efforts, he produced the Solitude of the Soul (1901), which won two medals and was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. The Fountain of the Great Lakes (1913) in Chicago was commissioned by the Ferguson Fund. In this fountain the water, falling from five great shells, repeats the flowing lines of the symbolic figures that hold the shells. For Seattle he made a giant statue of George Washington with sheathed sword and austere silhouette (1908). That year he won a competition for a commemorative fountain to Columbus for Union Station Plaza in the nation's capital. Here the architectural treatment fore-shadowed that of his future fountains, including the Thatcher Memorial (1918) in Denver.

Taft continued to do important pieces on his own initiative, such as the 40-foot statue of Black Hawk (1911) on a bluff near Oregon, Ill., overlooking Rock River. This colossus, seen for miles around, represents the American Indian saying good-bye to his homeland. Here the sculptor gambled successfully on the use of cement. His most ambitious plan was for the Chicago Midway, the site of the Fountain of Time (1911). Time, a craglike figure, reviews the endless march of mankind. Once again the magnitude of the project suggested cement, this time "glorified" by quartz chips. The Fountain of Creation, planned for the other end of the Midway, was never commissioned, but a few completed figures are on the campus of the University of Illinois. For Urbana, Taft also made the Alma Mater (1929) and Lincoln, the Young Lawyer (1927). Other works include the Pioneers (1928) in Elmwood, the Victor Lawson Memorial (1932) in Chicago, and the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Plaque (1936) in Quincy.

For Taft art was not a surface decoration but rather the expression and transmission to future generations of man's highest standards of excellence. For this reason he lavished time and effort on young artists and on the introduction to the general public of examples of great sculpture from around the world. He died in Chicago on Oct. 30, 1936.

Further Reading on Lorado Taft

There are two biographies of Taft: Ada Bartlett Taft, Lorado Taft: Sculptor and Citizen (privately printed, 1946), and Lewis W. Williams, Lorado Taft: American Sculptor and Art Missionary (University of Chicago Dissertation, 1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Weller, Allen Stuart, Lorado in Paris: the letters of Lorado Taft, 1880-1885, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.