Charles Grafly, Sculptor: An Appreciative Note

Charles Grafly, Sculptor: An Appreciative Note  (1910) 
by John Ellingwood Donnell Trask

from Art and Progress (February 1910) V. 1 No. 4 p. 83-89.




IN the awakening interest in the arts, of which evidence is now appearing all over the country, general educational conditions have compelled the first wide understanding to be given to music and literature. In the last decade or two has come a fuller knowledge of the painter's purpose, but the sculptor's appeal still reaches an audience numerically slight.

Yet sculpture has a language all its own, potent and full, no more akin to pictorial expression than is poetry to music; a language, too, which in its purity arouses sympathy and awakens admiration, even without understanding.

Just as the Lyrics of Shakespeare or of Heine have qualities which make them independent of linguistic knowledge so the Hermes of Praxiteles or the Samothiscian Victory appeal to every seeing man, however ignorant he be of their technical excellences or of their more subtle shades of meaning.

That the language of sculpture is not more widely understood or at least recognized, in America today, is largely the fault of American sculptors.

Too often have they clouded the expression of form with a semi-literary aspect or, as is the case with him whom we hold in reverent memory as our greatest sculptor, mixed with plastic ideals, certain pictorial qualities which, however beautiful, destroy in a measure, forceful unity of impression and tend to confusion of mind.



With comparatively few sculptural works about us, we find our architects and modelers adorning public buildings with bronze and stone representations of the nations of the earth, dependent for their force upon a few facts gleaned from the physical geography. Our parks and little urban open-places are populated by expressions of grateful remembrance of the illustrious dead artistically inspired by a desire to faithfully portray those relics of uniform carefully preserved by the descendants of the deceased. Our battle-fields are planted with the sculptors' concessions to the critical ability of patriots, whose youth was filled with strife, and manhood with memories of strife, to the exclusion of all thought of beauty. Our burial places abound in mortuary horrors which, with clumsy fingers, point in the assumed direction of immortality, inspiring hope in a future life by the thought that it, at worst, cannot contain ugliness to equal their own.

Artistic independence will help our condition and will come, no doubt, with increase of general culture, but independence alone still leaves the sculptor impotent if he remain without a thorough training in his craft. Let us be thankful, then, for the growing respect accorded the uncompromising artist, and doubly thankful for the recognition, which now seems imminent both within and without the profession, of the fact that artistry without craftsmanship is dumb.

Of American sculptors living today none is more completely master of his medium than is Charles Grafly.

Whatever his artistic message, and its fullest expression still waits upon occasion, no hand more firmly than his grasps subtleties of form, no touch than his more surely directs the unwilling clay to rhythmic flow nor warms cold-hearted marble to tender cadences of life.

Self-apprenticed at the age of seventeen to the largest stone-carving establishment in Philadelphia, in which city he was born in 1862, Mr. Grafly's first sculptural training was with mallet and chisel. Extensive contracts secured by his employers for work on the Philadelphia Public Buildings, then in course of construction, followed by labor troubles, led to his assignment to carvings of intricacy and importance originally intended for maturer hands. This early responsibility and accomplishment combined to develop self-reliance and the habit of completion which have ever since been dominant notes in his career. For him, fortunately, the student habit of tentative variety was minimized.

Admitted as a student in modeling to the schools of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1884, he was already a workman. His training there under Thomas Eakins and Anshutz, then an assistant instructor, included the most precise anatomical research and inculcated a truthful sincerity which later led to a proper assimilation of the teachings of the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where in Paris from 1888 to 1890 he worked.

It was in this latter year that he made his first Salon appearance with a "Dædalus," now in the permanent collection of his Alma Mater. In this early work is shown remarkable mastery of the medium and the beginnings of a poetry, sculptural rather than literary, since developed to a very high degree.

In the early nineties, Mr. Grafly returned to the Pennsylvania Academy as instructor in sculpture, a position which he still holds. His continuous teaching has made impress for good upon the rising generation of native sculptors and has served to preserve in his own work a bright hopefulness which comes always from association with youth and the beginnings of things. Indeed, his great success as teacher is due to his having remained always a student.

No full statement of his accomplished works is here possible. Since the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, where he was medalled, he has generally been a distinguished figure in all the major exhibitions of American sculpture.

To the enrichment of the Buffalo and St. Louis expositions he made notable contributions. Writing of the former in his "History of American Sculpture," Lorado Taft, a fellow-craftman, and a critic at once sympathic and discerning, says:

"While the sculptural decorations of that most charming of fairs were as a rule well suited to their purpose, and contributed much to its beauty, there were few features of striking originality. The one which stands out in memory as of permanent value, as a lasting contribution to the art of this country, is Mr. Grafly's 'Fountain of Man.'"



Of purely architectural work he has executed but little, yet his figures of France and Great Britain which do really adorn the façade of the New York Custom House, inspire the wish that he had done more. Here, again, comes craft to the aid of art. Knowledge early acquired, as we have seen, of the possibilities and limitations of stone, made possible figures which fit the requirements of their placing with placid dignity making no vain appeal, as do some of their companions, unfortunately, for individual pedestals from which to shed the lustre of their beauty.

It is by his smaller bronzes and more especially by his portrait busts that Mr. Grafly is most widely known. By these latter he has made secure his fame so long as marble and bronze shall endure. His busts of Joseph DeCamp, the painter, of Dr. Joseph Price, the surgeon, and of the former president of the Pennsylvania Academy, Edward H. Coates, to name a few at random, reveal him a master more subtle than Houdon, more sculpturesque than St. Gaudens, rivalling Rodin, at his best, in delicacy, and adding to the sensitive surface modeling of the great French master remarkably vigorous and powerfully truthful appreciation of the underlying logic of nature.

It is precisely this habit of going to the very bottom of things, of knowing and valuing the genesis of form which makes possible the surface qualities in his work which excite the admiration of the lay audience and the wonder of his professional brothers.



Like most master-workmen, he is swift in accomplishment upon occasion. His portrait bust, which won the Ward Prize of the National Sculpture Society two or three years ago, was begun and completed within the limits of a single day. Yet, at his best he works with the eager watchfulness of the earnest student and with the poet's profound disregard for time. If untrammeled by contract or promise, he rejoices in prolonged reaching for perfection and, holding himself always to a rising standard, he views his vision from increasing altitudes of beauty.

Amazing in virtuosity as are the works he has shown in the last few years, two busts even now in the hands of the bronze founder mark still a forward step. Portraits, both of men, these were vacation recreations. In them, to the truth of portraiture, the revelation of character, is added a quality unique. Paxton, the painter, Viereck, the entomologist, one dark, one light, are contrastingly presented with searching knowledge and consummate skill in the modeling of minute muscular individualities, where muscle and flesh are nervously alive. So vibrant are these busts with subtle differences that together they seem to set new limitations upon the artist's power to express color by form alone.

Much of his increasing accession of power Mr. Grafly himself attributes to a series of experiments so interesting in their possibilities and so happy in already accomplished result as to invite more comment than is here possible.

Spending his summers on Cape Ann entails for him necessarily an interest in fish. A casual desire to preserve record of an unusual catch led him one day to cast in plaster a specimen of unusual proportions. The result was interesting but unsatisfactory. The cast was lacking in qualities which aroused admiration in the original. Nor had these qualities to do with edible availability, though it is a family tradition that the original was later served as chowder. Somehow, had escaped the charm. More fish were caught and more were cast with increasing effort to hold in the plaster enticing flow of form. Such accessories as seaweed and rocks were introduced and the trial was made to give semblance of life by almost mechanical means. Each success stimulated new endeavor and the summer studio is now rich in decorative panels, beautiful in light and shade, and filled with suggestion; but more important than this was added knowledge. Something had been learned of the possibilities of expressing continuity of form by the exactly correct placing of mass with mass. The student had learned another lesson. Skilled hands again had taught the mind.



Deeply intent always upon felicity of expression, Mr. Grafly's works have, to an unusual degree, that evasive and indescribable quality which we call distinction. Yet his constant effort for the seductive effect of style leads to no hollowness, but rather to a deep sincerity of sentiment.

The two-figure bronze group, "A Symbol of Life," is no mere academic study of the nude. Filled with that grace which is an integral part of power it is a strongly emotional presentation of the instinctive forward sweep of man. Its grip is vital, its message big.

Another bronze, which in a relaxed moment he allowed some misguided babbler of words to first catalogue as "In Much Wisdom," has in it the same wordless sense of fundamental truth. Freed of its damning title, its full melody of form awakens the echoing chords which Milton loved to stir.



The sculptor's power of expression continues through many plastic forms and though more trammeled by the limitations of low-relief he has produced at least one such work, the Scheel Memorial, which has enduring qualities and which, even without them, would still arrest attention by its decorative adornment. "A Head," in marble carved in such high relief as to be almost in the round, sways one by its beauty and reasserts his control of the cutting-tool. The manual dexterity of his boyhood remains, controlled now by mature mental grasp.

Power rewards sincerity and from sincerity he has never swerved.

A century ago, in the bright youth of our national life, our growing merchant fleet bore proudly around the world the carven figure-heads of Rush, first of American sculptors. Today we do reverence to St. Gaudens, who, in his Sherman, his Shaw Memorial, his Lincoln and his Farragut has placed the enduring stamp of Art upon the heroes of the nation's second birth.

Rush began and St. Gaudens ended the first century and the first cycle of sculpture in America. Each was an artist. Neither ever wholly freed himself from certain habits of expression resultant from the medium of his first endeavors.

Now, we look forward hopefully to peace, prosperity, and that national well-being without which, in the whole world's history, no art has reached its best. The conditions of today continuing, it is logically certain that art will achieve higher and purer expressions in the near future.

In sculpture we see already the beginnings of our second period. How high its flight who can foretell? Certain it is, however, that in marking the steps, by which, in America, we have toiled upward toward the heights illumined by the pure flame of Phidias twenty-four centuries ago, the faithful historian of tomorrow will give high placing to Charles Grafly, teacher and leader, an artist, and master of his craft.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.