MetCollects Episode 7 / 2019


MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.

Galatea by Max Klinger. 1906

Robert Laurent deserves greater recognition as the first practitioner of direct carving in modern American sculpture, a progressive movement that revived the non-western and folk art technique of cutting natural materials such as wood and stone without assistance or preliminary models. The increased appreciation of such an approach among European and American artists helped redefine the role of the sculptor in the modern era.

This carved chest dates from Laurent's early years in New York's modern art circles and provides a narrative of his life as a recent immigrant. Laurent grew up in Concarneau, France, and at a young age, his artistic talent was discovered by the American painter and publisher, Hamilton Easter Field (1873–1922), who would become a life-long mentor and benefactor. In 1902, when Laurent was just eleven, he and his parents moved to the Field family home at 106 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, for which, in 1911, Field's mother Lydia Haviland Field, commissioned Laurent to create this carved chest as part of a larger aesthetic program that included works by Picasso, one of which is in The Met collection.

This unique object is filled with autobiographical and humorous narratives: a coastal view of his hometown fishing village of Concarneau, New York Harbor and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, coastal scenery of Ogunquit, and patriotic imagery of American flags and the Liberty Bell. It represents Laurent's foray into the modernist direct-carving style, defined by virtuosity in craftsmanship and truth to materials. He consciously respected the nature of the black walnut, and he brought out its particular beauty of color and surface. Laurent had just returned from six years of study in Europe, where he was exposed to direct carvings by Paul Gauguin and Aristide Maillol, and for him, the technique merged his developing modern style with the folk traditions of his native Brittany's medieval stone cutters, as well as his growing interest in American folk art.

In the same year Laurent carved this chest, he and Field founded the Ogunquit School and Summer Art Colony, which attracted noted American modernists such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Marsden Hartley. They furnished the small fishing-shack studios with American folk paintings and carvings, ladder-back chairs, and hooked rugs. The vibrant and expressive qualities of American folk art brought Laurent closer to the traditional values of his adopted country, the United States, at a moment of political tension over immigration.

Laurent's carved chest represents these burgeoning influences, which Laurent would continue to promote through his art and teaching. Now on view in a gallery of traditional American folk art, the chest embodies the modernists' quest to seek inspiration from, and to rehabilitate, art of the past.

Elizabeth Kornhauser
Alice Pratt Brown Curator
of American Paintings and Sculpture
The American Wing



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