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The Story of Gaston Lachaise

By Jane LernerDec 8 2015

Rockefeller Center's commissioned collection of sculpture, painting and decorative works helped usher in an age of modern art in NYC. At the forefront of modernism in America was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. and the engine of Rock Center's art development project. A passionate supporter of the arts, she handpicked many of the talents whose work graces the walls and halls of Rock Center—and given her major role in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art, her patronage could mean the world. One of her favorites of the era was Gaston Lachaise, a sculptor and painter who was born in France in 1882. His carved panel installations, "Aspects of Mankind" (installed in 1933 along the sixth-floor façade of 1250 Avenue of the Americas) and "To Commemorate the Workmen of the Center" (unveiled above the entrance to 45 Rockefeller Plaza in 1935) remain proof of the artist's skilled techniques and contemporary aesthetic vision.

Lachaise lived a charmed and fascinating life: the son of a cabinetmaker who designed Gustave Eiffel's apartment inside the Eiffel Tower, Lachaise entered art school in Paris at just 13 years old, and went on to study with the great glass artist René Lalique. In his early 20s he fell deeply in love with a married American woman, Isabel Dutaud Nagle, whom he followed back to the States in 1906, and married in 1917. She remained his muse for the rest of his life. (The artist's official biography describes the depth of his devotion: "Over his lifetime, Lachaise wrote Isabel 567 letters declaring his love for her, and communicating the details of his commissions and work." One such letter reveals, "You are the Goddess I am seeking to express in all things.") His monumental female figures, the work for which he is best known, are vivacious and imbued with verve and energy.

The sculptor's route to Rockefeller Center was through the studio of Paul Manship, who would create the famous "Prometheus." After Lachaise came to New York and started work as Manship's assistant, his career grew and solo exhibitions soon followed, piquing the interest of Abby Rockefeller. At her behest, his sculpture "Man" was displayed at the brand-new MoMA in 1930, and he was awarded the commissions for the still-under-construction Rockefeller Center.

Lachaise's hand-carved panels at Rock Center are representational and relatively straightforward, rendered in a sharp and unpretentious style—yet the process was not without controversy. Abby’s opinions aside, many of the men on the art advisory committee felt that his work was “rude" (which might reference his depiction of nudity). Still, the subject of his “Aspects of Mankind” series was assigned to him, and it highlights some of humankind's loftiest achievements (circa the 1930s): the invention of capitalism, the development of new technologies like radio and film, and the wonder of childbirth. The two-paneled “To Commemorate the Workmen of the Center” is surprisingly meta: it has two parts, demolition and construction, and shows men at work on the complex itself. They are carved directly into the limestone façade of the building, and can be seen above the Brasserie Ruhlmann signage today.

Lachaise was given a one-man show at MoMA in 1935, the first solo sculpture show to be staged at the museum. Tragically, he died just months later, at age 53. His work endures all over NYC—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his “Standing Woman” from 1912 is currently on display—and both MoMA and the Whitney Museum own their own Standing Woman sculptures. Lachaise’s love for Isabel lives on in his art, in perpetuity.

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