The Center Magazine
Back to Stories

The Story of Gaston Lachaise

By Jane LernerDec 8 2015
Link copied to clipboard
Visiting Rock Center? Include Top of the Rock in your plans. Purchase your tickets online today!
Buy Tickets
Related Articles

What to Do in New York City in May 2024

Apr 22 2024

What to Do in New York City in May 2024

Food & Drinks
Apr 17 2024

5 Best NYC Drink Spots to Try This Summer

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.

Who was Gaston Lachaise?

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.

Lachaise and Rockefeller Center

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 Rockefeller 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.

What happened to Gaston Lachaise?

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.

Link copied to clipboard
Back to all Stories
  • EventsApr 22 2024
    EventsApr 22 2024

    What to Do in New York City in May 2024

  • Food & DrinksApr 17 2024
    Food & DrinksApr 17 2024

    5 Best NYC Drink Spots to Try This Summer

The Center Newsletter

Receive important seasonal news and updates, learn about store openings, and get special offers.

Learn More

How was your view from Top of the Rock? Share your experience!


Sign up for our newsletter

Subscribe Now

Follow Us

Download the free Audio Tour

Stay Connected

Stay connected with free Wi-Fi at Rockefeller Center.
@Rock Center Free Wi-Fi

  • Top of the Rock
  • Learn More about Top of the Rock
    Buy Tickets about Top of the Rock

  • Plan Your Visit
  • Map & Directions
  • News & Updates
  • Contact Us
  • Gift Shop
  • FAQs
  • Accessibility Statement
  • Executive Team

© Rockefeller Center 2024 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED