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The Spirit Whispers: Remembering the Woodstock Sculptor Alfeo Faggi, Pt. 1

Updated: Feb 3

By Bruce Weber


Peter A. Juley & Son

Alfeo Faggi, n.d.

Gelatin silver print

Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

The significent and surprisingly little remembered Woodstock sculptor Alfeo Faggi was born in Florence, Italy in 1885. At about the age of six Faggi observed a small figurine of a man playing a flute at a puppet show. He became so enamored with the figurine that he stole it. His mother ordered the child to return the figure, but the experience marked his initial love of sculpture.


Faggi’s father Alessandro was a fresco painter and gave him his first art lessons. At 13 he entered the Academia Belle Arti, and during his time there won the three highest medals awarded at the school. Among his fellow students was Amedeo Modigliani. Upon finishing art school Faggi studied anatomy at a local hospital. He now began to emulate the work of the Italian primitives – he was especially drawn to the paintings of Giotto. While standing in front of a work by Michelangelo at the Casa Buonarroti a guard remarked that artists should not picture things as they are, but as they ought to be. The remark came as a revelation - Faggi abandoned the academic formulas he had been taught in school, and in his sculpture embraced the realm of the imagination.

Eva Watson-Schütze (1867-1935)

Beatrice Butler (later Faggi), c. 1905

Platinum print

Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Rabindranath Tagore, 1920

Alfeo Faggi 1885-1966)

Robert Frost, c. 1920

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Padraic Colum, 1919

Bronze

 

In about 1912, Faggi met the American pianist and song composer Beatrice Butler, who came to Florence to visit her sister, Mrs. James Stewart, the wife of the court dentist in Italy and Holland. Mrs. Stewart arranged portrait commissions for Faggi back in her native Chicago, and he came to America in 1913 with the money that was advanced to him. He created portraits of several prominent society women in the arts, including Mrs. Chauncey Blair, Mrs. Cyrus McCormick and Mrs. Martin Ryerson. He also created likenesses of the Bengalese poet Rabindranath Tagore (which was shown at the Woodstock Artists Association in 1933), and the American poet Robert Frost and Irish writer Padraic Colum. His portraits were critically praised for their undulating, rhythmic command of design. Faggi and Butler married in 1916.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Yone Noguchi, 1920

Bronze

 

Faggi’s portrait of Yone Noguchi dates from 1920. It was created while the Japanese writer was visiting the home of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody in Chicago. The sitter later wrote of how well the bust was received when it was exhibited at the Imperial Museum in Tokyo. The portrait ranks as one of the sculptor’s finest likenesses. Faggi sought to convey his initial impression that Noguchi’s face looked “like ivory smoothed by a thousand years of handling.”[1] The portrait served as the frontispiece for Noguchi’s book of selected poems, published in 1921. Bronze casts are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the New York State Museum.

 

Yone Noguchi was born in 1875 in Tsushima. While studying at Keio Gijuku, Noguchi decided to travel to the United States. After arriving in San Francisco in 1893, he worked as a journalist and as a domestic servant before deciding to pursue poetry. A few years later, Noguchi published his first poems in a small San Francisco magazine called The Lark. He went on to establish a successful career as a writer, publishing many articles and several books of poetry and prose.

Winold Reiss (1886-1953)

Isamu Noguchi, c. 1929

Pastel on paper

National Portrait Gallery


In 1901, Yone met the Irish-American writer and educator Leonie Gilmour in New York when she took a job as his editor during his brief stay in the city. They never officially married, and Yone returned to Japan in 1905, three months prior to Leonie giving birth to their child, the future sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who occasionally spent time in Woodstock over the decades.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Mother and Child, c. 1915

Plaster


Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

St. Francis, 1915

(Cast 1921)

Bronze

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

 

In the mid-teens Faggi created his sculpture Mother and Child, in which the figure of the mother rises straight into space like a column. Also dating from this time is Faggi’s sculpture of St. Francis. He depicted the saint on several occasions, but this work is especially sympathetic and poetic, conveying his gentle spirit and exquisitely rendering the flowing curves of his form.

Postcard: Hull House, Chicago, c. 1910

Unknown Photographer

Eva Watson-Schütze, c. 1920

Gelatin silver print


Alfeo and Beatrice Faggi came to Woodstock on the recommendation of the photographer and painter Eva Watson-Schütze, who began coming regularly to Byrdcliffe for summers in 1903. They knew one another through their mutual association with Hull House. Watson-Schütze felt Faggi would work better in Woodstock, telling Beatrice “It’s more quiet, and more simple.”[2] Faggi himself reported that his “wife knew Eva [Watson-]Schütze in Chicago. She told us about Woodstock, what a good place it was for artists. So we came. When we arrived we made many friends. [Eugene] Speicher, Judson Smith, so many.”[3]


Unknown Photographer

Leander and Alec Bonesteel,

c. 1920

Gelatin silver print

Historical Society of Woodstock

Former House of Alfeo Faggi on Plochmann Lane

Upon arriving in Woodstock, the Faggi’s settled in the farmhouse of the former quarryman Alec Bonesteel near the top of Ohayo Mountain in the neighborhood of scattered country houses known as Montoma. In the mid-1920s they acquired a half acre on what is today Plochmann Lane, where Faggi constructed a house and studio. At the time there were no houses close by. The artist and chronicler of Woodstock art life and history Anita M. Smith considered Faggi to be one of the most dedicated artists in the art colony.[4] David Carlson, son of Woodstock artist John F. Carlson and friend of Faggi, related that he rose every morning at 5 a.m. and worked in his studio till the light failed, rarely socialized, and had no hobbies or outside activities. He spoke with a thick accent, had a sense of humor, but could have a sharp tongue.[5]

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Carl Eric Lindin, n.d.

Bronze

Woodstock Artists Association and Museum

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Hervey White, 1928

Bronze

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Walt Whitman, 1926

Bronze

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Walt Whitman, 1926

Stone

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

 

During his first years in Woodstock Faggi formed friendships with Speicher and Smith as well as the artists Andrew Dasburg, Henry Lee McFee, Carl Eric Lindin, Hunt Diederich, and Byrdcliffe and Maverick art colony founder and writer Hervey White. In the early 1920s, White posed twice for Faggi. The original plaster served as the source for his bronze of 1940. Faggi undoubtedly recognized something in White of the spirit of Walt Whitman, whom he portrayed in a nude likeness of 1926, both in bronze and cast stone. In response to Anita Smith’s query about how he decided to create this portrait, Faggi, who had known and respected Whitman’s poetry even before he came to America. responded: “Because Whitman was always naked to the world.”[6] The Chicago art critic C. J. Bulliet considered the sculpture to be “the nude of [Whitman’s] own rugged, athletic poetry – of the oak, of the pungent soil from whence sprang Leaves of Grass, of the earth earthy. If there is any analogy, it is to be found in the powerful old Hebrew Prophets. . . . the sweat of humanity without cosmetics. . . . Rodin’s Hand of God rises no more majestically out of its primitive elements than do the shoulders, neck, and hand of this new giant.”[7] In the early 1940s, Faggi was the subject of an article in the Poughkeepsie Sunday New Yorker by Louise Ault (under her writing name Louise Jonas), and in this way came in contact and became friends with her husband George Ault, one of the major painters working at the time in the Woodstock art colony.

Pierre Nobel (active 1920s)

Hunt Diederich, c. 1920

Gelatin silver print

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Mother and Child, c. 1915

Plaster


Hunt Diederich (1884-1953)

Stag and Hounds, 1930

Wrought Iron

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum


 In his book Woodstock Stories, Poems and Essays, A Book of the Catskills for People, published in about 1921, the poet and writer William Benignus discussed the friendship in Woodstock of Faggi and the sculptor Hunt Diederich (subject of a recent essay in Learning Woodstock Art Colony) and compared them: “Diederich is of big build and powerful frame, while Faggi, his colleague in the art of sculpture, is a finely built man of medium size. . . . According to their natures they try for different goals, Diederich draws the stuff for his creations from the material and sensual world, Faggi finds the source for his inspirations in the spiritual world. . . . Both possess the nervous temperament, but while with Faggi it is controlled, with Diederich it occasionally breaks loose with volcanic impetuosity and impatience. Diederich’s violent soul is that of a restless tempest. Faggi’s sensitive soul is that of a clarified mountain brook reflecting the serene deeps of a late summer sky.”[8]

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Takashi Ohta, c. 1934

Plaster

Woodstock Library District

Newspaper Clipping with Reproduction

of Portrait of Takashi Ohta, Shown

at Woodstock Artists Association, 1934

Courtesy of Tom Wolf


Faggi primarily created plaster and bronze portraits and bas reliefs. Among his Woodstock portraits is that of Takashi Ohta. Son of an elite Japanese family, Ohta left his native country in 1911 to travel the world, and came to America in the late teens on a British merchant ship. In America he became involved romantically with Virginia Harper. The couple briefly moved to Munich in 1921, where they were married and their daughter Toshi (who later married musician Pete Seeger) was born. Six months later they returned to America. In 1928, Takashi was hired as the set designer in New York City for the Provincetown Players. Later that year he became the set designer and scenic director of the Maverick Theatre in West Hurley. In 1935, the Ohtas moved back to New York City.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Portrait of Fritzi, 1951

Bronze

Woodstock Artists Association

and Museum

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Young Woman, n.d.

Plaster

Historical Society of Woodstock

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Man with Goatee, 1920s

Plaster

Historical Society of Woodstock


In 1951, Faggi created a low relief portrait of Fritzi Striebel, wife of Woodstock cartoonist and painter John H. Striebel, and a close friend and patron of the artist. The sculptor kept plasters of all his works in a small concrete building next to his studio on Plochmann Lane. A group of these are in the collection of the Historical Society of Woodstock, including some in relief. Many other plasters are in the collection of his great granddaughter in Louisiana. The art critic Stuart Preston remarked that Faggi “models [his reliefs] so flat that only the ghost of volumes remains . . . .”[9]

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Three Nudes, 1911

Bronze

Whitney Museum of American Art

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Eve (Eva), c. 1919

Bronze

Art Institute of Chicago

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Nude, c. 1930s

Private Collection

[Former Collection of Harold Rugg]

Harold Rugg

 

Faggi occasionally depicted the nude. Eve, was exhibited at the Woodstock Artists Association in 1925. Faggi renders the figure’s slender form with great subtlety, emphasizing her delicate swells and curves. One of Faggi's largest nudes was owned by Harold Rugg, a professor of education at Teachers College in New York from 1920 to 1951, who had a home in Bearsville, that was in close proximity to the Montoma section of Woodstock, where Faggi lived when he first came to the area. Rugg was a leader in the social frontier group that emerged in the 1930s to argue that schools should play a stronger role in in helping to reconstruct society, and was friendly with various artists in town. He was the author of a best selling social studies textbook series that came under attack in the early years of World War II from patriotic and business groups, who did not want school children (or their parents), raising questions about the basic structures of American life and the capitalist economic system.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Walt Whitman, 1926

Cast stone

Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Unknown Photographer

Sculpture on Grounds of Harold Rugg Estate, c. 1930

Woodstock Artists Association Archives

Former Home of Harold Rugg,

Off Wittenberg Road, Bearsville, 2020


Rugg was also the owner of Faggi’s nude portrait of Walt Whitman executed in cast stone, now in the collection of the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. As seen in a photograph in the collection of the Woodstock Artists Association Archives, the piece was installed on the lawn in front of the Rugg house off Wittenberg Road.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Two Nudes, c. 1930

Plaster

Collection of Jean Young

  

This comical nude of an unknown subject, surfaced at an antique shop on Route 212 outside the village of Woodstock, and originally was housed in the cement building on the artist’s property where he stored all his work in plaster.

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

St. Francis of Assisi, 1915

Bronze

Chapel of St. Francis

Wheeling, Cook County, Illinois

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Statuette, n.d.

Plaster

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Acrobat, 1954

Polychromed plaster

 

Faggi’s favorite materials were plaster, bronze and terracotta. He adapted his style of carving to the subject matter at hand. He remarked that “the point is very, very simple. If the form needed is a stately point of view, I will carve it directly from that point of view. If it needs . . . more roundness I [might choose to] use . . . terra cotta.”[10] He rarely worked in stone, as he did not like the feeling of working in this material. He regarded stone as being “between your head and your brain.”(11] Faggi believed that “form . . . is like an empty bottle; it is form in its most intimate relation with a profound content that makes for great art – that and the liveliest visual imagination.”[12] Of his figures, the writer Stella Rubenstein wrote: “There is something so simple, so pure and so human about [them] that one feels at once relieved and hopeful. In some there is a flowerlike quality, in others there is a purity of line and form . . . .”[13]

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Two Cats, 1937

Watercolor

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Seated Nude, n.d.

Graphite and crayon

Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966)

Back to Rolling Earth, 1948

Pencil and watercolor

 

Faggi created drawings in a variety of media, including graphite, colored pencil, chalk, crayon and ink. He also worked in watercolor. Faggi often relied solely on contour lines to indicate volume and convey an impression of the third dimension. His early drawings indicate his strong discipline and advanced knowledge of human anatomy. Faggi’s later drawings are often created in a lighter vein.

 

[1] Anita M. Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, New York: WoodstockArts, 2006), p. 191. Originally published in 1959.

[2] Dorothy Seckler,”Oral History Interview with Sculptor Alfeo Faggi,” August 1, 1963, (p. 4), Archives of American Art, n.p. A copy of the interview can be found at https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-alfeo-faggi-13333.

[3] Sylvia Day, "Alfeo Faggi,” The Woodstock Week, July 29, 1965, p. 13.

[4] Smith, p. 191.

[5] David Carlson is quoted in “Alfeo Faggi (1885-1966),” a short typed entry on the sculptor found in the Alfeo Faggi files in the Woodstock Artists Association Archives.

[6] Smith, p. 191.

[7] Bulliet is quoted in “Collected Notices,” in The Art of Alfeo Faggi (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University, 1953), n.p.

[8] Wilhelm Benignus, Woodstock Stories, Poems and Essays, A Book of the Catskills for the People (New York: Rosswaag's Stuyvesant press, c. 1921), p. 12.

[9] Start Preston, “Faggi’s Religious Themes – Millman and Others,” The New York Times, January 3, 1954, p. 233.

 [10] Seckler, n.p.

[11] Ibid, n.p.

[12] Ibid. n.p.

[13]Stella Rubenstein, “Alfeo Faggi,” Art in America 9 (August 1921): 195.

 



 

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