Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

From the earliest days through most of the nineteenth century, sculpture in America was the enterprise of w1tutored artisans, craftsmen, stonecutters, and woodcarvers modestly plying their trade on furniture, gravestones, figureheads, and shop signs. Lacking opportunities for academic training at home, ambitious craftsmen flocked first to Rome and, following the Civil War, to Paris to learn the fine art of sculpting. In Paris, the City of Light, bright talents benefited greatly from systematic instruction and immersed themselves in the great traditions of European art. Many returned to the states to share the gospel of European academicism and French naturalism.

Among these apostle artists was Philadelphian Charles Grafly (1862-1929) who, after three years in France returned to America in 1892, and went on to gamer acclaim as a sculptor, as well as a teacher at the Pennsylvania Acade­my of the Fine Arts, where he taught most of his life. Today, though, Grafly’s name is seldom heard and few recognize his authorship of outstanding portrait busts and major public monuments, which grace cities from coast to coast, including Philadelphia, Wash­ington, D.C., and San Francisco.

The last of eight children born to Charles and Elizabeth (Simmons) Grafly, he grew up in a cramped brick row house at 2209 Sum.mer Street. His mother’s ancestors had emigrated from Holland in the late eighteenth century, and his father’s family (whose surname is pronounced “Gray-flee”) arrived from Germany in 1751. A practical, hard-working man, the elder Grafly moved from shoemaking to a managerial position at the Philadelphia Gas Works. He also operated a small shop on Market Street, which stocked tobacco and produce from a family farm in Sell­ersville, Bucks County.

Artistically inclined, young Grafly resisted pressure to take over the farm and, at the age of seventeen, went to work as an apprentice at the Struthers Stoneyard in Philadelphia. The sprawling stone-cutting enterprise supplied marble and granite for Philadelphia’s grand City Hall, among other significant building projects (see “The Unhappy Tale of Building Philadelphia’s City Hall” by Michael P. McCarthy in the Summer 1990 issue). Working alongside skilled carvers, Grafly soon found himself creating small sculptural pieces for City Hall.

While working at Struthers, Grafly attended free-hand drawing classes at Spring Garden Institute, where he was mesmerized by the notion of creating art. In 1884, he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, determined to pursue his dream and become a sculptor. Among his fellow students were sculptor A. Stirling Calder, son of Alexander Milne Calder, whose statue of William Penn was to top City Hall, and painters Robert Henri, Edward Willis Redfield, and Walter Emerson Schofield. The students flourished under the inspired tutelage of realist painter Thomas Eakins, who taught life classes, anatomy, and sculpture (see “‘And Who is Eakins?’” by David Pacchioli in the Fall 1989 edition, and “The Many Faces of Thomas Eakins” by Cheryl Leibold in the Spring 1991 issue). When the Academy dismissed Eakins for general insubordination, culminating in the use of a nude male model in a mixed male and female class, Grafly followed him to his new Art Students League of Philadelphia. Eventually Grafly returned to the Academy, where he benefited from the teaching of Thomas P. Anshutz.

In 1888, at the age of twenty-six, Grafly sailed to Paris where he shared an apartment with Henri and the pair reveled in the city’s wonders with fellow artists. Grafly and Henri spent hour after hour sketching the city as they wandered through its neighborhoods. Henri captured Grafly’s depth and intensity in a handsome portrait, which is now in the collections of the National Academy of Design.

Grafly enrolled in classes at the Academie Julian, studying under prominent academic sculptor Henri­-Michel Chapu, and later attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In keeping with prevailing methods of instruction, Grafly spent long hours modeling from posed nudes and executing clay studies of biblical figures and mythological subjects, which were then critiqued by his instructors. He rapidly absorbed the lively surface modeling techniques of his mentors. His expressive bust of Daedalus was accepted for the prestigious Paris Salon of 1890. Depicting the upturned face of the ancient Greek mythological figure, this highly romanticized work helped Grafly on the road to winning a prize at the World’s Columbian Exposition three years later. The bust, his first success in Europe, was pur­chased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Upon his return to Philadelphia, Grafly became an instructor of modeling at Drexel Institute and at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he taught until his death at the age of sixty-seven. American students were no longer finding it necessary to travel abroad for study in the tradition of the French atelier. Sculpture courses such as those Grafly taught were being introduced in major American art institutions by the 1890s. Grafly’s teaching methods reflected his Parisian­-inspired interest in lively, naturalistic portraiture and serious, allegorical statuary. A strident believer in teaching fundamentals of form and technique, he strongly disapproved of instruction in modern art.” When the University of Pennsylvania hired a colleague of eccentric avant-garde collector Albert C. Barnes to teach courses in modern art, Grafly sneered. “It does not require,” he said, “any actual knowledge to produce what is called ‘modern art.'”

His stringent instruction, conveying not only technique but the ideals and integrity he believed sculptors should embody, nurtured such distinguished sculptors as Welker Hancock (who succeeded him at the Pennsylvania Academy), Albert Laessle, Paul Manship, and Albin Polasek. In many respects, Charles Grafly personified the strengths of an evolving and distinctly American tradition that followed the World’s Columbian Exposition. No living American sculptor, wrote John E. D. Trask, president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1910, is “more completely the master of his medium than is Charles Grafly.”

“To be known as America’s best teacher is a sufficiently proud distinction, but to be recognized as our greatest master of portraiture is also Mr. Grafly’s due,” added art historian, critic, and sculptor Loredo Taft in the twenties. A luminary on both sides of the Atlantic, Grafly created important – sometimes controversial – works well into this century. As he launched his career, Grafly was joined by kindred souls Robert Henri and George Luks. They regularly gathered for card games, vigorous discussions, and theatrical performances, often with artists William Glackens, John Sloan, Redfield, and Schofield. Under Henri’s charismatic leader­ship, Glackens, Luks, and Sloan went on to form the nucleus of the celebrated Ashcan group in New York. In 1895, Grafly married Frances Sekeles, a native of Tennessee raised in Philadelphia, who taught school until their marriage.

The newlyweds soon set up housekeeping in Paris. In his Paris studio Grafly prepared pieces for criticism by academic sculptor Jean Dampt, developed ambitious group compositions, and created a bust of friend and expatriate painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (see “The Resurrection of Henry Ossawa Tanner” by Stephen May in the Winter 1992 edition), now part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Following the birth of their only child, Dorothy, who was to become an authority on her father’s life and work, the Graflys returned in 1896 to Philadelphia, the sculptor’s home for the remainder of his life. In 1905, he established a summer home and studio in Folly Cove, near Gloucester, Massachusetts. Many major works of his later years were executed in the spacious Folly Cove studio.

Allegorical works by the rising sculptor began to appear in Philadelphia. One of his early commissions, arranged by Edward Horner Coates, long-time president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was a large zodiac clock, which adorned the Pennsylvania Company Bank at 517 Chestnut Street. Executed between 1898 and 1901 at Grafly’s busy Philadelphia studio, it featured a winged dial with signs of the zodiac around its outer band. With the help of his promising young student Albert Laessle, Grafly cut wings from Caene stone and cast the zodiac figures in bronze. A half-century later the impressive timepiece was sold as “junk” by the wrecking company which demolished the bank building.

Riding the wave of enthusiasm generated by the success of American sculpture at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Grafly attracted numerous commissions for works for public buildings, sizable outdoor monuments, and sculptures for international exposi­tions held in American cities in the early years of this century. He was a founder of the National Sculpture Society and won many medals and coveted honors for his work. At the outset, pursuing the ideal muse, he created a number of naturalisti­cally-modeled symbolist works and imaginative group compositions, such as Symbol of Life (1897), showing a woman as Nature encouraging man toward perfection, a work that supposed­ly reflects nature’s fecundity. Although he admitted that he did not fully understand the meaning of Symbol of Life, Lorado Taft praised its workmanship as “masterful and satisfying.”

For the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York, Grafly created the huge, elaborate, symbol-filled Fountain of Man. It was crowned by a double-sided figure of Man the Mysterious, beneath which a circular group represented the five senses; at the base, supporting the basin, crouching groups symbolized struggling virtues and vices. Its meaning, once again, seemed obscure to many, including Taft. On this and other occasions, Grafly was forced to explain his use of symbolism.

In 1903, Cass Gilbert, later architect of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, was designing the federal customhouse in New York City, and asked Grafly to model allegori­cal figures of England and France for the main cornice. Conforming to Gilbert’s suggestion that the figures reflect the “maritime and commercial importance of the nations represented,” the sculptor portrayed England as a noble, crowned woman, garbed in robe and breastplate, with her hands holding a shield and ship’s wheel. His France, a female figure wearing a liberty cap, held a staff as a symbol of national authority. She clasped a small figure reflecting the nation’s leadership in the world of art. Both of these figures can still be seen in the upper right corner of the attic cornice of what is now the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Grafly executed major works for the Charleston Exposition of 1902 and for the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition two years later. While carrying out public commissions he often tangled with architects, builders, and bureaucrats when he felt they were encroaching on his creativity and infringing on his freedom. His exposition sculptures increased his public visibility, but his stubborn unwillingness to compromise frequently reduced his opportunity for profit. He was a slow, careful worker and, since payment for government assignments tended to arrive late, he often defrayed expenses for his current project with funds from the previous commission. His insistence on indepen­dence and perfection kept him constantly in financial straits, particularly when he was engaged in large-scale, long-term projects.

The fervor with which Grafly worked was captured by Thomas Anshutz in his portrait of the sculptor at work, made between 1900 and 1910. A highly respected teacher and painter, Anshutz took over many of Eakins’s courses after he left, and became a dose friend of Grafly’s. Grafly completed a posthumous portrait bust of Anshutz in 1912, of which a bronze casting is held by the Pennsylvania Academy. While studying under Eakins and Anshutz, Grafly spent many hours in dissecting rooms, and his work reflected a thorough understanding of human anatomy. The Oarsman (1910), a bronze of which is in the Academy collection – was presumably inspired by the athletic scullers on the nearby Schuylkill River, also a source of subject material for Eakins.

Grafly’s most enduring contribution may very well be his portrait busts of artists and of prominent Philadelphians. These sensitively rendered works are generally thought to have embodied the main current of American sculpture at the time. “Each head that (Grafly] models,” wrote Taft in 1924, “is an artistic triumph, its completion an event.” Sculpture writer Adeline Adams declared, with a slight poke at the great French modernist that, “for style and workmanship and seizing of character any half-dozen of his busts would proudly hold their own if placed beside [Auguste] Rodin’s male portraits . . . . Furthermore, they have the old­-fashioned advantage of looking like the persons they represent, an advantage not always attained in the Rodin portrayals.” Trask praised Grafly’s portrait busts for their “remarkably vigorous and power­fully truthful appreciation of the underlying logic of nature.” These works, he believed, had “made secure [Grafly’s] fame so long as marble and bronze shall endure.”

A few of Grafly’s portraits were commissions, but most offered a means of relaxation from such formalized work and a chance to immortalize the features of people he knew and admired. Her father, wrote Dorothy Grafly, found the portrait bust gave him “rich opportunity for character study.” In this work the sculptor was inspired by the example of Eakins, whom he admired not only for his uncompromising integrity, but for the thorough study he made of the human body in order to convey the depth of a personality in his portraits. During a visit to Eakins’s studio, Dorothy Grafly reports, her father observed that “when Eakins painted a portrait, he carried the personality of the sitter through an entire composition.”

Among Grafly’s portrait busts of contemporary artists are likenesses of fellow Pennsylvania Academy instructor and painter Hugh H. Breckenridge; children’s genre painter Adam Emory Albright; Boston portraitist William M. Paxton; Pennsylvania impressionists Edward Willis Redfield and Walter Emerson Schofield; sculptor Paul Wayland Barlett; iron artist Samuel Yellin; Munich painter Frank Duveneck; Joseph De Camp; and Childe Hassam. A bust of George Harding, Grafly’s young teaching colleague at the Pennsylvania Academy and an emerging painter, was executed in six hours on a wager with several sculptors who doubted such a work could be completed in such a limited time. Grafly not only won the bet, but the likeness earned a prize for portraiture at the following National Sculpture Society exhibition. Master sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) admired it so much that he used a plaster cast in his studio for instructional purposes. Grafly’s portrait busts have been acquired by institutions throughout the country, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Ulrich Museum in Wichita, Kansas, and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, among others. A great admirer of the work of Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), the leading French sculptor of the eighteenth century, Grafly kept a copy of the Frenchman’s bust of American naval hero John Paul Jones in his studio. When asked in 1927 to create a portrait of Jones for inclusion in the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, Grafly readily responded to the sponsor’s suggestion to “lean rather heavily upon the bust of Houdon.” Art historian Pamela Simpson contends Grafly made a “near-replica of the Houdon bust, differing from it only in the depth of facial detail.” This anecdote demonstrates, perhaps, Grafly’s strict adherence to tradi­tional artistic principles and practices rather than to the modernism that had begun to emerge.

Grafly’s adherence to personal standards led to disagreements about proposed projects in his hometown. In 1907, he collaborated with Philadelphia architect Edgar V. Seeley to create a fountain sponsored by the fabulously wealthy financier Edward T. Stotesbury for the courtyard at Philadelphia City Hall. When Stotesbury rejected their studies, the commission was abandoned. Several years later, Seeley and Grafly designed a model for a proposed Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial on an embank­ment above the Schuylkill River on East River Drive, but their efforts came to naught when the family insisted on a scheme which both the architect and sculptor found unacceptable. The memorial was completed decades later by the Fairmount Park Art Association. Far less contentious was a memorial to General Galusha Pennypacker; the youngest general of the Civil War, installed in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle in 1934 (see “Currents,” Winter 1998). It incorporated Grafly’ s original design as completed by Albert Laessle, his long­time assistant.

Grafly’s last major public commission – the crowning achievement of his distinguished and prodigious career – proved to be his most frustrating. In 1915, the Common­wealth of Pennsylvania commissioned him to design a memorial to native son George Gordon Meade, who commanded Union forces at Gettys­burg. The statue was to be given a place of honor on the mall at the foot of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. This choice assignment was complicated by a requirement that the design be approved by both Pennsylva­nia’s Meade Memorial Committee, dominated by aging Civil War veterans, and the federal government’s National Commission of Fine Arts, aesthetic watchdogs of the nation’s capital. With advice from military historians, such as Isaac R. Pennypacker, and members of the Meade family, Grafly struggled to create a composition acceptable to these very different groups. He worked through at least a dozen sketches and models trying to accommodate the often conflicting ideas of the two disparate bodies. Time and again Grafly’s submissions were rejected by the veterans because they believed they were insufficiently realistic; the fine arts representatives returned them because they claimed they were not artistic enough. At one stage the veterans were appalled by the inclusion of nude, symbolic females in a late model. Their furor was intense. “General Meade never had any naked women around him at the Battle of Gettysburg!” they protested. Grafly, his daughter recalled, grew “white with rage.” Ultimately, he decided to convey Meade’s attributes as a military leader by blending realism and allegory. In 1919, the sculptor’s composition – a circular group of figures surrounding a dignified, uniformed Meade – was finally approved. The general was depicted stepping forward from his cloak­ – symbolizing war – held by nude male figures repre­senting Chivalry and Loyalty. Other forms surrounding the pedestal included female nudes representing Fame and Progress. On the opposite side of the circle from Meade is an ugly, menacing representation of War, holding two shields with a double-edged sword between them.

Plagued by lumbago, Grafly labored from a scaffold to complete the full-scale plaster model in his summer studio. When the memorial was at last dedicated in October 1927, a dozen years had passed since he had first begun work on the commission. Among those participat­ing in the exercises were President Calvin Coolidge and Pennsylvania’s Governor John S. Fisher. In the 1970s, the massive monument was placed in storage to make way for a reflecting pool and highway under the mall. In 1984, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation reinstalled the memorial in Meade Plaza, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the I. M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, in front of the United States District Court building.

Charles Grafly’s last public monument was a representational portrait statue of James Buchanan (1791-1868). Grafly depicted his subject as a tall, heavy-set figure, with grave mien, standing with a cane in one hand and a top hat in the other. The memorial was unveiled on June 1, 1928, in Lancaster, where the nation’s fifteenth president had worked and lived (see “The Political Ascent of James Buchanan” by Kurt D. Zwikl in the Sp1ing 1991 edition).

Within a year, Charles Grafly was dead, the victim of a hit-and-run motorist as he walked to close up the little brick house at 2209 Summer Street in which he had grown up. He was sixty-seven. Well before his death, his contemporaries recognized Grafly’s importance as teacher, leader, artist, and master of his craft. He had risen from humble begin­nings to play a significant role in placing American sculpture on a par with the best the world had to offer. A gifted sculptor with lofty ideals and unshakable integrity, steeped in the great traditions of Western art, Charles Grafly significant­ly enriched the nation’s sculptural heritage. An eminent figure in the golden age of American sculpture whose works continue to grace the Keystone State, he deserves renewed appreciation for his example and for his tremendous body of work.


For Further Reading

Adams, Adeline. The Spirit of American Sculpture. New York: National Sculpture Society, 1923.

Armstrong, Tom, et al. 200 Years of American Sculpture. Boston: D. R. Godine for the Whitney Museum of Art, 1976.

Craven, Wayne. Sculpture in America. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1984.

Reynolds, Donald Martin. Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition from the American Renaissance to the Millennium. New York: Abbeyville Press, 1993.

Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 1974.

Simpson, Pamela H., and Donald E. Knaub. The Sculptor’s Clay: Charles Grafly 1962-1929. Wichita, Kan.: Wichita State University, 1996.

Taft, Loredo. The History of American Sculpture. New York: Macmillan Company, 1924.

Taylor, Joshua. The Fine Arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.


Stephen May, of Washington, D.C., is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Georgetown University Law School. Currently a freelance writer specializing in American art and history, he has contributed articles to a number of national magazines and newspapers. His most recent article for Pennsylvania Heritage, John James Audubon, Squire of Mill Grove and Genius of Art and Science,” appeared in the Summer 1996 edition.