David Smith: Pittsburgh Landscape

Pittsburgh Landscape

David Smith, Pittsburgh Landscape, 1954, painter steel. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Mari

Many people view painted art and sculpture as two entities, as did many artists in the early 20th century. David Smith, however, saw paintings and sculptures as the same form; sculpture was simply painting given a third dimension. In his opinion, sculptures were metal “drawing[s] in space.” He saw no difference between sculptures and paintings beyond their technical execution.

This philosophy can clearly be seen in Pittsburgh Landscape. Housed in the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden and created in 1954, the piece was originally crafted as a gift for G. David Thompson and was to be used as a guard rail for a terrace outside Thompson’s home. Thompson, a collector of modern art, was the president of Pittsburgh Steel at the time. Thus, Smith’s use of painted steel in Pittsburgh Landscape is very fitting not only for the city it depicts but also the man it was for. The piece is composed of delicate metal tracery rather than solid forms. This is meant to define the empty space rather than detract attention from it. The abstract composition of the sculpture creates a sense of rhythm and pattern that is found in a dynamic landscape, such as a city skyline, seen from a distance. The piece’s composition was inspired by Pablo Picasso and Julio González’s post-Cubist constructed metal sculptures, which are what drove Smith to begin experimenting with metal sculpture earlier in his career. Eventually, Pittsburgh Landscape found its way into the hands of Joseph H. Hirshhorn who donated it to the museum bearing his name in 1972.

Smith was heavily influenced by Surrealism and is considered to be the first American artist who took an interest in metal abstract sculpture and began creating his own works in this style. His life experiences help to explain his expertise in this medium. He gained skills from welding metal in an automobile factory that contributed greatly to his artistic talent. In addition, Smith set up his studio next to an iron forge and would often use scrap metal and parts of machines found there in his sculptures. In 1965 he was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson before tragically dying in a car crash that spring. Smith’s legacy and works, still widely popular today, earned him a prominent place in American art history and will continue to inspire others in years to come.

Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

Guest Blogger:  Mari

In 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the French port town of Calais was attacked by the English King Edward III. After a year under siege, the town was forced to surrender due to famine. King Edward III declared that he would only accept the town’s surrender if six of the city leaders came to him carrying the keys to the city and castle with bare feet and nooses around their necks. Eustache de Saint Pierre volunteered to sacrifice himself for the good of the city and was followed by five other members of the city’s aristocracy. They went to King Edward III as he had commanded and expected to die. The king, however, was persuaded to spare them at the last minute by his pregnant wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, who claimed the death of the men would be an ill omen for her unborn child. To this day, France and the city of Calais honor the six burghers as heroes.

The Burghers of Calais.

Auguste Rodin. The Burghers of Calais. Bronze. Original 1889. This is a copy casted from the original in 1943. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In 1884, the city of Calais held a contest to select a French artist to make a sculpture honoring Eustache de Saint Pierre and his service to the city.  Auguste Rodin won this contest and created The Burghers of Calais. Rather than simply depicting Eustache de Saint Pierre, he chose to create all six burghers because he believed all of the men, not just Saint Pierre, had acted bravely. Each man’s face represents one emotion that must have been coursing through the men back in 1347, such as despair, courage, resignation, and uncertainty. The men wear ragged tunics, have bare feet, and stand with nooses tied around their necks.  Instead of displaying the glory of the burghers, Rodin chose to display the anguish they must have felt, humanizing them and making their sacrifice that much more significant. The Burghers of Calais breaks the mold of typical late 19th century sculpture; the piece has no allegorical figures and lacks a pyramidal arrangement. Instead, the men appear average and stand on level with the viewer. In addition, each man faces a different direction, obligating the viewer to walk around the entire piece to truly understand it. This makes their sacrifice more real and tangible; it forces the viewer to fully realize that these men were willing to pay the ultimate price to save their people.

The copy of The Burghers of Calais that is in Washington D.C. is one of only twelve copies ever made in accordance with French law. It was cast in 1943, 54 years after the original piece was completed. Purchased by Joseph H. Hirshhorn, it originally decorated a traffic circle at his estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. Hirshhorn, a Latvian immigrant, was an avid art collector who made millions on Wall Street and in the uranium trade in Canada. After retiring, he dedicated his life to collecting art, most of which was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1970’s, Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated The Burghers of Calais, along with other pieces from his vast art collection, to the newly built Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C. Today, the piece can still be seen in the sculpture garden surrounded by other copies of Rodin’s work.