Lorado Taft – the sculptor behind the ‘Alma Mater’ – embraced both his art and his University
By Muriel Scheinman
Photos courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
For legions of alumni, memories of the University of Illinois embrace not only the people they met but the scenes that surrounded them – the Quad, the Illini Union, the Beckman Institute, the South Farms.
It may please alumni to know that many of the sights familiar to them – the “Alma Mater” statue, the limestone figures outside of the Main Library and various busts and plaques – are not just beautiful and noteworthy art, but art created by a fellow alumnus who remained emotionally attached to the University and to the Midwest throughout his life.
This spring on April 29, we mark the 150th birthday of Lorado Taft, an 1879 and 1880 UI graduate whose artistic vision and rich talent are responsible for many of the mental snapshots that alumni hold dear from their time on campus. It is also a time to celebrate his work, not only here at Illinois but throughout the country.
While some artists might like to identify themselves with the impressive “Alma Mater” group, not so the generous and easygoing Taft. “My name will be on the bronze, and I do not want it repeated anywhere else,” he wrote. “I am not doing this thing for personal glory and refuse to be mentioned in the inscription. If it is done, I shall not come to the dedication.”
Although a plaque on the statue says Taft conceived the idea for it in 1922, his own letters reveal an interest as early as 1883. He sought support for the project in 1916, telling of his dream “to show ‘Our Mother’ as a benign and majestic woman in scholastic robes, who rises from her throne and advances a step with outstretched arms, a gesture of generously greeting her children,” while the figures of Learning and Labor, signifying the University’s motto, stand back with hands clasped.
In a letter to a friend, Taft said he once told the sculptor Daniel Chester French “that his noble Alma Mater, on the steps of Columbia’s Library, was happily expressive of the reserve and reticence of the East; that a Midwest mother must be more cordial. So I made my lady with widespread arms and a smiling face. … I understand that [the young people in Urbana] have dubbed our group the Ideal Chaperone. I hope they may keep the bronze throne polished by their visits!”
Unveiled in 1929, the statue stood “temporarily” (for 33 years) just behind Foellinger Auditorium. When the group was moved to its present site near Altgeld Hall in 1962, students protested its “shocking” new location. The Daily Illini found the placement to be in the “worst possible taste; it makes the Alma Mater a debased, commercial ‘advertisement’ for the University.”
No matter. Set among Canadian hemlocks and flowering crabapple trees,
the iconic statue has proved wonderfully effective in beckoning people to campus for nearly a century.
FROM CHICAGO TO CHAMPAIGN
While Taft designed the “Alma Mater” with the U of I in mind, other of his works came to campus in a roundabout way.
Taft long dreamed of beautifying the old Columbian Exposition Midway Plaisance in Chicago by creating a mile-long expanse of trees, lawns, fountains and statues. Only the 100-foot-long Fountain of Time, which many consider his masterpiece, came fully into being in Chicago’s Washington Park.
But four splendid limestone nudes from the uncompleted Fountain of Creation, planned as part of the Fountain of Time, grace the entrance to the Main Library and the south side of Foellinger Auditorium. In imagery derived from a Noah-like Greek myth, Taft’s “Sons and Daughters of Deucalion and Pyrrha” depicts the moment when the “bones” of Mother Earth are changing into men and women who materialize in the aftermath of a flood. Massive, dynamic, seemingly incomplete, the four figures metamorphose out of rough-hewn boulders – in the fashion of Michelangelo or Rodin – into human form.
EXEMPLIFYING THE ‘YOUNG PROFESSIONAL WOMAN’
Taft’s artistry also captures historic moments or significant people in busts, plaques and statues across the campus. One such example is a low-relief, half-size portrait of Katharine Lucinda Sharp, hon 1907.
Sharp came to the University of Illinois in 1893 when she was not yet 30 years old, tasked with establishing a professional library program and building a major library. Her work has resulted in the University now holding one of the largest public university collections in the world and a graduate program of library and information science that ranks No. 1 in the nation.
Taft’s rendering, located in the Main Library, represents Sharp as a dignified young woman in academic robes. At the 1922 dedication, the journal Public Library wrote, “Mr. Taft, as was to be expected, has caught and expressed the ideals of the young professional woman at the beginning of the 20th century, which Miss Sharp truly exemplified in her attitude toward library service.”
An Illinois native, “Rado” Taft often said that his creative impulses came with his first exposure to art in 1874. That was when John Milton Gregory, first regent of the U of I, established a Fine Arts Gallery on campus, where a collection of authentic plaster casts of classical Greek and Roman sculptures and other reproductions would, he hoped, “give Champaign and Urbana a character abroad for art, genius and refinement.” The Daily Illini put it more bluntly: “The age no doubt is rapidly approaching when foreigners will no longer cry out against the supremely disgusting taste of Americans.” The 14-year-old Taft; his father, a UI geology professor; and others worked as “surgeons of the modeling room” to repair the damaged casts that had come over from Europe.
“Do you remember Dr. Gregory’s little art gallery?” the sculptor would later ask alumni of his own generation in 1917. “Those were the days of small things, but the memory of that collection of casts and photographs looms big in my life. To it and Dr. Gregory I owe my profession and all the pleasure it has brought me.”
After graduating from Illinois, Taft would go on to study at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris before settling permanently in Chicago in 1886. He taught at the Art Institute, lectured and wrote extensively on the history of art and for some 40 years created distinguished works of sculpture, aided by a loyal coterie of pupils and assistants in his Midway Studios. A self-described “art missionary,” Taft became widely known for his interest in helping young artists and for providing a great number of opportunities for women students.
He retained close ties with the University of Illinois. Named nonresident professor of art in 1919, Taft came to campus each spring to give illustrated talks on art to overflow audiences. At the unveiling of the “Alma Mater” in 1929, the University granted him an honorary doctoral degree and a year later, with the help of alumni, established the ongoing Lorado Taft Lectureship in Art. Taft died in 1936.
Today, approximately a dozen statues, busts or plaques by Taft are displayed throughout campus; nods also go to him via the naming of Lorado Taft Drive and Taft Residence Hall. Beyond campus, other notable pieces include a towering statue of Chief Black Hawk in Oregon, Ill.; “The Solitude of the Soul” at The Art Institute of Chicago; the gargantuan representation of George Washington in Seattle; and the Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C.
But of the works dearest to him, one wonders if many of them might be those at the University of Illinois, as Taft said that throughout his life, he had “retained a romantic love for my Alma Mater.
“I believe I am needed here,” he wrote in 1899 in declining an offer to teach at Vassar College on the East Coast. “I want my work to come out of the west, and if there is any glory in it, I want to share it with my own home people.”
“Mickey” Scheinman, am ’69 faa, phd ’81 faa, is an art historian and author of “A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign, Robert Allerton Park and Chicago” (University of Illinois Press, 1995).