Antiques: Creatures in Bronze

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Before my husband and I adopted two children, we adopted three dogs, a cat, and finally, a wonderful pet sitter named Janet. Janet is special kind of human being: She’s an animal person. And no, I don’t just mean an animal lover.

In our pet-crazed culture, self-professed animal lovers abound. An animal person is someone altogether different — someone who not only loves animals but truly understands them as well. An animal person can see past instinct and behavior into the soul of a creature, recognizing the unique spark that sets it apart from all other living beings. It’s a quiet yet remarkable talent. Janet uses hers to care for animals. Katharine Lane Weems used hers to sculpt them.

Early in the 20th century, Katharine Lane Weems was one of Boston’s pre-eminent women artists, and among the most famous women sculptors of her day. She is most widely known for her realistic and poignant portrayals of animals in bronze. Her talent as an artist was matched only by her tenacity and will, for in an age when women artists were rare, women sculptors were rarer still.

Born Katharine Ward Lane in 1899, Weems was the daughter of Gardiner Lane, a prominent financier and president of the board of trustees of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. From an early age, Weems developed an appreciation for art and a love of animals, particularly dogs, horses, and ponies. She studied art at the Boston Museum School; her mentors included animalière Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, who encouraged Weems to observe live animals to learn their patterns, behavior, and anatomical structure. Her mastery of animal biology enabled Weems to render subjects in meticulous detail, with bones, tendons, and muscles seemingly working in concert beneath a stilled, bronzy surface.

Over her 70-year career, Weems left a legacy of excellent work, from larger-than-life-size beasts to miniature pet bronzes. Subjects included dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, elephants, and two enormous rhinoceroses (dubbed “Bessie” and “Victoria”) for the courtyard of Harvard’s biology labs. Weems’s sculptures exemplify a raw elegance, where form follows function as naturally as it does in the wild. Yet there’s a sweetness and grace to these animals that’s almost human. Or perhaps the better word is humane.

In the 1970s, Weems created one of her most famous works, the life-size sculpture Dolphins of the Sea, for Boston’s New England Aquarium. She eventually donated the bulk of her work to the city’s Museum of Science to demonstrate the strong link between science and the arts. Today that institution boasts the largest collection of Katharine Lane Weems sculptures in the world.

Nowadays, Weems’s works come on the market rarely. They’re usually signed on the base KATHARINE LANE WEEMS or KATHARINE LANE. Auction prices range from a few hundred dollars well into five figures, depending on size and the condition of the patina. You don’t have to be an animal person to be charmed by these works — the appeal is universal — perhaps because these likenesses tap into our instinctive desire to connect with other living things, no matter how great or small. After all, we’re only human.


Catherine Riedel represents Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers of Boston. skinnerinc.com


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