With a career in sculpting a real possibility, Sally James Farnham began bidding against the best in the industry, sometimes vying for selection from among thirty or more competitors. In 1904, for a project near and dear to her heart, she submitted two design proposals — Defenders of the Flag, and the Spirit of Liberty — to the city of Ogdensburg for a soldiers-and-sailors monument, which were quite popular around the country. Of the 16 designs considered, Farnham’s Spirit of Liberty was selected—a combination of bronze and Barre granite, with a female figure standing atop a single column, in all reaching 37 feet high.
Present at the unveiling were an estimated 20,000 visitors, with dignitaries that included Senator George Malby of nearby Canton, and the keynote speaker, Vice-President Charles Fairbanks. As the shroud was lifted to reveal the monument, cheers erupted, a 21-gun salute began, and a band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” creating a moment hometown girl Sally James Farnham would never forget.
Key to her success was persistence through long hours of struggle, despite the option to simply relax and enjoy a cushy lifestyle. The Brooklyn Eagle commented on Sally’s work ethic shortly after she exploded onto the arts scene: “The Farnhams occupy one of the most palatial homes on Long Island, situated on the shores of Long Island Sound at Great Neck…. When she decided to take up art, she gave up her lovely home and went to Manhattan, where she established a studio, and there she works as if her livelihood depended on the result of her labors.”
She proved prolific, always working on something, from statues to medals to the Great Neck Steeplechase Cup that was bestowed in her own neighborhood. Her accomplishments in only five years, with no formal schooling or instructive art background, were stunning, brought about by closely studying her subject matter and a seemingly endless supply of elbow grease. As evidence of her meteoric rise, consider that just a year after the unveiling in Ogdensburg, the person posing for a bas-relief by Sally was none other than President Theodore Roosevelt, who personally approved the results.
In early 1907, Farnham’s designs for Civil War memorials in two Rochester, New York, cemeteries were accepted by a citizens’ committee that had considered 15 proposals. One of the great stories she enjoyed retelling began with a request from the committee to meet with them once again. She telegraphed, “Regret cannot be with you. Have important work on hand to finish.” Two weeks later, she sent another message: “Work finished. He weighed 10 pounds. His name is John.” When the meeting finally happened, the committee’s hemming and hawing was just too much. Sally rose to leave, informing them that she had plenty of other things to do that day. Before she reached the door, the deal was settled.
Through all the sculpting, society events, and family life, Sally still remained an Ogdensburg girl, frequently visiting friends and family there. For years she returned each fall to not only attend the St. Lawrence County Fair, but to participate in the horse competitions, often finishing well. For two consecutive years she won the ladies driving class, with Thistle in 1908 and Manhattan in 1909.
Her next major sculpting job, for the new International Bureau of American Republics Building (financed by Andrew Carnegie, and later renamed the Pan-American Union Building), placed Sally in fine company professionally. Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore, designed a marble panel for the building’s façade, while Farnham was commissioned to model a lengthy frieze for the interior. The frieze, first displayed to great acclaim in New York, consisted of four long panels in gilt bronze depicting historical moments of discovery and exploration in the Americas. The Sunday Star of Washington, D. C., assessed the elaborate panels representing Central America, South America, the U. S., and Mexico: “The frieze is the crowning glory of the room.” A plaster version of the Frieze of the Discoverers was displayed several years later in the California Building of San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition.
In appreciation of Carnegie’s financial contributions, the Pan-American Conference formed the Carnegie Medal Committee in 1911, with members from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Venezuela overseeing a competition for the best design. Sally Farnham’s proposal, a 22-carat gold disk more than three and a half inches in diameter, was accepted as the appropriate tribute to Carnegie.
In 1912, Sally’s rendition of Cave Woman was completed, commissioned as the partner piece to Frederic Remington’s Cave Man. In 1913 she designed a bronze tablet that was dedicated by the Twenty-first Continental Congress, the only piece designed by a woman that was placed in Memorial Continental Hall.
Now in her forties, she still competed as an equestrian, both on Long Island and in St. Lawrence County, but was hobbled in 1913, having broken her ankle in a fall from a ladder during studio work. It was a difficult time personally as well. After a falling out with Tiffany, Paulding had left the company back in 1908, and since that time, he and Sally had gradually drifted apart. He moved to the ranch out West to operate a gold mine, the cost of which devoured most of his fortune. They divorced in 1915.
But as happened years earlier when she lay in a hospital bed, this relatively dark time in her life precipitated another pivotal moment. With a powerful inner drive, she forged ahead, creating the Thousand Islands Yacht Club Championship trophy shortly before learning that her design for an important and prestigious project had been chosen above the proposals of 30 other competitors. The subject was Simon Bolivar, referred to by some as the George Washington of South America.
A gift from Venezuela to the city of New York City, the statue would be prominently displayed in Central Park, where Sally rode her own horse daily. The small bronze model she created competed against the entries of men, was judged by panels of men, and was approved by a committee of men — a prime example of a strong woman and mother successfully competing in a male-dominated profession.
Among all sculptors, this was a major coup, particularly in light of the statue’s unusual history. On Washington’s birthday in 1884, the initial sculpture of Bolivar was installed, but it soon fell out of favor and was even ridiculed. Venezuela’s president ordered a replacement by an Italian sculptor in 1897, but the result was unsatisfactory, and when the original statue was eventually removed, the large pedestal in Central Park remained empty for several years. Finally, a worldwide competition was announced in 1916. Sally’s earlier pieces comprising the Pan-American frieze in Washington involved research and sculpting for Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Her work gained favor with those South American countries, which helped lead to her selection as creator of the new Bolivar.
Wrote John Farrar of the New York World: “Mrs. Farnham’s fame will be increased by the completion of one of the largest equestrian monuments in the United States—the largest horse ever constructed in New York…. When women turn to art, they frequently display the same dainty quality of genius that adjusts the subtle flow of gown or cape. So often they defy the trivial or the sentimentally romantic. But the genius of Sally James Farnham is of a different type. It has more fibre. It is broader, freer, in scope and image, with a background of passion and wide sympathy. There is a masculine spirit in the power of her heroic statues! There is a feminine delicacy in her dainty figures. Almost miraculously, without previous training or experience, her art sprang to life full-grown, and has since developed and spread with unstinted resourcefulness.”
Next: Sally’s pièce de résistance.
Photos: Postcard of the Spirit of Liberty at Ogdensburg; the Great Neck Steeplechase Cup (Michael P. Reed’s website); a portion of the frieze depicting Cortes and the Aztecs in Mexico (from the Pan-American Union Bulletin)