Difficulties and setbacks arose during the creation of the huge Bolivar piece, but excitement prevailed as the end neared. Ogdensburg native, sculptor Sally James Farnham, “I’ve worked more than four years on the statue and I’ve enjoyed every moment of the time. I like to do big things anyhow, and in working on this I had a tremendous personal feeling. I have great reverence for the subject, General Bolivar, and for the people of all South America…. I have been working from 16 to 18 hours a day for the past few weeks. And altogether, on General Bolivar, I have lifted over three tons of plastilene [oil-based modeling clay]. You’ll have to agree that the life of a stevedore has been mine.”
Prior to the unveiling, thousands gathered to watch as the statue was installed on Bolivar Hill in Central Park. There were luncheons, banquets, and other gatherings leading up to the big moment. The contingent representing the United States was topped by diplomats to Latin America, members of the cabinet, Supreme Court justices, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, and President Warren Harding himself. A parade viewed by about 50,000 onlookers proceeded from the Waldorf-Astoria to Central Park, where a crowd estimated at 20,000 was in attendance. As part of the day’s ceremonies, a similar celebration was held simultaneously in Caracas, Venezuela, in honor of George Washington.
The scene in Central Park was impressive, as related in snippets culled from a report by the New York Times: “… a Veterans Corps of Artillery in 1812 uniforms, with their plumed hats and shining sabers; marines from the New York Navy Yard; detachments of marines and sailors from the Brazilian battleship Minas Geraes, with their own band and the New York City Police Department Band; intermingled with them were officers from the armies and navies of other South American countries in uniform splendor; to the south was the official stand for the president and his party, the members of the Venezuelan mission, and world-famous orator René Viviani, the special French envoy and his party; envoys from all the South American nations; officials of city, state, and nation, army and navy officers, clergy, and other guests. In front were lines of police and companies of the 22nd U. S. Infantry.
“In the center of this picture was the heroic statue covered with a mask of flags, the red, white, and blue of the U. S. on one side, and the eight-starred banner of Venezuela in yellow, blue, and red. Banked around the pedestal were wreaths of flowers, and standing near the granite pedestal was the proud sculptress, Mrs. Sally James Farnham….”
After the shrouds were removed and Sally accepted the personal congratulations of President Harding and others, she said, “This is the greatest day of my life. I am delighted that the Venezuelan government commissioned me to do this work of their Washington, and I am pleased with the approval of the public and the officials of both countries. I am too happy for words.”
As several editorials noted, the wondrous piece of art before them had been created by an unschooled, self-taught artist. She had also been commissioned to create a special medal commemorating the occasion. That evening, at a state dinner, she was decorated with the Order of the Liberator, the highest honor bestowed by the Venezuelan government.
Just a few months later, Sally was hard at work in the White House, where Harding sat for several sessions as she prepared a bust of the president. In April 1922, the Sculpture Society for the Union League Club hosted an exhibition that drew a large number of visitors to view the works of well-known sculptors. The centerpiece of the event was Sally Farnham’s bust of President Harding, along with another of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the last year of World War I. Of all his likenesses created by artists, Foch chose Farnham’s as his favorite.
Aside from the political world, Sally enjoyed many connections in show business as well. Amid much speculation in the media, she was finally revealed as the designer of a “mysterious statue” in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. The monument of white marble featured a nude female grieving atop the grave of Vernon Castle, who had paired with wife Irene as the most famous dance couple in America, appearing in movies and on Broadway. Theirs was a tragic love story. Back in 1915, near the height of their popularity, Vernon had joined the war and eventually flew 300 combat missions, finally returning from Europe after suffering injuries. He recovered, but was killed in a plane crash in 1918 at a Texas training facility. Irene had since remarried, but it was widely rumored that four years after his death, she had posed for the sculpture. At the time, Sally, a good friend, wouldn’t reveal the model’s name. Irene readily admitted to posing nude for other sculptures, but denied doing so for the grave marker.
In late 1922, the president of the National Navy Club of New York sponsored a tribute to former President Theodore Roosevelt. On the anniversary of his birthday, 200,000 medals, designed by Sally Farnham, were offered for sale in three sizes, raising the modern equivalent of $26,000.
As an honorary member of New York’s Mounted Police Association, she was consulted about a special gift item for those owed thanks by the department. The result was Rain, a fifteen-inch-high statuette of a mounted policeman in a driving rain. The members, so enamored with her work, decided that reproductions of Rain would henceforth be the association’s standard gift.
Among her other show-business friends was silent-film star Mary Pickford (one photograph shows Sally on a California beach with Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, and Pickford), who posed for her in 1924 during the filming of Rosita. Copies of the bust were requested by several institutions, and Pickford planned to use it in a non-specified commercial project. Having attained a measure of celebrity herself, Sally’s name sometimes appeared in society columns with those of other public figures, like writer Christopher Morley and novelist Fannie Hurst, for attending movie premieres and other public events. Periodic stories of her background or of her most recent sculpture appeared in hundreds of newspapers at a time.
In 1926, she was commissioned to produce a war memorial for Fultonville, New York. The finished work was an impressive, eight-foot-high pairing of a sailor and soldier, side by side, in a sculpture wonderfully titled, Like Hell You Can! Before being transported to Fultonville, it was displayed in Central Park, where Sally was photographed beside Teddy Roosevelt Jr., and famed boxer Gene Tunney, both of whom had served during the recent World War.
In 1928, Sally was the guest of honor at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D. C., at a reception of the National League of American Pen Women, self-described as “an organization of professional women artists, composers, and writers.” She was touted as “a woman of dynamic force, tempered with a keen sense of humor, and possessed of a delightful spirit of camaraderie.”
A New York City exhibit in 1931 featured Sally’s Payday, depicting four cowboys racing on horseback. Like many of her works, it demonstrated the artist’s uncanny ability to capture moments of intensity and excitement and freeze them in time. That same year, her rendition of Pegasus was displayed in Omaha at the Galleries of the Art Institute.
But not all of her works were of grand size or hurried action. In 1931, for her sister’s garden in Ogdensburg, she created a bronze sundial incorporating the figure of her sister with watering can in hand, performing the daily task of nourishing the plants.
In 1936, shortly before turning 67, Sally finished her last major work—a portrayal of beloved American humorist Will Rogers astride his horse, Soapsuds. Rogers had died a year earlier in a plane crash.
During the next several years, her life story was recounted occasionally in newspaper and magazines. Among her other works often mentioned was a sculpture of Father Junipero Serra, created in 1925 for the San Fernando Mission in Los Angeles. It can still be viewed there today.
In September 1941, at age 72, Sally was injured in a car accident near Schenectady, suffering head lacerations and a broken leg. Nearly a year later she remained in a wheelchair. Although full recovery was still anticipated, Sally died of pneumonia in April 1943.
Several months after her passing, the Savoy Art and Auction Galleries in New York City hosted a memorial exhibition of her work. Items not provided on loan were sold a week later.
Her most famous work, the Simon Bolivar statue in Central Park, has been the site of diplomatic events over the years, but the location has changed. In 1945, to honor Pan-American unity, Sixth Avenue was renamed the Avenue of the Americas. Venezuela paid New York City the cost ($218,400) of moving the sculpture, and in April 1951, Farnham’s creation was rededicated at the new Bolivar Plaza, where the avenue adjoins Central Park. Restoration work was performed in 1988, and the statue can still be viewed at that location today.
Some of her works are privately owned, but many of Sally’s creations can still be viewed in museums (for instance, the Frederic Remington Museum in Ogdensburg). To peruse an outstanding online collection of her work, which includes far more pieces than mentioned in this brief recounting of her life, visit Michael P. Reed’s website dedicated to honoring the career of Sally James Farnham, a great North Country artist. It’s definitely worth a look.
Photos: Sally James Farnham with bust of Herbert Hoover (pre-presidency), LOC photo; the Bolivar statue in Central Park (Wikipedia, by David Shankbone); Sally in the studio with the Bolivar statue (Delineator magazine, 1921); Farnham’s Payday statuette (Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville, OK)
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