Marian Anderson sculpture is full of historic significance


February 18, 2011|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • A bronze sculpture of mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson, on display at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, was made by the Romanian-born American sculptor Nicolaus Koni.
Submitted photo

"Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years," so exclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini when he heard mezzo-soprano Marian Anderson (1897-1993) sing in 1935.  

A bronze sculpture of Anderson, now on exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, was made by another admirer, the Romanian-born American sculptor Nicolaus Koni (1911-2000), who had heard her sing many times.

Koni emphasized Andersons' high cheekbones and heavy eyebrows, giving the bronze sculpture a rich brown patina, or finish. Most significantly, he sculpted her with her eyes closed, communicating to the viewer the full intensity of her music-making.

Koni sculpted virtually every famous person of his lifetime. He called this sculpture "an interpretation of Marian Anderson singing ‘Death and the Maiden' by Austrian composer Franz Schubert." Perhaps Anderson sang it to him in Vienna while she was sitting for her portrait, from which he made sketches, then a clay model and finally, a casting in bronze.

The song, "Death and the Maiden," recalls popular medieval images emphasizing the shortness of life. In these medieval paintings and prints, influenced by the series of plagues that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, a skeleton embraces a lovely young woman, ready to capture her in his arms. Schubert's interpretation of the theme, written in 1817, is alternately dirge-like and frenetic-mournful because the singer knows that life can be abruptly cut short.

Anderson was born and raised in poverty in Philadelphia, and her talent was recognized early.

She was denied entrance to a local music school because she was black, but Philadelphia music societies awarded her scholarships for study in the United States and abroad.

She began concert tours throughout the American eastern and southern states, but performed primarily for black audiences.

To further develop her career, she went to Europe, where skin color was not an issue, and Koni was among many who were swept away by her voice.

A self-taught artist in many mediums, Koni had studios in Austria and England before he moved in 1941 to the United States.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he settled in Long Island and Palm Beach, Fla., where he continued to work until his death.

In 1939, on the basis of her glowing reputation, the impresario Sol Hurok attempted to book her for a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

The Daughters of the American Revolution who owned the hall, refused, citing rules that no person of color could use the hall.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned from the DAR in protest and arranged with the Department of the Interior that Anderson would sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This concert took place on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, before an audience of 75,000.

Anderson went on to perform at New York's Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, eventually Washington's Constitution Hall (where she insisted that the racist rule be lifted), the Metropolitan Opera and the White House.

In 1955, Nicolaus Koni had his first-ever extensive museum exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts with 51 sculptures, including that of Marian Anderson.

Mary Karasick (1888-1985) of New York, a prominent art patron and painter, bought the portrait and gave it to the museum, encouraged by director Bruce Etchison (1918-2009).

The gift made headlines in the newspapers of Hagerstown as well as New York. Later, Koni made another bronze cast of the famous portrait for permanent placement at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City.

The year the museum acquired the Marian Anderson portrait — 1955 — could hardly have been more significant.

A year before, the Supreme Court had ruled against segregation in all U.S. schools in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

 In December 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, where "colored" passengers were supposed to sit. Thus began the series of sit-ins and court decisions that, had they taken place earlier, would have made all the difference in Anderson's life and career.

The bronze portrait assumes a prominent place in the memorial exhibition at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts honoring Bruce Etchison's years as director (1950-1964) and his own achievements as a studio artist.

The exhibition and thus the portrait will be on view until Sunday, April 24.

Elizabeth Johns, PhD, lives in Hagerstown. She is professor emerita of art history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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