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The Shocking Blue Hair Of Elie Nadelman

May 2024
13min read

He ignored the conventions of his day and became one of the greatest American sculptors of this century

I find myself sketching a top hat on a snapshot I’ve taken of a former pasha’s obituary photograph. I marvel at the resemblance between Abbas Hilmi II, the last Turkish ruler of Egypt, who died in exile in Geneva in 1944, according to the encyclopedia, and my grandfather Elie Nadelman’s painted bright-bronze sculpture Man in a Top Hat. The pasha, who was photographed in 1930, is not wearing a top hat, but his face, seen above a formal Western suit, is uncannily like the sculpture: a strong, aquiline nose; dark, piercing eyes under clearly defined, dark eyebrows; and a well-trimmed beard completely surrounding a mouth that is a barely visible straight line. I have found the yellowed obituary photo loosely filed in a scrapbook of black-and-white postcards of classical statuary that my grandfather kept in the upstairs library of his house in Riverdale, New York. The sculpture in question, made three years before the photograph, is not, to anyone’s knowledge, a portrait, but rather an imaginary or archetypal figure, like so many of Nadelman’s subjects. The artist was intrigued to find life imitating art, and he collected visual evidence to back up this regularly occurring phenomenon.

Nadelman was also fascinated by the connections among epochs and cultures and by modern-day manifestations that echoed the ancients. On the same bookshelves as the scrapbook there are illustrated volumes cataloguing German, French, and British collections of Greek terra-cottas, Near Eastern bronzes, and the like. Lodged in the pages are cut-out advertisements for bathing suits and corsets, and photos of plump chorus girls —all suffused with the smell of Plasticine from little pellets stuck to the pages. In his later years Nadelman would often sculpt in the library, one of the heavy tomes resting on a knee as he talked and modeled all at once, consulting his books and clippings for references. The pasha in formal Western attire is the embodiment of Nadelman’s notion of endowing Greek gods or heroes with modern-day attributes, or vice versa. Top hats and bowlers and bow ties for men, little pyramidal caps or buns and ribbons on women: these were the modern equivalents of archaic headgear and other adornments. Nadelman was fascinated by the correlations. By extension, generations of sculotors were linked.

I was born too late to know my grandfather, who lived from 1882 to 1946 and is now widely recognized as one of the finest American sculptors. When I evoke my first memories of that upstairs room, I see my frail and aging grandmother under a yellowish light, teaching me to play solitaire. My grandfather’s square worktable was in the room then, as it still is, but the house was in subdued disrepair at the time. It had a reputation as a haunted house, my brother and I were told by the neighborhood children on our summer visits. Lifelike sculptures with strong silhouettes perched on sheet-draped sofas, austere or bemused heads gazed out of windows, and in niches and alcoves marble and bronze nudes could be vaguely discerned. We ourselves eyed these sculptural presences with respect but spent most of our time in the kitchen with the eccentric Irish housekeeper.

At the time of his death, Nadelman’s house was full of unsold sculptures from most of the various artistic periods of his life.

Over the years, perhaps because of more and more frequent exposure to my grandfather’s sculpture, perhaps because his work seemed to be given a new lease on life when my family moved to the house in 1972 and made it a more hospitable place, I feel I have grown into a very natural understanding of the work and perhaps the man.

Nadelman was an individual as an artist, not remembered for ushering in or symbolizing any particular movement. During the 1930s and 1940s, with the arrival in this country of new groups of European modernists and the rise of abstraction, Nadelman, along with other artists whose reputations had been formed earlier, tended to be eclipsed, even neglected, in the market, the media, and the history books. At the time of his death, Nadelman’s house was full of unsold sculptures from most of the various artistic periods of his life. He had not shown his work in more than fifteen years, turning down requests from the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art to borrow early work for display in group exhibitions. To the Whitney Museum in 1944 he wrote, “If I break my silence, which I am planning to do in the near future, I must show my latest work, and I therefore prefer not to come out at this time with work done long ago, and already shown.” This work was never exhibited in his lifetime.

Fortunately, the past couple of decades have brought a loosening of the grip of abstraction on twentieth-century art as well as a willingness to reassess bygone careers. Nadelman has benefited. In 1973 Lincoln Kirstein, the art enthusiast and entrepreneur who co-founded the New York City Ballet, published a monograph on the artist that was instrumental in salvaging his reputation. The Whitney Museum held a major retrospective in 1975. High prices at auction have also played a part in bringing the artist to the public’s attention. In 1973 his painted cherry wood sculpture Tango, made about 1919, broke the auction record for an American sculpture at $130,000. In 1987 another version of that sculpture set a record again, this time selling for $2,800,000. The work entered the collection of the Whitney Museum, where it is currently on display.

Nadelman was born in Warsaw, Poland, the last of seven children, to an educated middle-class Jewish jeweler and his wife. They encouraged him in the liberal arts; he enjoyed singing, playing the flute, and, of course, art, which he pursued at Warsaw’s Gymnasium and High School of Liberal Arts. In 1900 he joined the Imperial Russian Army (Poles were, at the time, Russian subjects), receiving somewhat favored status as an educated volunteer. Among his primary duties, it seems, were providing flute and art lessons to the children of officers and making decorative paintings for the mess hall. On his return a year later to Warsaw, Nadelman attended the Warsaw Art Academy. In 1904, following in the tradition of Frédéric Chopin and many other Polish artists, he headed west. The trip began in Munich, where he came in contact with Jugendstil, the German form of Art Nouveau; the simplified and biting satirical drawings seen in intellectual and political magazines such as Simplicissimus and Jugend; the museums of classical art as well as of German folk art; and ideas about new directions for sculpture. Supplied with this new knowledge, he arrived in Paris six months later.

Nadelman began by frequenting the Louvre, taking in antique Greek sculpture such as Praxiteles’ marble Aphrodite, Michelangelo’s bound slaves, and probably the sixteenth-century French sculptor Germain Pilon’s funerary sculpture combining marble and bronze. Elements of each of these works turn up in Nadelman’s later work: a beautiful classical marble torso with just a touch of streamlined jauntiness; drawings of women posed with an arm above the head and another across the chest; and a unique tableau combining a figure cast in dark bronze and one carved of white marble. Like Rodin, Nadelman was enthralled by what had been accomplished in the sculpture of the past and searched for ways to perpetuate and advance tradition, rather than cut himself off from it.

In Paris Nadelman seems to have isolated himself for the first few years, as if “nourished … on plaster alone,” in the words of the French writer and critic André Gide. Out of this period he emerged with a sensibility very much of his own making and a good deal of confidence. Because he was not an artist who spent time discussing and debating in cafes, he may have missed out on or perhaps misunderstood some of the ideas that were prompting other artists’ work. While others were attempting to escape the Western tradition, he wanted to extract from it its pure essence; where others wanted to break down sculpture as it had been and re-piece it, he wanted to feel the tradition behind his own work. Nor did he question the traditional role of the medium as subservient to the artist. Rather than have marble, plaster, bronze, or wood dictate the kind of sculpture he was to make, he sometimes produced nearly identical pieces in each of these materials. He made them in small, medium, and large sizes to boot. When he could afford to, he would create them in multiples—even wooden pieces, which were fabricated with the help of studio assistants.

Nadelman saw nothing wrong with the idea of the sculptor as the head of a large, working atelier, filling the demand for sculpture as it arose. He didn’t worry about appearing more like a craftsman than a “genuine” artist, and he didn’t try to bring sculpture closer to painting. He did paint many of his works, though, in a time-honored sculptural tradition not much practiced at the time. Sometimes he ventured close to copying in his own borrowings from the Greeks, but that was the source of the excitement. A slightly exaggerated curve of the hips, a hat tilted ever so rakishly, facial features just on the knowing side of beauty, a hairstyle suited to modern urban life: all of these were backed up by a firm sense of sculptural form that was at once ancient and modern.


Not long after his arrival in Paris, Nadelman developed a following. Fellow Poles, the brothers Thadée and Alexandre Natanson, who had founded the Paris cultural journal La Revue Blanche and had been collectors of modern art since before 1900, became friendly with Nadelman and collected his work, as did the writer Octave Mirbeau, an early supporter of van Gogh.

Nadelman’s first one-man show, at the Galerie Druet in 1909, generated a great deal of excitement. Several related styles and subjects were in evidence, all in plaster: curvaceous nudes in relaxed yet classical poses; a coarser style of nude, large-hipped and small-headed with smooth joints; pseudoclassical heads formed of intersecting curves and concavities; and figure drawings in which careful, almost geometric plottings of curves and hatching created features and shading. Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, bought a revolutionary featureless head from the back room of the gallery.

One of the great controversies surrounding Nadelman’s sculpture developed from one of the styles in this show. Leo Stein is said to have taken Picasso to Nadelman’s studio in 1908, where they saw a head created from alternating curves. Picasso’s own bronze sculpted head of a year later, consisting of interpenetrating planes and curves, is credited with ushering in cubist sculpture. Whatever the truth of that, or of Picasso’s borrowing, the later claims by Nadelman that Picasso had stolen ideas about cubism and abstract art from him can be seen as a somewhat desperate effort simply to gain some credibility in a critical scene increasingly dominated by Picasso and other cubists. Nadelman may never have really understood cubism and its motivations, but he did know that a certain type of abstraction was at the root of his own figurative art. In one of the obligatory artist’s statements that were so ferociously defended in the atmosphere of the time, Nadelman wrote: “I employ no other line than the curve, which possesses freshness and force. I compose these curves so as to bring them in accord or opposition to one another. In that way I obtain the life form, i.e., harmony.” The French poet and art critic André Salmon wrote in 1914, “Let us not forget that Nadelman sacrificed everything to the relations of volumes a long time before the Cubists.”

Meanwhile, Nadelman was written about in various journals; he had shows in 1911 and 1913 in London, in Barcelona, and again in Paris; his work was represented at the Armory Show in New York. Most of these early shows sold out; every work in the 1911 London show was bought by Nadelman’s compatriot Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics princess, who decorated her salons with his elegant marble heads. Comments abound about Nadelman’s own physical beauty and “godlike” qualities, which must have tied him in people’s minds to his own work. He is said to have exuded self-confidence and charm, and he could discourse in Polish, Russian, German, French, and eventually English. Henri Matisse was driven to post a sign in his studio: DÉFENSE DE PARLER DE NADELMAN ICI (Do not speak of Nadelman here).


In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Nadelman attempted to join the Russian army but was told it would be impossible for him to make it across Europe. He went instead to London, then sailed very soon for the United States.

In New York Nadelman’s sculpture sold well, largely through the gallery Scott & Fowles, and here he seemed a willing participant in the social whirl to which his work gave him entrée. Frank Crowninshield, the editor of the old Vanity Fair, regularly printed illustrations of his new work in the magazine. He became friendly with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum, as well as with numerous other artists. He was invited to join various advanced artists’ societies, some of which he eventually would serve as an officer. He was depicted in a novel about the high bohemian art world by Henrietta Stettheimer and in paintings of the same world by her sister Florine. He was given portrait commissions and commissions for garden sculpture, and he hired studio assistants to help him fulfill some of these orders.

The Nadelmans amassed a vast collection of folk art, for which they built a museum on their Riverdale property.

In the late teens he began to model the smooth and simplified figures of society types on whom he could now legitimately draw a good bead. When he showed these figures in plaster, and later in wood, they created a minor furor. Whether this was because they may have seemed to mock their subjects or because they were painted is hard to tell. But Nadelman had some answers for his critics. In a 1917 letter to the New York World, he wrote: “I have exhibited some works whose subjects are dressed women as one sees them in everyday life.

“Well, the majority of the visitors on seeing the dressed women found them indecent and were so shocked that they removed them from their original place to a remote corner where they could not be seen. This fact is significant.” And in a 1919 newspaper interview he said, “Ah, the blue hair! you, too, question that blue, though you never think of questioning the glaring white of plaster or marble, nor the metallic glitter of bronze. …”

While Nadelman’s classic marble and bronze works sold in his lifetime, for the most part the plasters and woods depicting contemporary archetypes did not do well. These, of course, are the pieces for which he now seems most famous—among them the woman at the piano, the tango dancers, the high kicker, the orchestra conductor. Although they are often thought to have been influenced by his interest in American folk art, these sculptures began to appear as early as 1917, quite some time before he began collecting folk art. Furthermore, the prototypes often were modeled in plaster rather than carved, as folk sculpture would have been. The fact that they were produced in multiples does heighten their relation to dolls and mannequins, evidence of Nadelman’s interest in all forms of representing the human body—classical or not. He tended to paint these figures differently or to add varied details, such as bows, in order to give each its own character.

In 1920 Nadelman married Viola Spiess Flannery, a widow four years his senior who had two grown daughters. She was wealthy, classically educated, and knowledgeable about the arts. They bought a town house at 6 East Ninety-third Street, where the numeral 6, carved in stone in one of Nadelman’s purest curves, still attests to the family’s sojourn there. They also bought and restored a run-down house on sixteen acres in Riverdale, north of Manhattan.

Perhaps spurred on by a 1920 summer stay at the Gloucester, Massachusetts, home of Henry Sleeper, a prodigious collector of Americana, the Nadelmans began to collect folk art. Over the next few years they amassed a vast and important collection, for which they built and administered a museum on their Riverdale property. With their son, Jan (my father), born in 1922, sometimes various friends of his, and a retinue of servants in tow, they would take off on collecting trips to Europe or New England. From medieval wrought iron to Hungarian tablecloths to Pennsylvania Dutch chalkware pieces and New England ship figureheads, they would find a place for it and duly study and catalogue it.

The Nadelmans’ charmed life, it seemed, could not go on forever. Like so many others, they lost out in the Great Depression, their fortune dwindling away during the thirties to the point where even their one remaining house was threatened. As clients and commissions vanished, servants were let go, travel was curtailed, and the house in town was sold, as was much of their land in Riverdale. Perhaps because no one could believe he needed the help, Nadelman was never employed on any of the WPA projects created to help artists. Worst of all, he could not get institutional backing for the beloved folk art museum, so the collection was dismantled in 1937, dispersed to such places as the New-York Historical Society, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collection, and the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters.

Nadelman, who had become an American citizen in 1927, had his last one-man show in 1930 in Paris. He now lived a quiet, somewhat forgotten life out in Riverdale but never ceased working. For a while he had a kiln for working in terra cotta, and he began using different-colored glazes for sprightly color elements. All sorts of single and paired women, some of them seemingly fused together, or fused to their lapdogs, appeared in various small and moderate sizes and, occasionally, near life size. And he kept drawing—even on scraps of paper when nothing else was at hand. These were often ideas for sculpture, but also simply drawings done for their own sake. He worked for a time with papier-mâché on similar figures and finally with plaster figures he cast from molds he made himself.

In the forties, although Nadelman seems to have lost his taste for the art world, he continued to enjoy popular American culture. On the cook’s night out, according to his son and step-granddaughter, bags full of deli fare in hand, the family would go to the movies, where he would keep up a running commentary, to universal shushing. He regularly dressed up to go into town to his bridge club, where he played in the company of experts. He also quietly consulted a specialist about a heart condition. As all the young people grew up and left the house, he became a faithful correspondent, especially in wartime, dispatching witty, cheering reports and encouragement from the home front. His letters were in literate English, with certain regularly appearing misspellings. He insisted, for instance, on writing out my father’s training battalion as the “thank destroyers,” while the number three he spelled “tree.”


Although he gave money to Jewish relief organizations and was concerned about the plight of Jews in Europe during the war, he did not have a particularly strong Jewish identity. In a letter declining an invitation to a Jewish Appeal benefit dinner in 1939 (he may not have been able to afford it), he wrote: “I personally feel equally strongly for the victims of every race. … This is not an arbitrary statement. I am merely trying to be faithful to my own sense of duty to the people whom all my life I have lived among. …”

During the war Nadelman served in the Riverdale Air Warden Service, standing night and morning shifts and chiding those who didn’t take their duties seriously. Twice a week for two years he taught ceramics to wounded veterans in the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital’s occupational therapy division. He probably enjoyed this more than any art-school teaching he could have done, since he himself had never felt that art school would make an artist of anyone. Helping men regain dexterity probably seemed to him a more useful goal. His own fingers never ceased work until the day of his death, December 28, 1946.

I tend to bristle at references to my grandfather as a “recluse” in his later years; even in his youth, Nadelman never required or wanted much feedback from fellow artists. He never worried about the direction of artistic currents, and in the end he kept his own counsel. A passage Lincoln Kirstein found underlined in Nadelman’s copy of Pascal may shed some light on his seclusion: “We are so presumptuous that we wish to be known by the whole world, and even by those to come when we are gone; and we are so vain that we are both amused and satisfied by the fair opinion of five or six people we happen to know.”

The work Nadelman produced in his period of public invisibility is as strong and characteristic—even as shocking—as that of his earlier period. There is, of course, less commentary in the public record. But there are advantages to the clean slate. It puts new generations in a position to discover the artist for themselves. And so adept was this artist at fusing the past and the present that it seems altogether fitting that he should have dronned from sieht to re-appear decades later, in the playful and triumphant pose of his orchestra conductor or acrobat.


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