A Minnesota boy makes it in the Big Apple
St. Paul-born sculptor Paul Manship created one of the nation's most recognizable public sculptures: the soaring, golden Prometheus that adorns Rockefeller Center. Built in 1929, Rockefeller Center was meant to symbolize the hope that the United States would rebound from the economic hardships of the Depression. Paul Manship was at the top of his game when he received the commission for Prometheus in 1934, and his gravity-defying interpretation of the Titan who gave mankind the gift of fire captured the optimism that Rockefeller Center's backers hoped to present to their troubled nation.
Paul Manship was something of a golden boy himself. He dropped out of St. Paul's Mechanic Arts High School at fifteen and enrolled in the St. Paul School of Art. Always a doodler, he intended to pursue a career as a painter. But he was color-blind and thus turned to sculpture.
By the time he was nineteen, Manship had saved enough money from his work as a freelance illustrator to move to New York, where he embarked on a series of apprenticeships with the era's well-known sculptors. In 1909, at age twenty-three, he became the youngest sculptor ever awarded the coveted American Prix de Rome, which funded a three-year study trip through Italy and Greece. In Europe, especially after focusing on form in the work of ancient sculptors, Manship found his artistic voice. He developed a streamlined, linear style that broke with what he had learned from his American mentors. When he returned to the United States, his work drew broad critical acclaim, and he soon became the toast of the New York art world.
Fame is fleeting, of course. Manship enjoyed several decades in the limelight and completed some 700 works. In the 1940s, though, Manship's style fell out of favor. He became just a footnote in art history textbooks until the 1980s, when his works were favorably reevaluated. As historian William Stott wrote in the catalog for a 1985 centenary exhibit of Manship's works at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, "Paul Manship, feeling mortal, wrote in 1943, 'I am always fearful that the old reptuation will slump.'...On his hundredth birthday Manship can sleep easy. Reputation is fickle, but competent sculpture has a long half-life; his time has been and gone, and is coming."
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