The Legacy of Chicago Sculptor Lorado Taft

The Legacy of Chicago Sculptor Lorado Taft

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.
The name Lorado Taft may not ring many bells today. But in the early 1900s, he was a renowned Chicago artist. On the 150th anniversary of Taft’s birth, Eight Forty-Eight contributor Robert Loerzel has this report on the sculptor’s legacy.

University of Illinois Archives

Chicago is home to some heavy-duty sculpture. Take “The Bean” —it’s 110 tons. And the Daley Center Picasso weighs in at 162 tons. But if you’re looking for some impressive old-fashioned sculpture—something that was actually carved or molded—check out “The Fountain of Time.”

Music: Scott Joplin, “Original Rags for Piano” performed by William Albright

You’ll find it just west of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, at the western end of the Midway Plaisance. The artist who created it was Lorado Taft.

POHLAD: He’s probably the most famous artist that Chicago has produced.

Mark Pohlad teaches art history at DePaul University.

POHLAD: He really was the art scene in Chicago for a great long time.

Standing beside the sculpture, he says Taft got the idea for “The Fountain of Time” after reading a poem by Henry Austin Dobson.

POHLAD: “Time goes, you say? Ah, no. Alas, time stays. We go.”

The image came to Taft in a flash: Father Time watches silently, as humanity marches along.

POHLAD: He thought this would kind of be his magnum opus. And so it took him 14 years to complete this, working with an army of quote-unquote associates. It’s the largest group of sculpture on a single base in the United States.

At the southeast corner of Washington Park, Father Time stands 26 feet tall, gazing out over a shallow pool of water. On the other side, a hundred human figures march along. They form a single mass that spans more than 120 feet. That’s twice as wide as “The Bean.” Taft and his team of sculptors made it all out of plaster, then molded it in concrete and coated the surface with pieces of quartz gravel. “The Fountain of Time” was unveiled in 1922. But in the decades after that, the concrete deteriorated.

Music: Scott Joplin, “The Favorite, ragtime two-step for piano” performed by William Albright

COOK : It was crumbling, and there had been very poor repairs made. Patches. You couldn’t even tell some of the detail — the facial features and everything.

Hyde Park resident Melissa Cook is a fan of Lorado Taft’s sculptures. And she was thrilled to see “The Fountain of Time” get a facelift in 2002. That’s when the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District finished a $1.2 million restoration.

COOK: Andrzej Dajnowski did a fantastic job of figuring out the color that it was supposed to be — and just really bringing it back, back to life.

“The Fountain of Time” isn’t the only Taft sculpture in Chicago. “The Fountain of the Great Lakes” is in the Art Institute’s south courtyard, facing Michigan Avenue. “The Solitude of the Soul” is inside the Art Institute.

COOK: It reminds me of a bit of Rodin. It’s trying to show that we’re really all alone. Each of the figures, none of them are looking eye to eye. They’re all looking outward.

And in Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s north side, Taft’s statue of a crusader guards the grave of Chicago Daily News publisher Victor Lawson. A shrouded figure called “Eternal Silence” stands at the tomb of Dexter Graves.

POHLAD: I think what fascinates people about that is the face is black. And it looks very spooky, very haunting. And people have said they’ve seen the eyes turn red or something. It’s a real hit around Halloween.

Taft himself was such a hit in his day that architect Daniel Burnham tapped him for the World’s Columbian Exposition. In 1893, near the same location as the “Fountain of Time,” Taft made numerous plaster sculptures for the Midway.

Music: Reginald R. Robinson, “Petunia Rag”

POHLAD: The story is he had asked Burnham, who was in charge of the fair, more or less, if he could hire women to carry out some of these sculpture themes that were supposed to be done in a great hurry. And apparently Burnham said, “I don’t care if you hire white rabbits to do that work.”

So Taft hired women to help him, and they called themselves “The White Rabbits.”

Even with such a vast and prominent body of work, Taft’s fame itself was not cast in stone. Mark Pohlad explains.

POHLAD: Taft truly was a victim of changing tastes and directions in the contemporary art world.

Music: Fats Waller; John Jacob Loeb, “Sweetie Pie,” performed by Fats Waller and His Rhythm

POHLAD: Taft couldn’t abide some of the distortions of modern art. People never seemed to quite forgive him for that. And sadly, that’s what people have focused on. He seemed to embody the silver-haired, conservative white-male artist who could not quite keep up with the younger generation.

Despite Taft’s reputation as a retrograde artist, he began sculpting more abstract forms in his later years, including “The Fountain of Time.”

POHLAD: These works are realistic, and they are true to the human body. Taft wouldn’t have had it in any other way. But it is the case that these figures are getting more general and more abstract, more expressive in the later part of Taft’s career.

In the early 1900s, Taft began dreaming up big plans for the Midway Plaisance.

Music: Joe Young; Milton Ager, “Dream Man (Make Me Dream Some More),” performed by Fats Waller and His Rhythm

He talked about putting up a hundred statues of history’s greatest thinkers — people like the Buddha and Johann Sebastian Bach. He began working on a “Fountain of Creation” for the eastern end of the Midway. Pohlad says the statue was based on a Greek myth.

POHLAD: This is pretty obscure, actually. It’s a Greek deluge myth: Doucalion and Pyrrha, after floating in their ark for nine days, throw stones behind them, which are actually the bones of the earth. And these spring up as a new race of humans.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about Taft’s grandiose scheme.

POHLAD: Even Burnham, as he looked at the entire plan for the Midway, said that it was a little too poetic.

When Taft died in 1936, he was still working on “The Fountain of Creation.” Four fragments of it, carved in limestone, now sit on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.

POHLAD: These are figures that are emerging from rock, becoming human. They’re very gnarly and wonderful, and as progressive as just about anything being produced at the time.

Even as Lorado Taft’s fame has faded, Melissa Cook says his art has endured. She reads one of her favorite quotations by Taft.

COOK : “One thing that separates us from our brother animals is the fact that we can send messages down through the generations. We can send greetings to a world unborn.”

Music: Bernard Maltin; Harry Stride; Joe Young, “Because of Once Upon a Time,” performed by Fats Waller and His Rhythm

COOK : “The means by which this is done is art. Through poetry and painting and sculpture, life begins to explain itself.“