Elie Nadelman

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Elie Nadelman

Elie Nadelman (1882-1946), the Polish-American sculptor and graphic artist, evolved a highly distinctive sculptural style by abstracting human forms and stressing the curvilinear interplay of contours.

Elie Nadelman, born in Warsaw, was the seventh child of cultivated parents who encouraged their children to take an interest in the arts and philosophy. His studies at the Art Academy in Warsaw were interrupted by a year of military service. He returned to Warsaw in 1901 and then went to Cracow, but he realized that art in his native land was provincial and that he must leave to learn.

The following year Nadelman went to Munich, where he saw the drawings of the English Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. These highly stylized works undoubtedly influenced Nadelman. He responded to Beardsley's elegant patterning and curvilinear invention but rejected his eroticism and fin-de-siècle posturing. Nadelman was deeply impressed by the archaic Greek sculpture in the museums; it was the first original ancient classical art he had seen, and its impact was lasting. He also took delight in German folk sculpture and Meissen figurines. It was as if these early influences merged in forming a style for Nadelman that was classical in spirit but not heroic, playful but never trivial.

After spending 6 months in Munich, Nadelman went to Paris. His first sculptures suggest those of Auguste Rodin, but by 1905 he had steered away from the French master's impressionistic concepts and toward forms defined by sweeping contours that assumed a detached, coolly geometric aspect. Nadelman began his research by making many drawings. In them, and later in his sculptures, he attempted to reduce the human figure to a complex of arcs. The titles he gave all his sculptures executed between 1905 and 1915 best characterize the spirit and nature of the work: Research in Volume and Accord of Forms.

Nadelman's one-man show of 1909 in Paris was a great success, critically and financially, although the swaggering, svelte nudes and neoclassicistic marble heads, which seemed so novel then, appeared mannered and dated later. In 1910 Nadelman wrote that true form is abstract, that is, composed of geometrical elements. "Here is how I realize it," he volunteered. "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 of form, i.e. harmony."

In 1911 Nadelman had a one-man show in London. Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetician, bought everything in it. Reportedly at her invitation, Nadelman went to America in 1914. The following year he had a one-man show at Alfred Stieglitz's "291" gallery. Man in the Open Air, shown at this time, is, like most of the work that followed, severely stylized, with the elegance of a superior store mannikin.

Nadelman made spirited animal pieces and employed color in his figures in wood, terra-cotta, and papiermâché. He did a series of plaster figures during the 1930s and 1940s in the manner of Tanagra figures. Two sets of his papiermâché figures were enlarged and placed in the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, New York City.

Further Reading

Lincoln Kirstein, The Sculpture of Elie Nadelman (1948), is the catalog of his 1948 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. It is scholarly and well illustrated, but it tends to be effusive. □

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NADELMAN, ELIE (1882–1946), U.S. sculptor. Nadelman, who was born in Warsaw, studied art there and in Cracow. He lived in extreme poverty in Paris for some years, but his first one-man show in 1909 was a triumph. His work at this time was mainly influenced by classical Greek art, but certain drawings and pieces of sculpture hinted at a search for a new direction. Andre Gide wrote in his Journal (1909): "Nadelman draws with a compass and sculpts by assembling rhombs. He has discovered that each curve of the human body is accompanied by a reciprocal curve opposite it and corresponding to it." Nadelman, who regarded himself as the father of cubism, resented his not being recognized as such. He made his way to the U.S. early in World War i, and had his first American one-man show in New York at the end of 1915. Over the years Nadelman became very successful with his fashionable, witty portrait busts. Nadelman and his wealthy wife assembled one of the finest collections of American folk art. The depression of the 1930s, however, brought a change in his fortunes and after 1932 he was virtually forgotten. He spent his last years doing voluntary occupational therapy at the Bronx Veterans' Hospital and making sentimental little plaster figures for mass reproduction. Nadelman was rediscovered when in 1948, two years after his death, the New York Museum of Modern Art, in collaboration with the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, mounted a memorial exhibition of his work. This revealed him as an important sculptor, remarkable for the supple languor of his marble heads, his translations of folk art, and his comments on human foibles.


L. Kirstein, Sculpture of Elie Nadelman (1948), includes bibliography; idem, Elie Nadelman, Drawings (1949).

[Alfred Werner]

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Elie Nadelman (ā´lē näd´əlmən), 1882–1946, Polish-American sculptor, b. Warsaw. He spent some time in Paris and is said to have influenced Picasso. Before he settled (1914) in the United States his work was exhibited in New York City at the Armory Show in 1913. His gracefully rounded sculptures, most often in wood or metal, have a smooth, often witty simplicity and a suavely elegant charm that have sometimes been likened to sophisticated versions of folk art, which he avidly collected. Nadelman also worked in marble, cast plaster and papier-mâché, glazed ceramic, a form of electroplating, and other media. Probably his most famous bronze is Man in the Open Air (c.1915; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City), an urbane figure clad only in a small bow tie and bowler hat, in a jaunty pose slightly reminiscent of classical antiquity. Nadelman was comparatively unknown until interest in him was revived by a retrospective exhibition (1948) at the Museum of Modern Art. His reputation was again enhanced by another retrospective (2003) at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art.

See biography by L. Kirstein (1973).