Mears, Helen Farnsworth (1872–1916)

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Mears, Helen Farnsworth (1872–1916)

American sculptor . Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on December 21, 1872; died in New York City on February 17, 1916; the youngest of three daughters of John Hall Mears (a dealer in farm implements) and Mary Elizabeth (Farnsworth) Mears (a poet, essayist, and playwright, who had published a book of poetry under the name Nellie Wildwood); attended Oshkosh public schools and Oshkosh State Normal School; briefly attended the Art Students League, New York City; apprentice to Augustus Saint-Gaudens; studied sculpture under Frederick MacMonnies in Paris; studied abroad with Alexander Charpentier and Denys Puech; never married; no children.

The youngest of three sisters, all of whom pursued artistic careers (Mary Mears as a writer and Louise Mears as a book illustrator), Helen Mears was apparently predisposed at a young age to become a sculptor. Although information about her is limited, anecdotal accounts have survived recounting her ability as a baby to bite her pieces of bread into the shapes of horses and dogs. When she grew a little older, she was said to have fashioned clay portraits of the neighbors, some of them embarrassingly accurate. Apparently, Mears' talent was recognized by her father, who saw to it that she received the proper training in anatomy and was outfitted with tools and a suitable place to work.

At age 20, Mears received her first commission: a statue of a woman and a winged eagle entitled Genius of Wisconsin, for the Wisconsin Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Mears traveled to Chicago to work on the nine-foot marble piece, which was executed at a studio in the Art Institute, where she met and was encouraged by the sculptor Lorado Taft. The work was widely acclaimed and was later installed in the Wisconsin State Capital. With an additional fee of $500 that she won from the Woman's Club of Wisconsin, Mears traveled to New York City. After briefly studying at the Art Students League, she became an apprentice to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, working in his studio for several years. With his encouragement and with the help of a wealthy Milwaukee patron, Alice Chapman , Mears was able to spend a year studying abroad with sculptors Alexander Charpentier and Denys Puech.

Mears returned to New York in 1899 and set up a studio in Washington Square which she shared with her sister Mary. Although small in stature, Mears continued to tackle large-scale projects, including a full-length statue of Frances E. Willard (1905) for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Other commissions, smaller in scale, included portrait bas-reliefs of Saint-Gaudens (Peabody Institute, Baltimore) and Edward MacDowell (replica in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a bust of George Rogers Clark for the Milwaukee Public Library, and a bust of Dr. William T.G. Morton for the Smithsonian Institution. Although not viewed as an innovator, Mears was respected among her contemporaries for her energy, artistic integrity, and superb skills.

Mears' masterpiece was an ambitious, three-panel bas-relief Fountain of Life, which won medals in several competitions. The work, Grecian in mood, represented a change of direction for the sculptor and may have reflected her desire to vary and expand her form of expression. Another bas-relief, Portrait of My Mother, which won honorable mention at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915, appears to owe a compositional indebtedness to James Whistler.

Helen Mears died unexpectedly on February 17, 1916, at age 43, of pulmonary edema. Among a number of works left unfinished at her death was the portrait of a laborer, The End of Day, a piece that was never permanently cast. In 1927, the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs honored the sculptor by establishing an art competition for schoolchildren in her memory.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts