Scudder, Janet (1869–1940)

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Scudder, Janet (1869–1940)

American sculptor who created a genre of garden sculptures and fountains that became highly popular in the United States. Name variations: Netta Deweze Frazee Scudder. Born Netta Deweze Frazee Scudder (also wrongly seen as Netta Dewee Frazer Scudder) on October 27, 1869, in Terre Haute, Indiana; died of lobar pneumonia on June 9, 1940, in Rockport, Massachusetts; daughter of William Hollingshead Scudder (a confectioner) and Mary (Sparks) Scudder; studied drawing at Rose Polytechnic Institute and Colarossi Academy; studied anatomy, drawing, and modeling at Cincinnati Academy of Art.

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1869, Janet Scudder was born Netta Deweze Frazee Scudder, the third daughter and one of seven children of confectioner William Hollingshead Scudder and Mary Sparks Scudder . In what she would later describe as a "sad and dismal" childhood, her mother died when Scudder was five, and her father's remarriage was to a woman with whom she did not get along. A self-described roughneck, Scudder "could skin a cat, hang by my toes…. As for skating on ice in moonlight, no one could outdistance me." Her independent streak was reinforced by the loss of several more family members; her grandmother, who was credited with inspiring Scudder's first artistic awakening, died a few years after her mother had, and her father and favorite brother died before she turned 21.

Although not particularly interested in Longfellow's poetry when she was a child, Scudder was drawn to the illustrations she found in two volumes of his works. "[S]he became enchanted by the pictures," notes Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, "and copied a Viking in full armor hundreds of times on scraps of old, used envelopes. When the house caught fire, she was seen lugging the two heavy volumes down the burning steps."

In addition to attending Terre Haute public schools, Scudder began advancing her talents in Saturday drawing classes at Rose Polytechnic Institute. The director there recognized Scudder's passion for art and convinced her impoverished father to find the money to send her to the Cincinnati Academy of Art, which she began attending at age 18. During her time in Cincinnati, where she changed her name from the unwieldy "Netta Deweze" to "Janet," she studied anatomy, drawing, and modeling. With encouragement from the sculptor Louis Rebisso, Scudder considered a career as a woodcarver, and she contributed to her tuition with sales of her carved wooden mantlepieces. After finishing her academy training, she moved to Chicago to live with her eldest brother. There, she found a job as a woodcarver in a factory. The union, however, did not permit women to become members, and she was forced out of the job, despite her adeptness as a carver.

There were others, though, who were willing to hire a woman with Scudder's abilities. Chicagoans were busily preparing for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, among them sculptor Lorado Taft and his chief architect. When told by Lorado to hire some women to help with sculptures for a display in front of the Horticulture Building, his architect reportedly replied that he would hire "anyone who could do the work … white rabbits if they will help out." Scudder became one of a group of women, known as Taft's "white rabbits," who assisted him in enlarging sculptures from scaled models. Several in the

group would emerge as leading women sculptors, including Bessie Potter Vonnoh , Enid Yandell, Julia Bracken , and Caroline Brooks . Also among Taft's assistants was his sister, painter Zulime Taft ; it would not be long before she and Scudder became traveling companions.

The exposition proved to be an important event in Scudder's life. In part thanks to Lorado, she was commissioned to create her own statues for the exposition's Illinois and Indiana buildings. Perhaps of even more consequence for her future, she observed Frederick MacMonnies supervising the installation of a monumental fountain in the Court of Honor; though she was too shy to approach him at the time, Scudder decided that she had to study with him. Following the exposition, she traveled with Zulime to Paris in late 1893 with a letter of introduction to MacMonnies. Initially rebuffed by him, she knocked on the door of his studio and was persuasive enough that she became one of his life drawing and modeling students. She was soon one of his assistants.

Her work with MacMonnies also provided instruction in modeling in low relief, an art which Scudder would later employ in her medallion work. Their professional relationship was cut prematurely short, however, by the jealousy of another MacMonnies assistant, who erroneously reported to Scudder that MacMonnies was unhappy with her work. Without waiting to discuss the matter with him, Scudder left for New York in 1894. Years later, she learned that the story had been completely false, and that MacMonnies, who in fact regarded Scudder as his finest assistant, had been both hurt and puzzled by her abrupt departure.

In New York, Scudder lived in poverty until a wealthy fellow art student, Matilda Brownell , saw to it that her father used his influence to get Scudder a commission designing the New York Bar Association's seal. From that job came others, and she designed architectural ornaments, portrait medallions, and funeral monuments. By 1896, she was earning enough of a living to return to Paris. Through MacMonnies, the Luxembourg Museum purchased some of her medallions.

A trip to Italy in the late 1890s laid the groundwork for a turning point in Scudder's artistic efforts. There, she viewed Donatello's cherubs as well as decorative statues located in the gardens of Roman villas. These works influenced her decision to create decorative sculptures, lighthearted in nature, which were designed to elicit pleasure and amusement. On her return to Paris, she used a street urchin as the model for one of her most famous works, FrogFountain (1901). This bronze statue featured a small boy playing in water which was shot from the mouths of three frogs. In 1899, Scudder returned to New York where her Frog Fountain earned the notice of prominent American architect Stanford White, who bought the statue and advised Scudder to make only four copies. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired one of these copies, and commissions for statuary for the gardens of the Rockefellers, Pratts, McCormicks and other millionaires followed.

Scudder returned to Paris in 1909. Her success continued with an honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1911 for her Young Diana, and in 1913 she had a solo exhibition in New York. In her only architectural creation, she designed an Italian villa for a friend in Maine. The home she bought at Ville d'Avray outside Paris in 1913 provided her with a garden in which she could properly view her works in progress.

Concerned with women's rights, Scudder participated in the art committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She designed a sculpture of a woman (dancer Irene Castle was the model) intended for a victory fountain in Washington, D.C., to pay tribute to the suffrage movement. This work, however, was never installed.

During World War I, she returned to New York to help organize the Lafayette Fund, which raised money to aid French soldiers. Scudder also continued doing her own work and in 1915 exhibited ten pieces at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where she won a silver medal. When the United States entered the war, she returned overseas, working first with the YMCA (she turned her house in Ville d'Avray over to the organization) and later with the Red Cross. For her efforts in wartime, the French government made Scudder a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1925. The same year, her autobiography, Modeling My Life, was published.

After the war, she lived for the next 20 years at Ville d'Avray. Her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan described Scudder as "tall and stooped a little … rather sentimental and very generous." Her whimsical garden works, for which she is most remembered, set a standard for a style of sculpture that became highly popular in the United States. Scudder's later works took on a more serious tone, and she developed an interest in painting which led to a New York exhibition in 1933. After World War II broke out, she returned to America and soon died of lobar pneumonia in Rockport, Massachusetts, in 1940, at age 70.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

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, 1980.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present. Avon, 1982.

suggested reading:

Scudder, Janet. Modeling My Life, 1925.

David Paul Clarke , freelance writer, Bethesda, Maryland