When Manhattan’s landmark Helmsley Building—then called the New York Central Building—first opened in 1929, the influential art critic Royal Cortissoz called the sculpted clock over its facade “one of the most conspicuous sculptural decorations ever erected in the city.”1 Almost a century later, tourists still stop to photograph it. Yet few of them would recognize the name of its designer, Edward McCartan. Born August 20, 1879, McCartan rose to the height of his profession—only to fall into obscurity as artistic trends swerved away from his style of romantic, representative sculpture. Now, 140 years later, it’s time to reassess this great American artist.
McCartan showed a youthful aptitude for sculpting, and as a teenager he began studying under the influential artist Herbert Adams.2 His first significant commission, a statue of Benito Juarez for the city of Monterey, Mexico, came when he was twenty-nine, and the pay enabled him to travel to Paris, where he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts. It was the height of the Belle Époque—that period preceding World War I during which sculptors were shifting from the stiff formalism of such craftsmen as Augustus St. Gaudens toward a more dramatic, even lush style typified by Auguste Rodin. The art they created would be named Beaux Arts after the school McCartan attended. . . .
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1. Royal Cortissoz, “The Field of Art,” Scribners, February 1928, 236.
2. Janice Conner et al., Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893–1939 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 113.
3. Cortissoz, “The Field of Art,” 242.
4. Barry Faulkner, “Edward McCartan,” in Commemorative Tributes of the American Academy of Arts and Letters 1942–1951 (New York: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1951), 71.