At the pinnacle of his career, Charles Cary Rumsey died tragically in an automobile accident in 1922. Had he lived longer, his name might very well be among those best remembered for classical figure and animal sculptures transitioning into a modernist aesthetic. From his early showing at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 to securing mammoth public commissions with the architectural firm that built the New York Public Library and Manhattan Bridge, Rumsey was sought after as a sculptor whose work expressed the ideals of early 20th-century America. In addition to his art, Rumsey was also a consummate equestrian, representing the United States in the burgeoning sport of polo. Understanding his place in the cultural history of Western New York, New York City, and beyond is made possible by the resources at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, comprised of the largest collection of his sculptures and studies, as well as artifacts and archival materials that provide insights into his career. This exhibition illustrates different aspects of Charles Cary Rumsey’s life as an artist, World War I soldier, athlete, and descendant of two of the most influential families in Buffalo during the gilded age. Intriguing evidence uncovered by literary researcher Michael E. Workman, Ph.D. suggests parallels between Rumsey and the fictional character, Jay Gatsby, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. Fitzgerald may have been a boyhood friend during the few years his family lived in Buffalo, and the two knew each other as adults, after Rumsey moved to Long Island. Like Rumsey in real life, Gatsby in the novel was a Captain in the U. S. Cavalry who was on the front in France during World War I.
So who was Charles Cary Rumsey? He was surrounded by artistically talented and entrepreneurial leaders in both the Cary and the Rumsey families. To name just a few: his aunt, Evelyn Rumsey Cary (1855-1924), was a painter who encouraged women in the arts and designed the iconic Pan-American Exposition poster, The Spirit of Niagara. Her brother, his uncle Bronson Rumsey (1853-1946) was a wood carver who had business interests in leather, real estate, and estate management, was a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody and a co-founder of Cody, Wyoming, and was one of America’s first polo players. Uncle George Cary (1859-1945), an architect, designed the New York State Building for the Pan-American Exposition (the only permanent structure), as well as the Administration Building of the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. Rumsey’s sister, Evelyn Rumsey Lord (1877-1963), was an artist and educator who served as President of the Buffalo Society of Artists from 1931 to 1932, only to break with the traditional group to become one of the founders of the more free-thinking Patteran Society in 1933.
Rumsey’s ideal education included a teenage apprenticeship in Paris with the American expatriate sculptor Paul Weyland Bartlett (1865-1925), followed by studies at The Nichols School in Buffalo, Harvard University, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He returned to Paris to study at the Academies Julian and Colarossi, where his chief advisor was the famous animalier (animal sculptor) Emmanuel Fremiét (1824-1910), whose famous public sculptures include the gilded Fame with Pegasus that adorns the northeastern pylon of the Pont Alexandre III.
Rumsey married Mary Harriman (1881-1934) on May 26, 1910. They met after architect Thomas Hastings commissioned Rumsey to create sculpture for the Harriman home in 1909. The eldest daughter of the financier and railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman and Mary Averell, Mary Harriman gained great business experience as the executor of her father’s vast estate, which included Arden Farm’s Dairy and 45,000 acres of the Harriman farms in New York State’s Orange County. At Barnard College she majored in sociology and biology, and later was elected to the college’s board of trustees. In 1901 Mary Harriman organized the Junior League of the New York College Settlement, from which grew the National Association of Junior Leagues. Its members nurtured many programs to benefit society including “school gardens, free milk, district nursing and the teaching of domestic science.” Before she was married, one of her initiatives was helping tuberculosis patients from Brooklyn. In 1909 she brought them to the Erie Basin on an abandoned ferryboat called the Susquehanna so they could breathe fresh air under Red Cross supervision.
Both Mary Harriman and Charles Cary Rumsey shared a love of horses and arts patronage. They raised three children who carried forward family names: Charles Cary, Mary Averell Harriman, and Bronson Harriman. The Rumseys lived on a Wheatley Hills estate in Glen Head, Long Island. Charles and Mary were active in the New York art scene, including participation in the Armory Show of 1913. Known formally as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, this ground-breaking exhibition of approximately 1250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by more than 300 European and American artists is recognized as the introduction of modernism and objective abstraction to the United States. Rumsey’s “Indian and Buffalos” was exhibited in Gallery A for American Sculpture and Decorative Art among several “memorials and studies of Native Americans.” A photograph recently discovered by Laurette E. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, also shows The Source, a crouching male nude commissioned by Mrs. Payne Whitney (Helen Hay Whitney) for a fountain at Greentree, her estate in Manhasset, New York.
Rumsey’s tragic End of the Trail (1904) may have preceded James Earle Fraser’s version of the same subject. Both artists exhibited colossal plaster sculptures in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the international trade relations it facilitated. Rumsey showed a 19-ft. high equestrian Pizarro, while Fraser exhibited an 18-ft. high version of End of the Trail. They, among many other artists, were appalled by the plight of the Cherokee Nation forced from their ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma, as part of Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy in 1838 and 1839. The migration is known as the “Trail of Tears.”
Rumsey distinguished himself as a master of equine anatomy, as both a sculptor and rider. In 1917 he served as Captain of the Cavalry and in the following year he led troops in France. As a polo player, he rode with Averell Harriman, Thomas Hitchcock, Seymour Knox, Devereaux Milburn, Harrison Tweed, and Watson Webb. In 1922 Rumsey competed in preliminaries for the International Polo Cup as part of the U. S. team. He sculpted equestrian portraits of fellow team members, and he even created bronze portraits of famous race horses owned by Harry Payne Whitney, August Belmont, and Mary Harriman. The Wave metaphorically represents pre-war American optimism as powerful, rearing horses buck the men who try to tame them.
Rumsey’s most significant public commission was to design a frieze for the triumphal arch at the approach to the new Manhattan Bridge being built by Carrère and Hastings, Architects (best known for their 1898 New York Public Library). His carved stone frieze, The Buffalo Hunt (1910-16) is six feet high and forty feet long, set high in the Beaux-Arts structure, flanked by a colonnade. The Brooklyn side has pylons with sculptures representing New York and Brooklyn by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), whose colossal portrait of President Abraham Lincoln (1920) in Washington, DC is a national treasure. Rumsey’s figures and animals articulated in shallow space with deep shadows, resemble some of the Parthenon’s marble friezes of Ancient Greece. The Buffalo Hunt was carved in granite and installed over the western entrance arch on March 1916, seven years after the Manhattan Bridge was completed. It was considered “one of the crowning achievements” of the City Beautiful movement that sought to make bridges more aesthetically pleasing. Robert Moses wanted to demolish the entire plaza in 1961 when planning a Lower Manhattan Expressway, but public dissent prevented such austere action. In 1975, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated landmark status to The Manhattan Bridge Arch & Colonnade. It is National Historic Register #83001694.
In 1919 Rumsey competed for the design of a victory monument that would top a triumphal arch being designed by Thomas Hastings. His Winged Victory flanked by six horses and two plowmen did not win the commission. He then designed a different Nike motif as a monument to honor Jewish soldiers and sailors who lost their lives during World War I. The war veteran’s relief sculpture of Nike, the ancient Greek goddess of victory, was carved in limestone for this memorial situated in Zion Park in Brooklyn, known at the time as Brownsville. Rumsey had begun working in a style that suggested the advent of Art-Deco abstraction.
Charles Cary Rumsey also designed the decorative, poly-chromed cement friezes for the Isaac L. Rice Memorial Stadium in the early 1920s using the Olympic Games as his featured subject. The stadium was conceived in 1919 when Julia Rice offered the City of New York $1,000,000 to erect a recreational facility in memory of her late husband, Isaac Rice (1850-1915), who was a lawyer, financier and inventor. Rice Stadium was located in the southern end of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. In addition to Rumsey’s friezes, a limestone statue by Louis St. Lannes titled, American Boy, was installed on a pedestal at the top of the grandstand and covered by a canopy, seeming as if he stepped out of the frieze. Rice Stadium was razed in 1989, but in in 1938, Mary Harriman Rumsey, the artist’s widow, donated her husband’s plaster casts for the friezes to the University of Buffalo, where they were installed in Clark Gymnasium. They were removed in 1993, repaired, and as used as models to create bronze casts by the Casting Institute of the State University at Buffalo’s Art Department. The three bas-relief bronze sculptures were installed near Alumni Arena on the North Campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Other public bronze sculptures in Buffalo includes a 3/4-scale version of The Three Graces (Arden Fountain, 1911) in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Centaur (1914), which stands 13 feet high outside the Buffalo History Museum, debunks Greco-Roman mythology by representing the half-human/half-horse creature as a rider clutching his steed so closely that they appear united. [Look for the marble frieze of Rumsey creating the Centaur on the third metope left of the entrance.] A small version of Pizarro (circa 1914) sits in front of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery across the street. After Rumsey’s death, two mammoth bronze casts were presented to Trujillo, Spain, where Pizarro was born, and Lima, Peru, in front of the Governor’s Palace and near Pizarro’s grave.
At the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the exhibition examines Rumsey’s trajectory in life with a selection of his sculpture, archival objects, vintage photographs, his World War I military coat and helmet, and sculptor’s calipers inscribed with his name. Artifacts include items donated in recent years that have not been shown in public before. Together they provide a more detailed picture of Charles Cary Rumsey and the people he knew and loved, while opening up the avenue of inquiry into whether he might secretly be reflected in one of the most famous fictional characters in American literature. He was a socially connected, wealthy man who earned national respect for his art, military service, and athletic abilities—yet he yearned for more—to make his mark in the art world on a grand scale.
Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, organized the exhibition with assistance from Senior Preparator Patrick Robideau, Archivist Heather Gring, Registrar Robert Cutrona, Preparator Tom Holt, Curator Tullis Johnson, Facilities Manager Bill Menshon, SUNY Buffalo State’s museum studies students taking Nancy Weekly’s Curatorship class, interns, and Dr. Arlesa Shephard, Assistant Professor, Fashion & Textile Technology, SUNY Buffalo State.
General admission to the Burchfield Penney Art Center is free to Buffalo State students, faculty, staff, and Burchfield Penney members