A powerful work of unusual poignancy by the great American animal sculptor Arthur Putnam. Sculpted a year before the operation to remove a brain tumor that paralyzed him and effectively ended his career, the sculpture portrays the animal in what appears to be its death agony. The scene of its death is a tarpit: one can see some of its limbs already swallowed up in the mire as, roaring, it struggles with all its strength to extricate itself. Tragic, cruel and beautiful, and consciously or not, a clear projection of the artist’s own feelings about the threat he was confronting in his own life. Bronze measures 4.5″ wide at the base, 10.5″ long and 4″ high. Patina is consonant with age of the piece.
The La Brea tar pits ecological argument (from Wikipedia, re saber tooth tigers and the tarpits)
The Tar Pits in 1910; there are oil derricks in the background
One of the most abundant sources of machairodont fossils in one locality is the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. This rich fossil bed was at one time a pool of thick tar, or asphalt, covered by water to form a small lake. When animals took a drink, they occasionally wandered into the lake, as seen in modern species to soothe skin or sometimes to relieve themselves of parasites, but their feet were caught in the tar, and with each step to try to free themselves, with one foot pulled up out of the tar, the other three sank deeper. The pits did not kill an animal immediately. They could remain there for days before they died of starvation or shock. In the meantime, vocalizations and struggling attracted predators to the pits, which got themselves stuck as well. The La Brea tar pits are known as a predator trap for this reason. One stuck bison could attract a multitude of predators before expiring. In the pits, predators outnumber prey nine to one.
La Brea Tar Pits fauna as depicted by Charles R. Knight
The machairodont Smilodon, with 13,000 specimens from some 2,000 individuals recovered, is one of the most abundant fossils in the La Brea tar pits, second to the dire wolf which is represented by 200,000 fossils representing 4,000 individuals. Smilodon was always regarded as a solitary species. The depictions of animals were like vultures to recent carcasses, with lone animals congregating on a kill and fighting over the remains with a gaping show of teeth. The idea that Smilodon lived a solitary life and found a dying animal caught in a tar pit and congregated, one by one, would suggest a very high number of predators in relation to prey.
Putnam was born on September 6, 1873, in Waveland, Mississippi, whilst his family was traveling. He had an older brother, George, born in New Orleans, and a younger sister, Clara Elizabeth, born in Mississippi. Their father, Oramel Hinkley Putnam (1841–1880), was a civil engineer from Vermont and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Oramel Putnam was a railroad worker, and the family frequently relocated during the sculptor’s early years. The Putnams eventually settled in Omaha, Nebraska, for an extended time whilst Putnam was growing up; Putnam enjoyed drawing animals and modeling them in clay during this period. He experienced a serious accident as a child, falling forty feet out of a tree and receiving a head injury. In 1899 Putnam married and moved permanently to San Francisco, working primarily as a sculptor of architectural commissions following his arrival.
In San Francisco, Putnam was friends with artist and stained glass designer Bruce Porter (1865–1943) and the tonalist painter Gottardo Piazonni (1872–1945); these friendships would help sustain the sculptor in the future. He shared a studio with sculptor Earl Cummings (1876–1936), and Piazzoni at 8 Montgomery Street (part of the Montgomery Block, where a number of other artists and bohemians lived). Literary figures such as Jack London (1876–1916) and George Sterling were known to visit the studio. Putnam worked with progressive painters like Maynard Dixon (1875–1946), Matteo Sandona (1881–1964), and Xavier Martínez (1869–1943), all of whom left the San Francisco Art Association and formed the California Society of Artists with Piazzoni and Putnam. The breakaway group organized a single exhibition that was held at Charles Peter Neilson’s studio in 1902. Neurological problems which began in 1909 led to the removal of a brain tumor in 1911. As a result of the operation, Putnam was paralyzed on his left side and his formal perceptions were impaired.
Panama-Pacific International Exposition
Putnam’s contribution to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held February 4 to December 15, 1915, was a mermaid situated in a fountain designed by architect Arthur Brown, Jr. The mermaid was not representative of the sculptor’s earlier work; Putnam had been significantly hampered by a stroke caused by the 1911 surgery. Included in the fair’s exhibition galleries was a case containing a selection of Putnam’s bronze sculptures, whilst his bronze group, The Puma and the Snake, was on exhibit in another gallery. The bronze group, which was in the fair’s competition for honors, generated positive reviews, with Neuhaus writing that “Arthur Putnam, whose case of animal sculpture is attracting most keen attention, a man for whom the word genius hardly seems too weighty, was awarded a gold medal.”
- The Bohemian Club, San Francisco (Primitive Man)
- Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, The M.H. De Young Museum
- Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Palace of Legion of Honor (Spreckels Collection)
- San Diego Museum of Fine Art, San Diego (Spreckels Collection)
- Boston Museum of Art, Boston (The Death)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Snarling Tiger)
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles (Coyote)
- Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
- Mills College, (The Puma and the Footprint)
- National Museum of Wildlife Art (Puma in Combat with Serpent)
- Oakland Museum of California, Oakland (Puma and Deer and others)
- Crocker Museum, Sacramento, California (Twilight Venus Holding Staff)
- Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth University (Puma and Snakes)
Public monuments and sculpture groups
- The Indian, Presidio Park, San Diego (1905)
- Sphinx, Golden Gate State Park, San Francisco (1907)
- Nymphs and Satyrs, Plaster Reliefs, Hippodrome Theatre, San Francisco (1907)
- Decorations, Bohemian Club, San Francisco (Willis Polk
- The Padre, Presidio Park, San Diego (1908)
- Winged Angels, Marble, Unitarian Church, San Francisco (1908)
- Decorations, Bank of California, San Francisco, 1908 (Walter Danforth Bliss, Architect)
- Winning of the West, Light Standard Decoration, San Francisco (Willis Polk, Architect) (1908)
- Sloat Monument, Monterey, California (1908) (Melvin Earl Cummings, architect)
- Two Pumas, Berthold Monument, Monterey (1910)
- The Ploughman, Scripps Institute of Oceanography (1910)
- Lion, Marble, Haddon Hill Development, Oakland (1912)
- Fr. Junipero Serra, Mission Dolores Garden, San Francisco
- Decorative Ceiling, Flood Mansion, (Now Pacific Union Club), San Francisco
- Bas-Relief Decorations, San Francisco Masonic Temple
- Bas-Relief Decorations, San Francisco Examiner Building
- Bas-Relief Decorations, San Francisco Call Building
- Mountain Lions, Crocker National Bank, San Francisco (Willis Polk, Architect)
- Bronzes, Stock Exchange Club, San Francisco Stock Exchange
- Grizzly Bear Cubs, The Fountain, at the Circle, Berkeley, California (John Galen Howard, architect) (1911)
- The Sea Nymph, Fountain, Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915)
- Bas-Reliefs, Lotta’s Fountain, Kearny and Geary Streets, San Francisco (1916)
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