Lord what fools these mortals be: The story behind Brenda Putnam’s statue of Puck

How did the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Puck” sculpture by Brenda Putnam (1890–1975) come to be? There is a story to tell…..

Statue of the character Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Brenda Putnam, Puck. Marble, 1932. Photograph by Theodor Horydczak for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1932.

From early on, Paul Cret’s design for the building included space for a sculpture fountain on the west front, but the subject wasn’t set in stone (Ba-dum-tss!). In the spring of 1930, everyone involved settled on “Puck.” As Henry Folger put it when writing to Alexander Trowbridge, Consulting Architect on the project:

…. As the figure for the fountain will be, to a greater or less extent, embowered in shrubbery, the most fitting figure for the purpose would be that of a Puck. You will find the Puck as one of the characters in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. I enclose a quotation from the play, which may help you and the artist to work out a proper design.1

In fact, the enclosure contained not one quotation, but three:

PUCK

Lord, what fooles these mortals be!

xxxxxx      xxxxxx

And those things doe best please me,
That befall preposterously.

xxxxxx      xxxxxx

Up and downe, up and downe, I will leade
them up and downe ……

Midsommer nights Dreame,
Actus Tertius

The architects decided the first quotation would work best, “Lorde what fooles these mortals be!” The actual-size blueprint for the inscription is in the Folger Archives.

Lord what fooles these mortals be
Fountain base inscription. Blueprint, January 16, 1931. Scanned from the original in the Folger Shakespeare Library archives.

Some people have suspected a political motive behind the choice of quotation, given that Puck looks westward towards the dome of the US Capitol. There’s no evidence for a political motive, but Capitol Hill tour guides like to point it out, anyway. People writing blog posts about the sculpture also like to point it out. Who can resist a good story?

The choice of artist was not as straightforward as the choice of subject. Mrs. Folger wanted to go with a larger version, in bronze, of a “Puck” sculpture by Rachel Hawks. She had seen Hawks’s cherubic Puck in New York, and started to make inquiries on her own (much to the dismay of the architects).

Rachel Hawks responded to Mrs. Folger that she was willing and eager to take on the commission. Architects Alexander Trowbridge and Paul Cret were not so eager. For one thing, they wanted a modern style, not something that would look sweetly Edwardian next to the Art Deco panels John Gregory had already started for the library’s facade.

Bas-relief scene from King Lear
John Gregory, The Tragedie of King Lear. Marble, 1932. Photograph by Theodor Horydczak for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1932.

Also, they wanted a known artist, not a woman they considered little more than a hobbyist. How did they reach that conclusion? Simple: they looked up “Hawks, Rachel” in Who’s Who in Art, and she wasn’t listed. Eventually, Trowbridge and Cret convinced the Folgers of the wisdom of commissioning a known sculptor working in a modern style. But which one? They drew up a list of potential artists, and began contacting them.

Statue of the goddess Diana with a hunting dog
Edward McCartan, Diana. Bronze, 1920. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Photograph in the public domain.

The first artist they contacted was Edward McCartan. He met the basic requirements — he was listed in Who’s Who in Art, he worked in a sleek modern style, and he was willing to take on the job. As he put it in a letter to the architects, “the bronze figure for the fountain appeals to me very much and I think it would be a very interesting thing to do.”2

There was just one problem. McCartan’s letter went on to say, “The price which I usually receive for figures in bronze about life size or a little over life, is twelve thousand dollars.” And that was just the artist’s fee for modelling the figure. Casting it in bronze would be a separate expense. The Folgers had only budgeted five thousand dollars in total, less than half what McCartan wanted for the modelling alone.

Luckily, Trowbridge and Cret had another artist up their sleeve. They wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Folger, saying:

We are proceeding with the plan of addressing Miss Putnam. Our first effort will be to find out if she is interested, and second how much she is going to ask for her services. We both hope that we can come to some satisfactory arrangement with her, and I am sure that it ought to please Dr. Putnam.3

The “Dr. Putnam” in question was Brenda Putnam’s father, Herbert Putnam (1861-1955), who happened to be the Librarian of Congress at the time. Seeing as the Folger was being built across the street from the Library of Congress, it wouldn’t do any harm to keep the Librarian of Congress happy. That being said, Brenda Putnam was fully qualified on her own merits, and even had an entry in Who’s Who in Art to prove it. The Folgers still had to stretch their budget a little, but decided it was worth the expense.

black and white photo of woman
Detail of photograph entitled Brenda Putnam, American sculptor, 1890-1975. Smithsonian Institution. No known copyright restrictions

Brenda Putnam was born in Minneapolis, and trained at the Boston Museum School and the Art Students’ League of New York. In 1910, she established her own studio in New York City. Putnam was also an accomplished musician, and her connection with music shows up in works like her 1923 bronze bust of Pablo Casals:

Bronze bust of a man
Brenda Putnam, Pablo Casals. Bronze, 1923. Photograph courtesy of the Hispanic Museum & Library, New York.

The Casals bronze provides a good example of Putnam’s earlier style. She includes passing details like wrinkles below his eye, a frown of concentration, and a bit of a puffy cheek. She came to find this kind of realism confining, and became interested in the emerging Art Deco style. In the late 1920s, Putnam left New York for Italy in order to study with Libero Andreotti (1875–1933). When she returned to New York, she incorporated a new freedom towards abstraction in her work. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Puck is a prime example of her mature style.

Puck statue
Detail of: Brenda Putnam, Puck. Marble, 1932. Photograph by Theodor Horydczak for the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1932.

He’s a wonderfully Art Deco Puck: he’s flattened like a living wall; the long, straight folds of his drapery and his carefully aligned arms and legs echo the vertical rhythms of the building behind him, but there’s life in him. A very subtle S-curve along the line from his head, through his torso, and down his kneeling thigh breaks the vertical rhythm just enough to bring everything into dynamic tension (and as any art history student can tell you, “dynamic tension” is how you know it’s good art).

The contract between Brenda Putnam and Henry C. Folger, dated May 26, 1930, can be found in the Folger archives. It specified that Putnam would receive $6,000 in total, over three payments.4

  • $2,000 when the preliminary sketches were approved
  • $2,000 when the full-size clay figure was finished and approved
  • $2,000 when the finished work was set in place at the Folger

Brenda Putnam was responsible for the costs of the sketches, scale models, a full-size clay model, and a plaster cast from the clay model. Mr. Folger was responsible for the costs of packing and shipping the plaster cast to a foundry or carving studio, casting it in metal or carving it in stone, packing and shipping the finished work, and installing it on site. This ended up being an additional $2,500.5

The question of whether the fountain figure should be cast in bronze or carved in marble remained up in the air for many months. In a letter written May 3, 1931, Brenda Putnam advised the architects:

As to the final medium, I am convinced that it should be marble, but for such a figure as this, Alabama would be much better than Georgia, which is both streaky and brittle, and has such large pyrites it will not take fine modelling. I do not think the very slight difference in shade would be objectionable,—indeed, after a couple of years it would not be seen. And Alabama will stand the weather just as well as the other.6

She was right. The color of the Alabama marble did blend in to match, and it did stand the weather just as well as the Georgia marble used everywhere else at the Folger (that is to say, not especially well!).

Puck statue missing a hand
Brenda Putnam’s Puck in 2000, awaiting conservation at Daedalus, Inc., Watertown, Massachusetts. Photograph by Daedalus, Inc. for the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Between the weather, vandalism, and the general ravages of time, Puck was in a sad way by the end of the 20th century. Thanks to an initial grant from Save Outdoor Sculpture! followed by many private donations large and small, Puck underwent extensive conservation off-site between 2000 and 2001. In January 2002, Puck returned to the Folger. There he found a new home indoors, in the theater lobby. An aluminum version, cast from a mold of marble Puck, took his place on the fountain. Our next blog post will tell this chapter of Puck’s story.

Puck statue surrounded by holiday greenery
Puck statue in the theater lobby, 2015.
  1. April 30, 1930. Folger Archives Box 57.
  2. January 17, 1930. Folger Archives Box 58a.
  3. May 7, 1930. Folger Archives Box 57.
  4. Folger archives, Box 58a.
  5. Folger Archives Box 58a.
  6. Folger archives, Box 58a.

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