Helen Farnsworth Mears (1872 - 1916)

Birth date: 12/21/1872 Death date: 2/17/1916  
Birth location: Oshkosh, WI Death location: New York, NY  
Media: Bas-relief , Sculpture Web site:
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Biographical Brief

2005 recipient of the WI Visual Art Lifetime Achievement awards


Helen Farnsworth Mears
Born 1876 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Died 1916 in New York
Helen Farnsworth Mears grew up in Oshkosh as part of a creative family. Her father was at one time an inventor and her mother, Mary, was Wisconsin’s first published poet. Mary was also an author and playwright using the name of Nellie Wildwood.

Mears worked diligently in her woodshed studio behind the family home. Her father, who studied to be a surgeon, provided her with lessons in anatomy and created her sculpting tools. 

By her late teens, Mears work caught the attention of the famous New York sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He invited her to study with him but she declined due to a lack of funds. In 1892 Mears won an important commission for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As a result, she received patron support and a prize from the Milwaukee Women’s Club, enabling her to study with Saint-Gaudens, who within weeks made her his assistant. Even though this was the busiest sculpture studio in New York, Mears, with the support of her Milwaukee patron, decided to go to Europe to attend the Academie Julian and Academie Vitti.

While in Paris, Saint-Gaudens invited Mears to assist him there with commissions. In 1898 Mears returned to Oshkosh. By 1899 Mears was back in New York to open her own studio where she completed a nine-foot marble sculpture for the Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. At that same time, she completed a five-year project, which won her a silver medal at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. Prior to being cast in bronze, the 14' x 13 ½' three-part wall fountain, which was in the plaster state, was accidentally destroyed. 

Although from 1904 to 1910 she continued several other important commissions, one of which secured her a fellowship in 1907 at the famed MacDowell artists’ colony in New Hampshire, it was in 1910 that a promising opportunity turned sour.

In December of that year, Mears was given a contract to sculpt a heroic figure surmounting the dome of the Wisconsin state capitol building. She began designing models in earnest, and adjusting her designs in response to criticisms made by members of the Capitol Commission. In spite of Mears’ efforts to address their concerns, in February of 1911 the Commission decided to solicit designs from other sculptors. Mears produced a third design, expecting sketches of it to be presented to the Commission along with other sculptors’ proposals. Capitol architect George Post, however, decided not to submit her third model for review, since it did not meet his own approval. Mears was displeased to have her final attempt withheld from consideration in this manner. In June 1911, the Capitol Commission formally suspended her contract (though she was paid for her work). Daniel Chester French was chosen for the job, producing the gilded “Wisconsin” figure that remains atop the capitol. If Mears had known that French was interested in the commission, she certainly would not have consulted with him, as she did just prior to his selection, about technical matters regarding the enlargement of her third model.

(Note that some accounts (such as Susan Porter Green’s 1972 book on Mears) state that she was never formally awarded the contract to sculpt a figure surmounting the state capitol. The Wisconsin state government, however, has since published a multi-volume report, in this case citing Mears’ contract. See: Historic Structure Report, Wisconsin State Capitol. Madison, WI: […] Division of Facilities Development, 1995-2004.)

Between 1914 and 1916, she lived in intense poverty in New York with her sister with whom she had spent most of her life. Her 1914 sculpture, "End of Day," was prophetic.  Malnourished and weakened, she tragically and prematurely died of influenza in 1916. The largest collection of her work is at the Paine Art Center and Arboretum in Oshkosh.

Selected One-Person Exhibitions

Peabody Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
Brooklyn Museum, New York 
Milwaukee Art Institute, Wisconsin 
Paine Art Center and Arboretum, Oshkosh, Wisconsin (also1970) 

Selected Group Exhibitions

1893 Chicago, Illinois, World’s Columbian Exposition
1897  Paris, Salon de la Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts
1900  Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia 
Silver medal for THE FOUNTAIN OF LIFE, St. Louis Exposition 
Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, 29th Exhibition of American Painters and Sculptors
Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture 
State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Famous Women 
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, 100 Years of Wisconsin Art 

Selected Awards

2005 recipient of one of the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Awards (The Wisconsin Visual Art Hall of Fame)
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