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Three Generations of Calders in Philadelphia

From Alexander Milne Calder’s William Penn atop City Hall, to Alexander Stirling Calder’s Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle, to Alexander “Sandy” Calder’s Ghost suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Stair Hall in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there exists a physical and ancestral line of “Calders” along the city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Alexander Stirling Calder's Swann Memorial Fountain and Alexander Milne Calder's William Penn
Alexander Stirling Calder’s “Swann Memorial Fountain” and Alexander Milne Calder’s “William Penn.” Photo Greg Benson © 2007 for the Association for Public Art

Though in memory they are warmly embraced as local art heroes, the Calder family of sculptors endured many rejections in their lifetimes. Sculptor and art historian Lorado Taft, in the 1924 revised edition of The History of American Sculpture, barely mentions the Calder name in his discussion of Philadelphia’s notable artists. When Alexander Milne Calder’s Major General George Gordon Meade was installed in 1887, a grand ceremony surrounded the unveiling. Yet the artist died in 1923, in his home at 1231 South Broad Street, resentful and bitter because he believed that the architects at City Hall had intentionally positioned his sculpture incorrectly (facing it toward the northeast instead of the south), constantly casting a shadow on the artwork. Penn’s face in fact can be seen clearly only in the early morning light.

"Major General George Gordon Meade" by Alexander Milne Calder. Photo © 2013 for the Association for Public Art
“Major General George Gordon Meade” by Alexander Milne Calder. Photo © 2013 for the Association for Public Art

Milne Calder’s son, Alexander Stirling Calder, endured critics’ initial coldness toward his allegorical interpretation for the Swann fountain. Milne Calder’s grandson, Alexander “Sandy” Calder, was one of the most celebrated artists of this century. Early in his career, however, his “moving sculpture” caused a sensation, and he was often dismissed as a mere toymaker and eccentric.

Although their work now seems vastly different, Sandy Calder shared with his grandfather a fascination for the monumental. William Penn is thought to be one of the world’s largest cast bronze figures, and the 100-foot White Cascade in the Federal Reserve Bank is considered the largest mobile. Watching this mobile, splashed with sunlight and moving slowly through time and space, one realizes that Sandy shared with his father an interest in natural phenomena. Stirling Calder’s Sundial in West Fairmount Park, for example, interprets the passing of time through the signs of the zodiac and the four seasons.

"Three Discs, One Lacking" by Alexander "Sandy" Calder with his grandfather's "William Penn" in the distance. Photo by Caitlin Martin © 2010 for the Association for Public Art.
“Three Discs, One Lacking” by Alexander “Sandy” Calder with his grandfather’s “William Penn” in the distance. Photo Caitlin Martin © 2010 for the Association for Public Art.

All three artists worked closely with architects to achieve integration of art and architecture. One cannot conceive of City Hall without its sculpture, and it’s impossible to imagine Wilson Eyre’s water display for the Swann Memorial Fountain without the figures and animals installed within it. The three sculptors shared an abiding interest in engaging the public through their artworks. Many American cities have proudly placed “a Calder” sculpture in a public plaza.Philadelphia boasts three generations of Calders, whose numerous works enhance our outdoor experience of the city and the park.

Adapted from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).

Pictured at the top: William Penn by Alexander Milne Calder. Photo by Caitlin Martin © 2013 for the Association for Public Art.

Related Artworks

Artwork

Three Discs, One Lacking

(1968)

by Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898 - 1976)

Benjamin Franklin Parkway between 16th and 17th Streets

Edmund Bacon, Director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, purchased this iron alloy painted sculpture for the City in 1968 with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

Artwork

William Penn

(1890, cast 1892)

by Alexander Milne Calder (1846 - 1923)

City Hall Tower, Broad and Market Streets

Over thirty-six feet tall and weighing more than 53,000 pounds, Alexander Milne Calder’s William Penn atop City Hall is one of Philadelphia’s most prominent landmarks.

Artwork

Swann Memorial Fountain

(1924)

by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870 - 1945)

Logan Square, Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 19th Street

Three bronze Native Americans that represent Philadelphia’s three main waterways: the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, and Wissahickon Creek.

Artwork

White Cascade

(1976)

by Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898 - 1976)

Federal Reserve Bank (interior), 100 North 6th Street; security check-in required to view this sculpture

Considered the world’s largest mobile, Alexander “Sandy” Calder’s White Cascade revolves slowly in the vast atrium of the Federal Reserve Bank.

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