Fig. 3: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Decorative Figure (Woman), ca. 1912.
Sepia ink on paper, 19-1/4 x 8-3/8 inches.
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York. Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.

The simplified, sinuous, sensuous line is the signature of one of America’s greatest sculptor’s of the twentieth century — Elie Nadelman (1882–1946). His singular deployment of the line cemented the aesthetic bedrock of his sculptural masterpieces (Fig.1). “I employ no other line than the curve,” he said, “which possesses freshness and force. I compose these curves so as to bring them in accord or opposition to one another. In that way I obtain the life of form, i.e., harmony. In that way I intend the life of the work should come from within itself.”1

Born in Russian-controlled Warsaw, Poland, Elie Nadelman grew up the youngest of seven children in an assimilated Jewish family. His family’s status shielded Nadelman from the oppressive educational quotas imposed on the majority of Polish Jews at the time. Nadelman was among the few to receive a secular secondary education. He studied liberal arts at the Warsaw Gymnasium and graduated fluent in Russian, Polish, German,  and French. Later, he learned English.
While his older brother joined his father in the family jewelry business, Nadelman was encouraged to pursue his mother’s family’s interests — the arts.  His initial inclination to become a singer was short-lived as his family viewed the profession as too effeminate. Nadelman then enrolled in the Warsaw Art Academy, but interrupted his studies to volunteer for the Russian imperial army.  As a soldier, his duties included teaching drawing to the officers' children.

After the army, like many East European artists of his time, Nadelman traveled to Munich to advance his studies. There the artist had his first direct contact with antiquities, at the Glyptothek, the museum that housed an unrivalled collection of early classical Greek art. Nadelman’s later sculpture and drawings (Figs. 2, 3) reflect the lifelong relationship he had with the classical past. He ultimately developed a sculptural language carved from the postures, materials, and stylistic treatments of the classics fused with modern innovations.

In 1904, Nadelman moved to Paris, where he spent the next ten years. It was here that his creative vocabulary blossomed and he decided to dedicate himself to sculpture. He began with analytical drawings of the human figure and head (Fig.4). Nadelman resolved that his "big bang" theory began with the line; his refinement of the curve brought him closer to achieving his quest for a purity of form. He believed that only forms that have significance were perfect. In 1909, when Galerie Druet presented a one-man exhibition of Nadelman’s drawings and sculptures, it electrified the Parisian artistic community. Leo Stein, the brother of Gertrude Stein, bought two-thirds of the drawings.

Fig. 1: Konrad Cramer (1883–1963),
Elie Nadelman Studio, 1949.
Gelatin silver print, 9-3/4 x 7-3/4 inches.
Private Collection.
Fig. 2: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Classical Head with Headdress, ca. 1909–1910.
Marble, 8 inches (height).
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York.
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.

The success of Nadelman’s Parisian show was soon matched by an exhibition in 1911 of ten extraordinary marble heads at the Paterson Gallery in London (Fig. 5). Their harmonious curves and porcelain-like finish produced the perfect union of the classic and the modern. Each head was an idealized depiction of female beauty that resonated with a sublime sense of serenity. Nadelman expunged from his works any biographical or idiosyncratic details. Their chiseled features, vacant or downcast eyes, and sealed, seraphic smiles give away nothing. Their past and present remain a mystery, making these works both timeless and modern. The cosmetics titan Helena Rubenstein, a fellow Pole, purchased the entire show. Believing that Nadelman’s ideal of beauty was synonymous with her company’s vision, she installed the sculptures in her salons and incorporated them into her advertising.

Following the Paterson show, Nadelman worked primarily in bronze (Figs. 6, 7). The new linear language of his drawing now cast itself as elongated figures defined by curvilinear lines and flowing limbs. As with his marble heads, the sculptures are devoid of personal history except for the detailing on the head. The unique stylized shapes of these nudes, their poses frozen at their most expressive moment, render them impossible to forget. Their gleaming unblemished patinas deliver a contemporary sensibility, yet Nadelman created an ambiguity about his subjects’ place in time.

Fig. 4: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Standing Female Nude, ca. 1910.
Sepia ink on paper, 12-1/2 x 8-3/4 inches.
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York.
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.
Fig. 5: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Classical Head, ca. 1910.
Marble, 13 inches.
Courtesy of The Jewish Museum Collection.
Gift of Slong & Midas Properties Inc., New York.
Fig. 6: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Standing Woman, ca. 1906–1911.
Bronze, 29-1/4 inches. Private Collection.
Fig. 7: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Standing Male Nude, ca. 1908–1909.
Bronze, 25-1/2 x 12 x 9-1/2 inches.
Private collection.
Fig. 8: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Man in Tails with Bowler and Cane, n.d.
Pen and ink on paper, 9-1/4 x 5-3/8 inches.
Private collection.
Fig. 9: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Standing Female Figure in Profile, ca. 1918.
Pen and ink on paper, 9-1/2 x 5-3/4 inches.
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York,
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.
Fig. 10: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Untitled (Man on a Horse), n.d.
Ink wash on paper, 7-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches.
Private collection.

With the outbreak of World War I, Nadelman was anxious to settle in the United States. Rubenstein offered the artist a commission to design a large plaster relief for a salon she planned to open in New York. The relocation allowed the artist to draw upon the bustling landscape of American popular culture. Nadelman’s work from the next chapter of his life lived up to Charles Baudelaire’s challenge when, in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire wrote, “The true painter we’re looking for will be the one who can snatch from life of today its epic quality and make us feel how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our patent-leather boots.”2 Nadelman's “man on the street” depictions reflected a new vitality in his drawings as he poked fun at American society (Fig. 8).

Until 1914 all Nadelman’s sculptural figures had been nudes. But now he pushed his exploration of types rather than individuals by including witty portrayals of popular dress in his repertoire. His humorous, stylized “snapshots” of his peers and their public postures created memorable works (Fig. 9).

Nadelman’s charismatic personality, striking looks, elegant demeanor, and passionate intelligence helped him gain entree into New York’s exclusive social and artistic circles. Alfred Stieglitz, the iconoclastic dealer and master photographer, mounted a show of Nadelman’s sculptures and drawings in 1915 at his Gallery 291, where Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, and Paul Cézanne had their first American shows. The work Nadelman exhibited demonstrated his radical simplification of form. It is his exorcism of details on the horse and rider (Fig. 10) that propels the drawing from the everyday to the transcendent. 

Fig. 11: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Classical Model – Male, n.d.  
Pencil on paper, 7-7/8 x 5 inches.
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York,
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.

In the wake of the success of the Stieglitz show, Nadelman found himself one of the stars of the art world. As one critic said, “Only rarely was it vouchsafed to mortals to fill their own world with images as charming as those of Nadelman’s poetic vision; for few men created with a fuller understanding of the laws of beauty.”3 The influential teacher and artist Kenneth Hayes Miller is quoted as saying to the artist, “You know, Nadelman, we all go by what you do.”4  Miller was referring to George Bellows, Guy Pene du Bois, William Hunt Diederich, Paul Manship, Rockwell Kent, and Gaston Lachaise. Nadelman’s fresh way of looking at art influenced their approach to painting and sculpture.

Nadelman’s ongoing fascination with classical subjects resumed as he established himself in New York (Fig.11). But in his drawing of a Roman head in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he plays with epochs by putting his trademark bow on a classical head. (Fig.12).

In 1919 Nadelman married Viola Speiss Flannery, a wealthy widow and member of the upper class. The artist who had once satirized the affectations of high society, now found himself living a life propped by maids, butlers, cooks, gardeners, and a chauffeur. At the time of their marriage, Viola already had an extensive collection of laces, embroideries, fabrics, and headdresses dating from ancient times to the present, and Nadelman, who valued the work of the anonymous craftsman as much as that of the trained artist, became as passionate a collector as his wife. Over time, the couple amassed one of the largest and most geographically diverse collections of folk (Fig.13) and applied art in the world, building a museum on their Riverdale property to house the collection.

Nadelman’s interest in folk art in part reflected his fascination with popular entertainment. An enthusiastic attendee of concerts, the circus, and vaudeville, Nadelman created compelling works through his depictions of the distinctive posture of performers. His genius for gesture was at its best in these sculptures; the classical pose had given way to a modern stance.

Throughout his career, Nadelman experimented with different materials and a variety of surface treatments to compile a sculptural vocabulary in marble, bronze, plaster, wood, galvano-plastique, and terra cotta. He developed a special papier-mâché composite that he cast in the same molds that he had used for his plasters and terra cottas. In the mid-1930s he took one of his favorite subjects — a female with a poodle — and produced both papier-mâché and marble versions. In figure 14, the only clue to the subject's background as a circus performer comes from the colorful leotard she’s wearing. Nadelman envelopes her in a shroud of secrecy by blurring any facial details and eliminating any sharp angles in her contours, rendering the girl and poodle as one fluid undulating form. Trying to pierce the veil of mystery, the viewer must revisit the sculpture again and again.

Fig. 12: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Androgynous Head, Filet and Bow, ca. 1915.
Pencil on paper, 6-3/8 x 4-3/8 inches.
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.
Fig. 13:  Artist Unknown,
Harry Howard ca. 1857.
Polychrome painted and carved wood, 100 x 66 x 44 inches.
Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society. Purchased from Elie Nadelman. 1937.328.
Fig. 14: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Girl with Poodle, mid-1930s.
Painted papier-mâché, 8 x 6-3/8 x 4-3/8 inches.
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York,
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.
Fig. 15: Elie Nadelman (1882–1946),
Duck, ca. 1932–36.
Marble, 11-1/4 x 13-1/2 x 5-1/2 inches,
Slong & Midas Properties, Inc., New York.
Courtesy Bernard Goldberg Fine Arts, LLC.

 Nadelman’s greatness can be seen in the stylized sculptures of animals done in the 1930s, including his majestic life-size marble Duck (Fig.15). The lack of narrative detail combined with the artist’s implementation of an unbroken curved line creates a timeless work of pure form. With this sculpture, Nadelman had hit a bull’s eye, believing as he did that, “The subject of any work of art is for me nothing but a pretext for creating significant form.”5

The 1930s were difficult years for the Nadelmans. After their fortune was wiped out in the Depression, the bank foreclosed on their home and Nadelman was forced to sell much of his folk art collection to the New-York Historical Society. In need of money, he began producing palm-sized sculptures in multiples. Initially conceived to be mass-produced, the astonishing six hundred figurines he fashioned were never offered to the public. They marked a new phase in the artist’s oeuvre as he dramatically altered the scale of his work and his methodology. Standing no more than five- to six-inches high, and sculpted out of plastilene, a non-hardening clay, these creations allowed for more improvisation. Nadelman’s previous emphasis on smooth surfaces and refined lines now gave way to a deliberately unfinished look. Once again, Nadelman amalgamated ancient and modern physical and cultural references. But for the first time, his doll-like figures were sexually suggestive — stripped of the innocence that had informed his work to date. During this period and in the years leading up to his death by suicide in 1946, Nadelman refused offers to exhibit his work.

As a young artist, Nadelman had been awed by classical art. As a mature sculptor he successfully harmonized the aesthetic principles of the ancient Greeks with the contemporary rhythms of his day to create works poised for posterity.