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Kneeling Nude

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Kneeling Nude

Artist: Robert Laurent (American (b. France 1890-1970))

Date: c. 1944
Medium: Soft graphite on semitransparent tracing paper
Overall: 17 × 13 15/16in. (43.2 × 35.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 91.19
Text Entries

Laurent is credited with introducing direct carving methods to modernist American sculpture in the early decades of the twentieth century.(1) He consistently wrote that when facing a new piece of stone or wood he had no preconceived ideas about a sculpture. Laurent enjoyed the discovery, “cherchant dans la matiere, so to speak,” and allowed the shape of his material to guide him.(2) Therefore, with the exception of his largest public commissions, he did not create preparatory drawings for three-dimensional work. Though similar in subject matter, his works on paper generally exist as parallel investigations to his sculptures.

As a young man, Laurent saw Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Kneeling Woman at the Armory Show and was moved to write, “Here was such a different approach to sculpture—such feeling for the figure.”(3) The nude female form subsequently became prominent in Laurent’s oeuvre. His figures were always somewhat stylized, but during the 1920s to the mid-1930s, Laurent took a reductive, solid approach that reveals indebtedness to Maillol.(4) He wrote that he tried to simplify “lines and forms in order to express myself with the knowledge obtained from observation and absorption of life and nature.“ One gets the impression, however, that by the late 1930s Laurent was not observing life to gain knowledge of the female form. Indeed, he created a virtual formula of simplified, rounded bodies.(6)

In the MWPI sketch, Laurent used soft charcoal to create the defining outline of a kneeling female nude. To suggest volume, he added stylized shading in the form of a zigzag at the contours and enhanced the lines defining the figure’s left side. Laurent also exaggerated selected anatomical proportions, notably those of the arms and legs, in a primitivizing style that informs most of his work.(7) It seems likely that Laurent made the sketch from a sculpture because the figure kneels on a platform that resembles a sculpture base.(8) Indeed, the figure’s physical characteristics are similar to those of his three-dimensional works dating from the early to mid-1940s. While Laurent sculpted several kneeling nudes,(9) none seems as close in physical type to the MWPI figure as his standing Dancer (1944).(10) Virtually all of the women Laurent depicted seem to have the same shoulder—length hairstyle with bangs (presumably in emulation of his wife, Mimi), but the Dancer and the MWPI figure share other, more specific characteristics. Both have an elongated face, and the shape of the Daneer’s torso, as well as the position of her upraised arm, are like those of the MWPI figure. On the basis of these stylistic similarities, the drawing can be dated to this period.


1. See Roberta K. Tarbell, “Direct Carving,” in Joan M. Matter, Roberta K. Tarbell, and Jeffrey Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913-1939 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1979), 47.

2. Robert Laurent Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microflm 2066, frame 1148; see also microfilm 2067, frame 46.

3. Laurent Papers, microfilm 2066, frame 1166. See also Milton W. Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, 2d ed. (New York: Abbeville Press and the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1988), no. 600, illus. 43.

4. One of his most sensitive bronzes from this period is Kneeling Figure (1935, Art Institute of Chicago and Whitney Museum of American Art); see Peter Moak, The Robert Laurent Memorial Exhibition, (Durham, N.H.: University of New Hampshire, 1972), no. 41.

5. Laurent Papers, microfilm 2066, frame 1149.

6. See Moak, Robert Laurent Memorial Exhibition, nos. 46, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 63, or 64. By the early 1950s, Laurent's female nudes could be described as mannered.

7. Laurent remained faithful to his early, modernist influences such as Gauguin, Maillol, “Negro” sculpture, and Cubism, which he first encountered in Paris between 1905 and 1907. See Laurent Papers, microfilm 2066, frames 1161 and 1327. See also Roberta K. Tarbell, “Impact of Vanguard Exhibitions in Paris and New York,” in Marter, Tarbell, and Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913- 1939, 14-15.

8. To date, a specific sculpture source for the MWPI drawing has not been identified. However, Roberta Tarbell to Paul D. Schweizer, February 4, 1992, suggested that a plaster sculpture relating to the MWPI drawing may have existed.

9. See Moak, Robert Laurent Memorial Exhibition, nos. 39, 52, 53.

10. Reproduced in Moak, Robert Laurent Memorial Exhibition, no. 57.


© Estate of Robert Laurent