Cyrus Dallin’s Sculptures in Plymouth

“William Bradford” by Cyrus Dallin

One of the things I like about Plymouth is the abundance of fine sculpture. It’s not every New England town that can boast that. And, at risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (which someone did indeed call me this past weekend as we were discussing public art…I’m still trying not to be offended) I will go ahead and say that inspiring public sculpture is all but dead. See for yourself…go to Google Images and punch in “public sculpture.” The stuff you’ll see is truly weird.

Fortunately for Plymouth, the push to install gardens, parks and particularly statues came during what I would think of as a golden age for public sculpture–around the time of the town’s tercentennial in 1920.

Probably the greatest of the artists to enhance the Plymouth landscape was Cyrus Dallin. Born in Utah in 1861, Dallin studied sculpture in Boston, settled in Arlington, Massachusetts in 1900 and became one of the nation’s great sculptors. He is probably best known for “Paul Revere” in Boston’s North End and “Appeal to the Great Spirit” outside of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Dallin was commissioned to create two complementary works for Plymouth that were to be installed in 1921, one of William Bradford and another of Massasoit. The two statues would emphasize the long-lasting (although sometimes difficult) partnership between these two great leaders. Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, and Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, maintained a formal alliance between their two peoples that lasted roughly 50 years. Although crises arose that strained the relationship, the two leaders remained dedicated the preserving peace and did so successfully.

Dallin touching up the plaster cast of Massasoit

The imposing statue of Massasoit was dedicated on September 5, 1921. It was funded by a fraternal organization called the “Improved Order of Redmen.” Rather a cringe-worthy choice of a name by today’s standards. What they lacked in tact they made up for in fundraising abilities. The group generated enough cash to have Massasoit cast at an impressive 10 feet tall.

The statue of Massasoit was regarded at the time as one of the great representations of a Native American in sculpture, although it has since been criticized as representing a stereotype. Dallin allowed the statue to be recast several times and there are identical “Massasoits” in Dayton, Kansas City, and, mostly prominently, in front of the state capitol building in Salt Lake City.

As for the sculpture of William Bradford, Dallin had the model ready in 1921 but funds for that one were short. And so it would be another 55 years before Massasoit’s counterpart would be installed on the Plymouth waterfront in 1976. By that time the cost of bronze casting was a great deal higher than in 1921 and so Governor Bradford stands at a diminutive height, something like three feet. Bradford probably deserved something a little taller, but it is nonetheless a handsome sculpture.

Now, it will be interesting to see what happens as we approach 2020 and the quadricentennial of Plymouth Colony. Plans are getting underway for the celebration. I wonder if we can expect any changes in the landscape. Will there be new public works to compliment Dallin’s? If so, I can only hope they won’t be like the ones you’d find on Google Images.

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