Editor's note: The following essay was written in July, 1996 and is reprinted with permission of Donald Martin Reynolds. The essay is featured in the catalogue for the exhibition "The Compassionate Spirit: Sculpture & Fresco by George R. Anthonisen," which appeared at The Berman Museum of Art. The ISBN number for the illustrated catalogue is 1-889136-02-6. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or catalogue, please contact the The Berman Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Humanizing Images of George R. Anthonisen

by Donald Martin Reynolds


Matter aspires to life, life to immortality. That miracle of life's emergence from matter and its transcendence in the human spirit, which began with the origins of the earth more than four-and-a-half billion years ago, is the principle that unites all of creation. Its most perfect embodiment is the human person, its most enduring expression, the human figure.

From earliest times, artists have found compelling insights into the beauty, mystery, and dignity of the person through the human figure, because the figure personifies all that is human. It is "the one form in art with which we totally, uniquely, and immediately identify -- physically, emotionally, and intellectually."[1] That empathy reveals the significance of the human figure in art and, shining through it, the human spirit.

It was the ancient Greeks, during the golden age of the great sculptor Phidias in the fifth century BC, who first imparted to the figure its completely human aspects. Through the conflation of naturalistic representation and abstraction of the human form with gesture, composition, texture, and emotion, the Greeks created a figurative tradition that uniquely resonates with humanity's material origins and spiritual aspirations.

The full potential of figurative art is realized when the sensuality and the spirituality of humanity are expressed through the eloquence of the human figure. Moreover, when the artist brings the real and the ideal -- sense and spirit -- into balance, that art is timeless and universal. Thus, even though the venerable tradition of Phidias has been eclipsed from time to time throughout the history of art, it never dies, but continues to re-emerge with new meaning for new ages in the work of artists who are in tune with that humanizing principle of life's miraculous emergence and transcendence.

George Anthonisen's images celebrate the classical tradition in both form and content, as that tradition has endured to modern times. Thus, his Torso in Motion recalls the dramatic torque of the Victory of Samothrace and the sensuous déhanchement of the Venus de Milo, while his Antigone, performing the funeral rites for her brother, challenges a cynical age to consider the immortality of familial love and loyalty.

Anthonisen's images tap the vast reservoir of our affective and cognitive origins and bring us face to face with our most fundamental drives and urges. They reveal to us the noblest aspirations of the human spirit as well as the darkest forces that threaten humanity's survival. From the sheer beauty of his female nudes to his psychologically revealing portraits and the subtle complexities of social and moral conflict and harmony in his ideal pieces, Anthonisen's images deal primarily with the immutable essence of the individual person, the family, and human society in a changing world. Indeed, those notions virtually transpire through his humanizing images.

Three of Anthonisen's works uniquely dramatize his exploration of the dark and noble aspects of human nature, and they stand as monuments to his humanism, "a celebration of humanity and life."[2] Two of the works are companion pieces, representing three generations of people interacting with each other.

I Set Before You This Day honors the men and women who risked their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to save Jews during the Holocaust. Ten figures make up the composition - the Jewish refugees, those who helped them, and those who did not. It poses the question, "What would you have done, if you could have helped!" Its companion piece, Give Us Grace, celebrates the notion of universal peace through mutual respect and brotherly love. Six couples, three on either side of a curved bas-relief in heroic scale, occupy a dance floor. Each pair must accommodate the others, who represent diversity in race, age, physical capability, and sexual preference. Caryatid, which completes the trilogy, is a single heroic figure. Borrowing imagery from John Donne, one of the greatest metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, she supports an enormous bell and contemplates the weight of the individual's responsibility to one's self and to one's fellow human beings throughout life's struggles. In Caryatid, Anthonisen personifies a universal principle, which
Donne analyzed in one of his most poignant Devotions and which was resurrected by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is
a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod
be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well
as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy
friends or of thine own were, Any man's death diminishes
therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.[3]

Anthonisen's introspective and humanistic turn of mind has been attributed to his Scandinavian heritage and to his parents' psychological and spiritual orientation. His Norwegian-born father was a psychoanalyst and his Canadian-born mother was a psychiatrist.[4] Moreover, as Anthonisen noted, "They were physicians when medicine was a service rather than a business."[5] Some of his mother's relatives were missionaries in China, India, and Japan, and his father had thought of becoming a clergyman. But the depth of understanding and the convictions his parents developed through analysis, rather than formal religion, formed the foundations of their values, which shaped Anthonisen's life and view of the world.[6]

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1936, George Anthonisen grew up in New England and studied sculpture at the University of Vermont with Paul Aschenbach and anatomy at the Dartmouth College Medical School. In New York, he studied at the National Academy of Design with Adolph Block, Paul Fjelde, and Douglas Gorsline, and at the Art Students League with José de Creeft and John Hovannes.

A brilliant modeler and a master of the mise-en-scène, Anthonisen has long admired the works of Auguste Rodin and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and his sculpture bears the imprint of their influence. His innate sense of design and his constitutional propensity for handling clay seem to combine the power and rhythm of Rodin's Impressionistic modeling and mastery of the sculptural fragment with Saint-Gaudens's fluid and lyrical modeling and remarkable sense of ensemble. Nowhere is that conflation of sculptural fragment and ensemble more apparent than in Murder, the Violinist, and I Set Before You This Day.

In Murder, Anthonisen captures the essence of hate and fear sealed by death in the fragmented faces of Cain and Abel united by Cain's powerful arm as the instrument of destiny. In the Violinist, Anthonisen celebrates the creation of beauty through fragments of the violinist's instrument and chin. The consummate logic of Anthonisen's sense of composition and design is evident in the ensemble of I Set Before You This Day.[7] The sculpture is impossible to understand from any one perspective, which is why the piece is such a challenge to the photographer.

Anthonisen's ensemble forces the spectator to move around the composition, advancing and retreating, in order to read the psychological complexities that Anthonisen analyzes through the interaction between the individuals and among the different groups portrayed. The effort is rewarding, however, as the spectator is drawn into this drama of love, sacrifice, fear, and indifference as an active participant and thereby gains insight into human nature and the self. Foundryman Richard Polich, who cast the piece in bronze, noted, "The sculpture has a force that grabs observers and compels them to ruminate on what is happening to the figures in the sculpture."[8]

Beyond the aesthetic and cultural influences that shape Anthonisen's art, a learning disorder affects the way he perceives the world and how he transforms those perceptions into his humanizing images.[9] Diagnosed in the third grade as dyslexic, Anthonisen discovered that while he was just as intelligent as his classmates, he could not learn as they did. Through the devotion of a compassionate and gifted teacher, however, he came to understand his dyslexia and learned how to turn the disorder to his advantage.

Known popularly as a reading and writing disorder, dyslexia impairs a person's perception and integration of auditory and visual images and their expression. Many gifted people have been and are dyslexic. Among the best known are Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, and today's popular entertainer, Cher. Anthonisen's teacher taught him how to spell and construct words through sounds by means of an ingenious device of cards with nonsense words. By sounding out words, Anthonisen came to understand them. In time, he learned that to retain information of all kinds it had to be reinforced and interrelated through a variety of sensory channels.

Such learning tends to be three dimensional and insightful. which helps to explain dyslexic people's unique perspective on how things exist in space. Seeing beyond an individual object or aspect, they perceive the whole and its complexities in a unique way. The ensembles of Anthonisen's I Set Before You This Day and Give Us Grace, with their profound inter-relationships, illustrate that gestalt, which is common in dyslexia. Dyslexics also tend to be "hands on" people in whom the sensual, rational, and spiritual are inseparable, which is another characteristic that pervades Anthonisen's images.

Ironically, when George Anthonisen discovered sculpture in college, he subconsciously found a medium that was singularly compatible with his kinesthetic process of perception and ideally suited to his creative powers. Those powers found new expression in the 1970's with Anthonisen's creation of frescoes in which his images combine sculptural, painterly, and architectural elements. Anthonisen feels that the language of his frescoes inclines toward symbolism and abstraction, while his bronzes are more literal.[10]

In 1971, when he was sculptor-in-residence at the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, Anthonisen was particularly attracted to Saint-Gaudens's fluid and undulating treatment of relief surfaces, reminiscent of Donatello's innovations in the early fifteenth century in Florence.[11] Almost at the same time, he re-discovered the sculptural properties of ancient Greek vase painting and Renaissance frescoes, which led to the invention of his own version of fresco, and, as curator Lisa Tremper Barnes has noted, "without compromising the depth and contrast of full-bodied forms, because of his skill as a sculptor."[12]

Anthonisen's earliest frescoes were drawings in clay, which he cast in plaster and then painted.[13] His mature frescoes are rectangular compositions of plaster-soaked burlap, impregnated with color and fixatives, and worked with his hands into surfaces that are sculptural, painterly, and architectural.[14] His imagery, line, color, texture, and composition conjure a spectrum of images from the great periods of art history. The Field Series distills the essence of Claude's harbor scenes and Turner's landscapes and seascapes. The River Series suggests Constable's and the Dutch Baroque landscape painters' re-discovery of the natural landscape. And while the Four Horses and Origins re-interpret ancient Greek vase painting, it is in their contours and textures that they recall the shapes of de Chirico and even those neglected assemblages of David Smith of the 1930's, reflecting Smith's early response to African art and the works of Picasso and Gonzalez, then published in the Cahiers d'art.[15]

Whether in sculpture or in fresco, Anthonisen's images both engage and express the totality of the human person -- body, mind, and spirit. While they are vehicles of cultural, social, and moral commentary, they are marvels of formal conception and design. Moreover, in celebrating humanity and life, Anthonisen's images ennoble anew the venerable traditions throughout the history of art in which conception and execution, art and craft, are inseparable.



1. Donald Martin Reynolds, "Introduction: The Figurative Tradition, Masters of American Sculpture" (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1993), p.9.

2. John H. Dryfhout, Curator/Superintendent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, "Introduction," Anthonisen, (Souderton, PA: Indian Valley Printing Limited, 1992), p.3.

Author's interviews with George and Ellen Anthonisen, March-July, 1996.

Charles Shaw, "Anthonisen Wins Wide Recognition for His Sculpture," New Hope Gazette, March 28, 1985, p.3.

George and Ellen Anthonisen, "Anthonisen, Three Monumental Sculptures -- Defining a Lifework and Responsibility for Our Time: Community, Family, Individual" (draft, 4-9-96), no pagination.

3. John Donne, "Devotions, Upon Emergent Occasions,Vol.XVII,'' in Louis Untermeyer, A Treasury of Great Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942), pp.355-56 (emphasis, the author's).

4. Cathy Viksjo, "Sculptural Innovations in Classical Traditions," The Times (Trenton), August 23, 1992, pp.AAl-2.

5. Charles Shaw, p.3.

6. Ibid., author's interviews with George and Ellen Anthonisen.

7. The title of the piece was taken from Moses' admonition to the Jewish people, in the Book of Deuteronomy (30: 19), to choose life that their descendants might live. Helene and Mark Hankin, I Set Before You This Day, a Sculpture by George Anthonisen (Mount Laurel, New Jersey: Anne Klein and Associates, 1990), no pagination. This catalogue was published on the presentation of the sculpture by Helene and Mark Hankin to the James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, June 1990.

8. Bridget Wingert, "Solebury Sculptor to Inaugurate Woodmere Art Museum Season," New Hope Gazette, September 3, 1992, p.18.

9. Author's interviews with George Anthonisen and with Thomas C. Unger, Director, Learning Skills Program, Solebury School, New Hope, PA. March-July, 1996. The author is indebted to Mr. Unger, an authority on dyslexia, for his insights into the nature of the disorder and its ramifications in the art of George Anthonisen, whom Mr. Unger knows.

10. Sally Friedman, "George Anthonisen's Humanism Carved in Stone," Bucks County Courier Times, October 21, 1994, p.20.

11. Dryfhout, p.3; author's interview.

12. Sally Friedman, p.20.

13. Cathy Viksjo, "A Mix of Tradition and Innovation," The Times (Trenton), October 16, 1994, p.BB2.

14. Ibid., Rita Beyer, "Anthonisen at Woodmere," Chestnut Hill Local, September 24, 1992, p.37.

15. See especially Smith's Virgin Islands Relief, 1932, oil on wood with wooden pieces, 18" x 22" in the collection of Candida and Rebecca Smith, published in Karen Wilkin's David Smith (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1984), p.14.

About the author

Art historian Donald Martin Reynolds was, at the time of authoring the above essay, an adjunct Professor of Art History at Columbia University. He is regarded as an expert in American sculpture. Dr. Reynolds is the author of of many articles and books on sculpture, including Monuments and Masterpieces: Histories and Views of Public Sculpture in New York City (1989), Masters of American Sculpture: The Figurative Tradition (1994) and Remove Not the Ancient Landmark: Public Monuments and Moral Values (1996).

The Columbia University Record, December 9, 1994, Vol. 20, No. 12 reports that Dr. Reynolds "was curator of New York City parks from 1986 to 1988, where he oversaw the more than 1,500 public monuments, statues and plaques in 1,000 parks. Most of them 'celebrate events or mark people's accomplishments,' says Reynolds. But when events fade or benefactors die, 'they are forgotten, and so are their principles,' he says. To help stem this erosion, he is founder of The Monuments Conservancy, an organization devoted to 'making people aware of our public monuments and what they stand for.'" The Record adds that "He established the Samuel Dorksy Symposium on Public Monuments in 1991."

Dr. Reynolds lives in New York City.


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