Abastenia St. Leger Eberle

March, 06, 2020 Back

In 1898, when she was twenty, Eberle went to Aibonito, Puerto Rico, where her father served in the army during the Spanish-American War. While she was there she built a small studio of corrugated iron and modeled the local Puerto Ricans based on observations of the natural postures of everyday life. Upon her return from Puerto Rico, Eberle moved to New York City where she enrolled in the Art Students League in 1899. She was a successful pupil, consistently winning prizes and scholarships, which helped to keep her afloat financially during four years of study. Eberle’s training under sculptors Charles Y. Harvey and George Grey Barnard and painter Kenyon Cox was traditionally academic, as such early works as L’Isolée (ca. 1901) and Lute Player (ca. 1901) demonstrate.

From around 1904 to 1906, Eberle shared an apartment on East 33rd Street in Manhattan with Anna Vaughn Hyatt, who studied briefly at the League. During this period the two women collaborated on sculpture, Hyatt doing the animals and Eberle the figures. Before they parted ways in 1906, Eberle carved a marble portrait of Hyatt, which is now in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Art. Unfortunately, none of the collaborative works seems to have survived.

While she was still a student, Eberle became intrigued by the intense life she discovered in the ethnic neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. The blocks of crowded, dilapidated tenements housed poor Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, who disturbed her social conscience while exciting her artistic imagination. In 1906 she translated the spirit of the throbbing ghetto streets into Roller Skating, the depiction of a little girl in a thin dress, sagging stockings, and worn, unlaced boots, sailing ecstatically downhill on a single skate. That she choose to present a child during a thrilling moment in play saved the piece from becoming mere maudlin commentary on the plight of the poor; nonetheless, the social content of this and many other of Eberle’s works cannot be ignored. Three sculptures done in 1907—Girls Dancing (Corcoran Gallery of Art), Little Mother (Kendall Young Library), and Coal Picker (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)—are people as Eberle found them going about their lives, whether it be with ingenuous gaiety or tender protectiveness or aged stoicism. In making them her subjects, Eberle began to draw attention to a part of society considered better left ignored.

In the summer of 1907 Eberle moved to a settlement house on the Lower East Side so that she could work for her subjects as well as from them, and in the fall she took a studio on West 9th Street in Greenwich Village. The move exhilarated her, as she later recalled: “…when I went to live in the settlement it was with the end already in view—to get personally acquainted where I had so long been an onlooker.”

Beginning in 1907, Eberle exhibited her sculpture at Macbeth Gallery, the same firm that showed paintings by The Eight. Her work was also handled by Gorham Galleries and Theodore B. Starr, Inc., in New York.

To make money she did portrait commissions and “bread-and-butter pieces” that sold easily—decorative utilitarian items, such as candlesticks, bookends, and inkwells. In a letter to dealer William Macbeth, she reported that eighty-three casts of her Hide and Seek Bookends had been sold. “I never saw anything like the way they sell—and only hope it will keep up.”

In the spring of 1907, Eberle traveled to Italy where she had works cast by a Naples foundry. Aside from the fifty or so examples made in Naples, Eberle’s work was most frequently cast by a number of U.S. firms, including Gorham Company Founders in Providence and B. Zoppo, S. Klaber, E. Gargani, and A. Kunst foundries in New York, as well as the Griffoul Foundry in New Jersey. Since the casts are not numbered, it is difficult to determine the sizes of editions, but most of Eberle’s sculptures, aside from decorative pieces, seem to have been executed in relatively small editions, generally no more than six and in some cases only two or three.

Eberle’s exhibition schedule from 1908 to the mid-teens was active. She contributed to yearly shows at Macbeth Gallery, had an exhibition at Theodore B. Starr, Inc., in 1912, and participated in Gorham Galleries’ shows of works by women sculptors in 1914 and 1915. For each of two National Sculpture Society exhibitions, one held in Baltimore in 1908 and a large traveling show in 1909-1910, she contributed nine bronzes. In the 1913 Armory Show in New York and the following year in the Spring Salon, Eberle showed Girls on a Beach (1913, also called Coney Island).

By the spring of 1912, Eberle had taken a lease on larger quarters on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village, where she had a studio, a garden, and extra space to rent out for income. But in less than two years she decided she was too comfortable and, consequently, bored. This reassessment led Eberle to the Lower East Side again, this time on Madison Street in another swarming, squalling neighborhood. She took two rooms, one for a studio and one for a playroom where children wandered in and out, creating vignettes for her to work from as they played. In 1914 Macbeth Gallery presented sixteen of these recent works in a joint show of sculpture of Eberle, Chester Beach, and Mahonri Young. Eberle worked on Madison Street for eighteen months, modeling approximately two dozen works, including Playing Jacks, Mud Pies, On Avenue A, and Yetta and the Cat Wake Up (plaster of each, Kendall Young Library).

Eberle’s health began to fail from heart problems when she was in her late thirties. By the time she returned from Madison Street to her West 13th Street studio in 1916, the condition had begun to severely limit her physical strength. Eberle contributed no new works to the annuals after 1920, although she exhibited a work in both major National Sculpture Society exhibitions held in the 1920s—The Stray Cat in 1923 and Windy Doorstep in 1929—and three pieces were shown in a 1923 exhibition at the Peabody Institute. Her career effectively ended, Eberle struggled to make a living with portraits and garden sculpture, some of which were shown at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Eberle died on 26 February 1942.

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