The Animal Sculptures of Arthur Putnam

During his lifetime, Arthur Putnam (1873–1930) was hailed as the greatest sculptor of California, the “American Rodin.”  Putnam’s restless nature and aversion to academics led him to spend a great deal of time outdoors where he developed a passionate interest in wildlife that prepared him to become one of the greatest animaliers in America.  Largely self-taught, Putnam learned to depict animals by observing and sketching them in the wild and in zoos, and by working briefly in a slaughterhouse.  Sporadic study at the Art Students League of San Francisco left little mark on him, but his natural talent was nurtured through contact with artists including fellow avid outdoorsman Frederic Remington, Gutzon Borglum, who later would carve Mount Rushmore, and Edward Kemeys, best known for creating the Art Institute of Chicago’s iconic bronze lions.  His work came to the attention of publisher E. W. Scripps who gave Putnam his first major commission to sculpt five monumental bronze figures for his Miramar Ranch near San Diego.  During a two-year study trip to Europe sponsored by Mrs. W. H. Crocker, Putnam mastered the technique of lost-wax bronze casting and won prizes for his sculpture at the 1906 Rome International Exposition and the 1907 Paris Salon.  Back in San Francisco, Putnam established his own foundry, and began producing a remarkable array of sculptures, a large proportion of which featured wild animals rendered with great vitality and expressiveness.  Putnam had just begun to achieve a national reputation when his career was tragically curtailed at age 38 by a brain tumor that left him paralyzed on the left side.  Supported by artist friends and patrons including Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, Putnam was able to win a gold medal at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition for casts of earlier work but he was never again able to bring to life the ferocious beasts that he so admired.

At the core of this exhibition are 28 of Putnam’s vibrant animal bronzes from the over 100 that the Museum was fortunate to receive in 1925 as a gift from Alma de Bretteville Spreckels and her family. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue illustrate Putnam’s mastery of his art and knowledge of his animal subjects.

Inspired by the San Diego Zoo‘s centennial celebration, several Balboa Park museums are collaborating to bring you a menagerie of animal-themed exhibitions in 2016. The San Diego Museum of Art is pleased to be Part of the Pride with Ferocious Bronze.


Lecture: Arthur Putnam’s Ferocious Life | Saturday, April 2 at 10:30 a.m.
Free after Museum admission.

Arthur Putnam, Puma on Guard. Bronze. Gift of Mrs. A.B. Spreckels, Alma Emma Spreckels, Adolph B. Spreckels and Dorothy Spreckels. 1925.16