by Vince Cimmino
January 8, 2024
The year: 1936
The place: Dallas Museum of Art
The exhibit: Texas Centennial Exposition
Contributors: Art Institute of Chicago, Detroit Institute of Arts, National Gallery of Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions and collectors.
A quotation from the exposition sculpture garden guide: “A fountain must be actually capable of spurting water in a graceful manner; an architectural figure must fit its place and not be antagonistic to the building on which it is to go. A further requirement of sculpture is a respect for the materials of which it is constructed. Stone should not be forced to imitate flesh or grass too closely, bronze should not be too greatly textured, and wood should follow its grain and be allowed to show its own beauty.”
So what is this all about? The statue in Reynolda’s forecourt beside the sunken lawn is Vuk Vuchinich’s (1901-1974) Kneeling Venus. It was probably cast between 1928 and 1935, making it at least 88 years old. It has graced the entrance to Reynolda House since just after the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. In fact, it was on display there because the lender was Charles Babcock of Greenwich, Connecticut!
Reynolda’s Kneeling Venus is part of a centuries-long tradition of beautiful nude female statuary depicting the Roman goddess of love. However, sometimes, she crouches or bathes and is also known by her Greek name, the goddess Aphrodite.
About seven months after its showing in Dallas, Thomas Sears’s 1937 plans for the forecourt included two flower beds to be planted with pink tulips called Darwin Venus. Coincidence? Perhaps.
We presume that, by 1937 when Sears designed his planting plan for Mary Reynolds Babcock, she intended to place it in the Forecourt Garden. From a 1941 photograph of the family reunion at Reynolda House, we can see that the Kneeling Venus has taken her place where we view her today.
Vuchinich was well known to the Babcocks. He was born December 9, 1901 in Montenegro, Serbia. He studied at the University of Serbia. After immigrating to New York City, he studied art at the National Academy of Design and Beaux Arts Institute of Design under, among others, Robert Aitken, the maker of Reynolda’s Thing of Beauty (1910). From the sun porch, it faces the front sunken lawn and Kneeling Venus.
As a professional artist, Vuchinich painted portraits and worked as a commercial illustrator for Time Magazine and other corporate clients. The Babcocks knew Vuchinich, and he did a 1933 charcoal portrait sketch of Charlie Babcock. It was most likely the model for a bronze bust of Charlie located in the Hall of Justice in downtown Winston-Salem.
We do not know whether the Babcocks and the artist knew each other before 1933, but over the next few years, Mary would commission the artist to create pieces of outdoor sculpture for the re-designed landscaping around Reynolda House. Vuchinich was also commissioned to create four bronze statues of the four Babcock children. At least two are known to be in private family collections. Barbara Babcock Millhouse, Mary and Charlie’s daughter, remembers, “Vuk was commissioned to do small bronze statues of the four of us, and a bust of my father. Katie was posed as though she was diving into the pool, and I was sniffing a petunia, which I hated. I think Betsy was just standing, and I am not certain about Charles.”1
Interestingly, one other Kneeling Venus is located at Gianni Versace’s home, Casa Casuarina, on Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, Florida. Versace may have been attracted to the villa by this sculpture. He was strongly influenced by ancient Greek history, which dominates the historical landscape of his birthplace, Calabria, Italy. It was outside his Florida residence in July 1997 where Versace was murdered.
Children frolic around Reynolda’s Kneeling Venus and her fountain daily. Staff, volunteers, campus walkers, and visitors pass by her casually, perhaps taking her for granted. Knowing her history makes us stop for a closer look and once again marvel at the careful planning that went into every space at Reynolda.
Special thanks to Kathleen Hutton, former Director of Education, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, for her research.
1Email from Barbara Babcock Millhouse to Kathleen Hutton, 3 August 2017