Skip to main content

Bessie Potter Vonnoh papers, circa 1860-1991, bulk 1890-1955

Biographical Note

Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955) was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Alexander and Mary McKenney Potter. In 1874, after the death of her father, her family moved to Chicago. Also at this time, she suffered from a series of illnesses that she did not recover from until she was ten. In school she enjoyed clay-modeling class and decided at an early age that she wanted to be a sculptor. Beginning in 1890 she studied with Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago and later became one of his assistants (known as the "White Rabbits") for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. She was also given her own commission for the Illinois building at the fair. After this success, Vonnoh opened her own studio in Chicago and made plaster figurines of society women, friends, and their children. She visited New York and took her first trip to Paris in 1895, visiting the studios of many eminent sculptors such as Auguste Rodin. Her work was influenced by the American Impressionist movement, depicted in one of her most famous works, Young Mother. This piece was exhibited in the National Sculpture Society exhibition of 1898 and led to several public sculpture commissions.
In 1899 Bessie Potter Vonnoh moved to New York City and married Impressionist painter, Robert William Vonnoh (1858-1933). They lived in New York and maintained a summer home in Lyme, Connecticut. During her career she received many awards for her works at international exhibitions, including two bronze medals at the Paris Exposition in 1900. Other landmark events included a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1913 and membership into the National Academy of Design in 1921 - the first female sculptor accepted as a permanent member. Vonnoh's work was very well received by the public, and in the 1920s she began working on a larger scale, creating large fountains, such as the Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain in Central Park, New York, and other decorative garden figures. Robert Vonnoh died in 1933 and, in 1948, she married Dr. Edward Keyes. Bessie Potter Vonnoh died in New York City in 1955 at the age of 82.