The Fremiet Bronzes – The Bear and The Gorilla

A catalogue raisonee refers to the 1899-1900 commission of the Park’s Denicheur  and Gorille. IMG_8696The Rock Island politician and railroad tycoon, Ransom Cable, commissioned the pair. Ransom’s family owned he Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, commonly referred in song and legend as the Rock Island Line. Mr. Cable intended the pair for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, but the pair were never installed there.


Instead the two bronze groups exhibited on loan at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point, probably in the late 1920’s, Ransom’s widow loaned them to Lordado Taft to display in his wished-upon museum of fine art. Taft’s collection of the great world art never came to fruition. The two bronze pieces flanked the exterior red door of Taft’s Midway Studio on the grounds of the University of Chicago.

Lorado Taft died in 1936. The contents of his Midway Studio were purchased by the University of Illinois. The Chicago Tribune, reported on May 18, 1937, that Taft’s Midway Studios would be open to the public one final time, after which the contents were to be removed for ‘permanent exhibition’ at the University of Illinois. The two Fremiet bronzes were ‘erroneously’ included in the contents. The bronze pair came to what was, at the time, Robert Allerton’s private estate for ‘storage’. At the time, Robert and John Gregg Allerton were on an around the world cruise, departing in February, 1937, on the Queen Mary, to return in the mainland US in February, 1938, with a month layover in Hawaii. Dr. Allen Weller, an aspiring young associate professor, who was well liked and known by the Allerton’s was responsible for the pair’s deposit at the Allerton estate. Robert was indifferent to them. They didn’t belong to him and they were never installed within the gardens. When the Allertons gifted their estate to the University of Illinois in 1947, the two bronze creations, likewise, seemingly came with the estate, even though they were not installed within the gardens or woodlands like their other art holdings nor are they included in the contents of the estate gift. Dr. Weller would dedicate the rest of his academic career at the University of Illinois as a scholar of the life and works of Lorado Taft, tracing the path of a great American art scholar. The procurement of Taft’s personal papers and correspondence formed a significant body of Weller’s study, research and writings for the balance of his career at the University of Illinois rising to become Dean of the School of Fine Arts.

Red doors of Taft's Midway Studios

Red doors of Taft’s Midway Studios

If the two bronze groups were not so large and heavy, it would be easier to understand how the pair could have been collected along with the contents of Taft’s studios on the campus of the University of Chicago. The Gorilla and Bear flanked the exterior red doors of Taft’s Midway Studios. A small crane would have been required to lift and load the large bronzes. Dr. Weller must have had forethought and intention in order to have purloined the pair. And then, as if to conceal their whereabouts, they were taken to a very private estate with restricted access. It seems in looking at this in hindsight, Dr. Weller executed a well-planned art heist. Robert Allerton and John Gregg may well have been uninformed of their depositing in 1937 due to their absence, but they certainly became aware of them upon return from their world cruise. 1959 archive correspondence indicates the two bronze groups were not hidden from view and the University readily acknowledged that the Bear and Gorilla statues were on loan, and not owned by the University.

The Allerton estate opened to the public in 1948 as Robert Allerton Park. From 1937 until 1959 the Gorilla and Bear stood off the road next to a storage shed. From a letter written in 1959, it appears the pair were stored, off display. The University directed Dean Allen Wellen to inquire into the provenance and ownership of the Gorilla and the Bear which would soon lead to their gifting by the Ransom Cable’s daughter-in-law later that year. In the same year the pair were installed on the that leads east from the Foo Dog Garden around the goldfish pond. 

In 1977, the newly established and built Krannert Art Museum of the University of Illinois became the official owners, although they remained installed on the grounds of Allerton Park. In 1980, the Bear toured the United States as part of a large exhibit organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) entitled The Romantics to Rodin. Besides Los Angeles, the tour included stops in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Indianapolis. The Allerton Gorilla did not tour in this exhibition. Instead, the Gorilla group was represented by a reduction that was mass produced after the success following the 1887 Salon. The smaller grouping measures 17.5 inches high, 12 inches wide and a diameter of 15.5 inches compared to the life-sized Gorilla on exhibit at the Park.The Gorilla group was loaned by a Tennessee family.

After the tour, the Bear was returned to the Park until 1989 when, in response to controversy against racism, sexism and animal cruelty and threats to ‘melt them down’ both the Bear and Gorilla were taken off exhibit and placed in storage on the Allerton grounds. Their storage ended in 2006 when they were exhibited on loan at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Following their return in 2007, the Fremiet pair were put on permanent exhibit in the Kinkaede Pavilion at the Krannert Art Museum on the campus of the University of Illinois. There, the bronze pair remained in their windowed sun room until last October, 2016, when they were re-installed at Allerton Park very near their original installation site of 1959. What a circuitous trajectory for these magnificent works of art.

In a recent February, 2017, Sotheby auction, a Fremiet bronze of a different subject matter and smaller size sold. It’s pre-auction estimate was $25-50,000. It sold for $140,000.

Like the Bourdelle Centaur installed at the opposite end of the Park and further on, the Sunsinger, these works represent significant museum quality pieces. Of the four, the Sunsinger seems to have weathered the elements the worst. That the Gorilla and Bear were stored or exhibited in protection from the elements and vandals is to their benefit. The Centaur has been exposed since his installation in 1924. He has weathered well with little maintenance.

Time Line of the Fremiet Bronze Pair – Denicher d’Oursons and Gorille Enlevant une Femme

1899 – Commissioned from Emmanuel Fremiet by the Honorable Ransom Cable

1900 – Arrived in the United States

1900-circa 1930 – on outdoor display at the American Museum of Natural History, NYC

1930-1937 – on outdoor display at Midway Studios, Chicago, IL – University of Chicago

1937-1959 – in outdoor storage on the Allerton estate / Allerton Park

1959-1989 – on outdoor woodland installation on a maintained trail at Allerton Park

1980 – Denicheur travels with The Romantics to Rodin Tour – Returned to woodland

1989-2007 – in indoor storage at Allerton Park

2007 – on indoor display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

2007-2016 – on indoor display at Kinkaede Pavilioin, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois

2016-Present – on outdoor woodland installation on a well maintained trail. The trail is accessible from the House, but in may experience temporary flooding along the flood plain. The Northeast corner of the Main Parking offers a good launching point for a short hike trail loop of slightly moderate intensity. Repellant is advisable from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

This entry was posted in Park and the Palace. Bookmark the permalink.