Monkey Group, 1902-06.
Rhesus Male, 1934-36.
Rhesus Monkeys (one scratching the other), 1934-36.
Ring-tailed Monkeys “Hymn of Hate”, 1936.
Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Monkey Sculptures
By Julia Wolkoff
As the daughter of noted paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington developed an affinity for animals early in her life. She subsequently gained an extensive knowledge of animal anatomy and behavior. After moving to New York City with her mother in 1902, Hyatt Huntington studied at the Art Students League under sculptors George Grey Barnard, Hermon MacNeil, and Gutzon Borglum, all of whom included animals in their repertoires. She soon left her formal instruction in order to work independently and to directly observe her animal subjects. She spent much of her time at the then-recently opened Bronx Zoo, formerly known as the New York Zoological Park, where she participated in their Artist Residency Program
At the zoo, Hyatt Huntington developed a particular fascination with monkeys, which she sculpted many times throughout her long career. Officially named the Primates’ House upon its opening in 1901, the Beaux-Arts building lined the zoo’s central Astor Court along with the Ape, Lion and Elephant Houses. Accorded landmark status, the Monkey House was the oldest building at the zoo still used for its original purpose, second only to the Reptile House. The Bronx Zoo’s historic Monkey House recently closed in February 2012 after a 111-year run.
Monkeys and apes have always been a favorite at the zoo. The Monkey House was home to several monkey “celebrities.” Baldy the chimpanzee was captured in the Congo at age four. He became the star attraction at the Monkey House from 1907 until his death in 1914. In June 1910 The New York Times reported that Baldy, “dean of the monkey house,” had learned to roller skate. Baldy became so famous that when President Taft visited the zoo in 1911, he specifically requested to meet the chimp and even shook his hand. A second female chimp, Susie, impressed the President with her ability to distinguish colors by their names. Perhaps the sorriest moment in the zoo’s history was in 1906, when the zoo exhibited a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga, who wrestled with an orangutan in a cage in the Monkey House for visitors’ amusement.
During this period, monkeys in popular culture were heavily anthropomorphized. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859—fewer than twenty years before Huntington was born—made explicit the kinship between man and ape. The Bronx zoo, notably, published postcards featuring chimps and orangutans dining at set tables, wearing human clothing and typing at a typewriter. For an animalier like Huntington, primates were the nearest equivalent to the human form, and the monkey proved a particularly useful subject for a sculptor because of its expressive and compositional range.
An early example of Huntington’s exploration of the monkey genre is the bronze plaque, Monkey Group, produced 1902-1906. Two chimpanzees are caught in a moment of repose, languidly lounging atop a rock. The chimp on the left reclines with an arm encircling the rock, closely resembling a human reclining on a couch. His companion reaches an arm over the former’s leg, resting his chin on the first monkey’s belly. These monkeys are approachable and personable. This plaque contrasts with the ferocity of many other animals she modeled at the zoo. Huntington’s jaguar sculptures paw aggressively towards unseen prey, bulls lock horns, and butting goat heads collide.
After recovering from a long bout of tuberculosis, Huntington resumed work, creating a new monkey series in preparation for a retrospective exhibition of her work presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York in 1936. The exhibition toured the United States through 1939. Rhesus Monkeys (one scratching the other) (1934–36) portrays more active primates than those depicted in her early monkey plaque. The rambunctious Rhesus Male (1934-36) smiles contentedly as he twists to scratch behind an ear. The small sculpture captures the childlike nature of the animal. His detailed coat endears the viewer to embrace the lifelike creature. Rhesus Monkeys (one scratching the other) portrays the dignified companionship of monkeys. The symbiotic relationship is extremely tender, evocative of a human couple. The arms and legs of the monkeys create a circlular composition, intimately connecting the pair.
Huntington also realized the potential for primates to represent allegorical themes. Ring-tailed Monkeys "Hymn of Hate" (1936) departs from her earlier depictions of friendly monkeys in favor of a fiercer side. As one wiry monkey grabs a submissive counterpart by the neck, the two open their mouths to cry out. Their titular ring tails curlicue and meet and their elongated toes curl over the edges of the sculpture’s base. The long-legged stature of the aggressor closely imitates the bipedal human stance. Similarly, Domestic Trouble (1938), anthropomorphizes another pair of ring-tailed monkeys grabbing each other by the wrists and hair, grappling in another circular composition. The animals scream and scowl at each other, not unlike a couple in a rather intense lover’s spat. Huntington depicts monkeys acting like humans to slyly poke fun at humans who act like monkeys.
In 1939 Huntington and her husband, Archer M. Huntington, donated their Fifth Avenue townhouse to the National Academy of Design and moved into Rocas, an estate located in Haverstraw, New York. There, Huntington was able to acquire her very own zoo. Featuring bears, wolves, wild boars, and of course, monkeys, the zoo allowed this prolific animalier to continue her passion for animal sculpture, as ever, on her own terms.