Sally Welles James Farnham (1869-1943)
By Blair Updike
Born in 1869 into a socially and politically prominent New York family, Sally James Farnham used her connections to launch a successful career as a sculptor, virtually without prior training. Sally's mother died when she was 10, leaving her in the care of her father, Colonel Edward C. James, who raised her to be robust, confident, and a bit defiant. Sally was an avid sportswoman, bragging that she “scandalized Ogdensburg (her hometown) by breaking horses on Main Street.” This bravado and physical strength would serve her well when she took up sculpture. Sally said that her art education happened while traveling during her 20s with her father throughout Europe and Japan. Those days “were loaded with opportunities for study, to unconsciously absorb the great things in line and form of every nation. In fact, this was my real schooling. I was heading for sculpture then, but I didn't know it.”
At age 28, Sally married George Farnham, Director of Design with Tiffany & Co. In 1901, Sally was hospitalized shortly after the birth of their second child. To keep the energetic Sally “out of mischief,” her husband gave her modeling clay. She emerged from the hospital intent on pursuing sculpture professionally. She opened a studio in New York and leaned heavily on the guidance of family friend Frederic Remington and her husband George, an accomplished sculptor.
Her earliest commissions were busts for society friends. Sally's first big commission was a bronze fountain of three life-sized nude females to go in the garden of Captain Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo Seltzer. The base was inscribed with a poem praising the “joyous spontaneity” of the maenads dancing unhampered by tight corsets, uncomfortable shoes, or propriety, and implying that all women would be better off if heaven so permitted. The whole scale and composition were rather bold and slightly risqué for someone just starting their career.
In 1904, Sally entered and won a competition for a Soldiers and Sailors monument in her hometown. Her piece was chosen over 15 other entries. The newspaper announced, “A woman has entered the competition!” The final piece was bronze and granite, reaching 37 ft. high. An estimated 20,000 people attended the unveiling where Vice President Charles Fairbanks was the keynote speaker.
By 1905, Sally was well-known and was commissioned to sculpt a bas relief of Teddy Roosevelt, now housed in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1907, she was commissioned to make a series of gilded bronze bas reliefs for the Pan American building in Washington, DC. The completed pieces, installed in 1910, were titled the Frieze of the Discoverers and featured historical scenes from the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Around this time, her husband split with Tiffany & Co. and ceased to provide any financial support for their three children, so sculpting became a more significant income source for the family. She then created portrait busts of famous figures such as Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Senator Andrew Wms. Clark, and President Warren G. Harding who declared in a letter that her piece “was really the most nearly perfect of anything that has been done of me.”
Beating out 30 entries by men, Sally was awarded her largest commission in 1916 when she was chosen to sculpt Simon Bolivar for the Venezuelan government at a price of $24,000. Sally worked for five years on the sculpture, renting studio space in Brooklyn from an artist named Ettl. Almost three years into the project, she got into a dispute with her landlord, which culminated in a lawsuit. By the time she was able to access her studio again, the plaster was destroyed, and she had to start over. Sally completed the statue by 1920, and on April 19, 1921, it was unveiled in Central Park with President Warren G. Harding as the keynote speaker.
While Sally was certainly talented and industrious, we perhaps learn more about her success from these descriptions of her charismatic personality. One female interviewer from the Brooklyn Eagle said, “after a brief minute in her presence, you are overwhelmed by the fact that you are not interested in her as an artist but as a woman of unique charm and fascinating personality.” She is simultaneously described as forceful, impatient, motherly, and quirky. Stories circulated about Sally’s shocking orange hair dye, incessant chain-smoking, dinner parties with pet monkeys, as well as the riding and shooting. During her 40-year career, this vital and creative woman was invited to the White House to sketch two different presidents and sculpted what is still today the largest traditional bronze monument by a woman artist, all while raising three children. She was repeatedly chosen over male colleagues by all-male panels, breaking the gender bias before it was the norm.
Sally died April 28, 1943 and is buried in Great Neck, New York. Thanks to a newfound interest in her work, the Remington Museum now hosts a permanent collection of her sculptures.