Anna Coleman Ladd—All Sides of Life

Defying constraints of her time, a female artist destined for war

Anna Coleman Ladd’s Beverly Farms studio, where she created over 20 sculptures and fountains commissioned by friends and neighbors.
Anna Coleman Ladd’s Beverly Farms studio, where she created over 20 sculptures and fountains commissioned by friends and neighbors.

ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO on Memorial Day 1924, the American Legion unveiled its Memorial to the five young men of Manchester who lost their lives in WWI.  Many attend this annual event at Rosedale cemetery where “Flanders Fields”, the poem by John McCrae, is recited. 

Yet, few have seen the small bronze plaques on the granite memorial in the quiet bowl at the center of the cemetery. 

Unlike war memorials of the past, this one embraces the horrors of war.   Facing west is “Night,” which shows a skeleton caught in barbed wire.  Facing East, to the rising sun, is “Dawn”, which depicts two men rising from the battlefield.  The men, like the poppies of Flanders Field, spring forth from the battle-scarred earth.

When Anna Coleman Ladd presented her modern design to the American Legion, it was highly controversial and made front-page headlines in Boston and New York.  She proposed that the words “Lest We Forget” appear below “Night.”  Anna had seen the horrors of war up close and wanted a memorial that illustrated them for what they truly were – horrors; horrors she was personally and intimately familiar with.

The Soul of a Poet

Anna Coleman Ladd’s life as an artist began early.  Born on July 15, 1878, in Bryn Mawr, PA, Anna adored the outdoors and looked to nature for inspiration, a theme that would continue throughout her career.  

Her first experience with sculpting was a happy accident, having discovered a bit of window putty left behind by a repairman.  Inspired and intrigued, she began to sculpt constantly.  As a young lady, Anna left home to travel to Rome, Paris and Vienna; a wonderful opportunity afforded her by her grandfather’s work as the U.S. Minister to Austria.  While Anna was notably more comfortable learning the human form through experience and observation, more than formal study, she chose to spend time with notable artists such as Ettore Ferrari and Emilio Gallori in Rome.  In Paris, she spent time at the studios of Marius Jean Antonin Mercié and Auguste Rodin.  

In Rome, Anna formed a lifelong friendship with Contessina Gabriella Fabbricotti, a contemporary aspiring Florentine artist who would later visit the battlefields of WWI to create sketches in a museum in Rome.  Later, Anna dedicated her first book to Gabriella and named her eldest daughter Gabriella.

The sculptress emerges

Now in her mid-twenties, Anna returned to the United States a confident young artist, fluent in four languages and has grown impressively as a sculptor and as an independent woman of note.  Her work focused almost exclusively on the human form, with figures that appear joyful, frolicsome, and ebullient.  She hired acrobats to model for one sculpture.  Others featured mothers and children, evoking a wonderful femininity and intimacy.

In 1905, at the age of 27, Anna married a young physician, Maynard Ladd, in Salisbury Cathedral, England.  The couple moved to Boston, where Maynard worked at Harvard Medical School, specializing in children’s medicine.  During this time, Anna’s work caught the eye and friendship of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the American art collector and patron who, in 1915, purchased Ladd’s bronze bust of Maria de Acosta Sargent, daughter of writer Mercedes de Acosta and relative of artist John Singer Sargent.  

The two women maintained a friendship and exchanged letters regularly.  Today, the bust can be seen at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Macknight room and is one of the few female artists in the museum’s collection.  It is nestled front and center amongst three works by John Singer Sargent, one of Gardner’s favorite artists and closest friends.  Notably, the bust is sensual: Maria holds only a small piece of fabric below her shoulders, her decolletage exposed and exquisitely rendered.  Here, Ladd explores the beauty and simplicity of human form, while pushing boundaries of acceptability as well. 

The Ladds enjoyed their life in Boston, living in a large home on Claremont Street, where Anna maintained a studio on the upper floor and, as early as 1900, began summering on Proctor Street in Manchester-by-the-Sea.  There, Ann converted the barn facing the harbor into a studio.  “My dream is to work for all outdoors, to produce sculptures to be placed on street corners, on walls, and on open roads,” she would say. 

Manchester soon became home to numerous Ladd sculptures, as friends and neighbors commissioned over 20 statues and fountains for their estates.  One of these, “Sun God and Python,” was the beautiful centerpiece within the pergola and reflecting pool in the Fitz estate gardens.

Anna continued to thrive professionally while also raising the couple’s two daughters, Gabriella and Vernon.  During this time, she also wrote two novels, “Hieronymus Rides” in 1912 and “The Candid Adventurer” in 1913, and two unpublished plays.  She enjoyed solo exhibitions at the Gorham Gallery in New York, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, as well as having works exhibited in Rome, Paris, Chicago, and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

Anna was absolutely becoming an artist of note with 1915 arguably being the pinnacle of her artistic career before WWI.  That year she was invited to display five sculptures on the world stage at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair.  The event, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, was titled the “Panama-Pacific International Exhibition” and spanned 600 acres of the city’s waterfront and lasted nine months.  Among the works chosen were “Sun God and Python”, “Wind and Spray,” and “Triton Babies,” which can be found today in the Boston Public Garden as a fountain sculpture. 

The war comes

Yet this was not the zenith of Anna’s career.  In 1917, America entered WWI.  Maynard was dispatched to France to direct the Children’s Bureau of the American Red Cross.  Anna remained home to care for the children.  However, inspired by an article detailing the work of an English sculptor, Derwent Wood, Anna made up her mind to join the war effort.  Her idea, unprecedented and unconventional, was denied by the Red Cross. 

Undeterred, she rerouted and quickly trained to become a volunteer ambulance driver and was finally dispatched.  And so it was that in 1918, Anna Coleman Ladd opened the Studio for Portrait Masks in Montparnasse, forever changing the lives of wounded soldiers. 

Next week in The Cricket, Anna Coleman Ladd Part II: Les Gueules Cassées (“The Shattered Mugs”).  Ladd, in Paris, is transformed by her work with wounded soldiers from the Western Front.