Investigating the Three Bares

Research by undergraduate student uncovers lost details of sculpture’s origins

Tara Allen-Flanagan, an art history and English literature student, spent much of last summer delving into art archives to find out everything she could about an iconic piece of McGill’s downtown campus – The Three Bares fountain.

The naked marble men holding up an earthen bowl on the lower field have been a familiar part of the McGill landscape for generations of students, but information about the fountain’s origins is almost as scant as the figures’ clothing. The official name of the statue is The Friendship Fountain, and it was crafted by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose family fame and wealth often overshadowed her artistic talent.

Vanderbilt Whitney’s papers were recently digitized for the Smithsonian Institutes Archives of American Art, and an exhibition about her sculpture – the first since her death in 1942 – was mounted this past spring in West Palm Beach. So the timing was right.

By poking through unlabeled files and cross-referencing letters, Allen-Flanagan, supported by an Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA), pieced together a narrative. And by working out the timing of the sculpture’s creation, Allen-Flanagan was able to find preliminary sketches of the sculpture, “as if it just popped out of thin air!”

Allen-Flanagan discovered the sculpture was commissioned for the New Arlington Hotel in Washington D.C., which was never built. Auguste Rodin himself critiqued a sketch of the main male figure, and the sculpture was carved in 1913.

All of this was lost in time, however, and when the fountain was donated to McGill in 1931, Allen-Flanagan says, “the three figures were hailed as representing England, Canada, and the United States coming together to hold up a bowl for the fertile soul of the nation! And this was sculpted in 1913 to decorate a hotel, when she was studying Greek myth.”

Gwendolyn Owens, director of McGill’s Visual Arts Collection, supervised Allen-Flanagan’s efforts. “I expected Tara would find back-and-forth letters, but not all of this amazing material. It’s a very complicated story that Tara made much more complicated by all she was able to find and figure out about these early sketches.”

Partly on the strength of her research experience in the ARIA program, Allen-Flanagan landed a curatorial internship at New York's Museum of Modern Art this spring.

What happens if a student isn’t enthralled by a research project? Owens says that realization can provide valuable insights of its own. She recalls one student who decided that art conservation – spending weeks at a time focused on the preservation of the same object – wasn’t for her. She pursued a career in history instead.

The ARIA program is administered by the Faculty of Arts Internship Office. “Unlike in the sciences, where it is common practice for upper level students to work in their professors’ labs, the opportunity to work directly with a professor on their research is less common in many arts disciplines,” says Anne Turner, manager of the Faculty of Arts Internship Office.

This summer, some 43 students from 18 departments and programs are pursuing research projects thanks to ARIA funding.

Turner credits former dean of arts Christopher Manfredi (now McGill’s provost) as the driving force behind the creation of ARIA in 2010. “[He] recognized this [gap] in opportunities for arts undergraduates, particularly those who were contemplating academia as a career.” The program is largely funded by donors and by participating professors’ research grants. The Arts Undergraduate Society of McGill University and the Dean of Arts Development Fund also provide support.

This summer, the 2019, 43 students from 18 departments and programs received Faculty of Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Awards.

PHOTO: Art history and English student Tara Allen-Flanagan. (Credit: Alex Tran).