Events and People

From Sculptor to Mobile Creator: Three Generations of Calder Artists

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Towering above the City of Philadelphia, a 37 foot tall statue of William Penn stares down at the city that the real William Penn founded over 300 years ago. While the statue is a very large, very visible reminder of the city’s past, it is also an excellent example of the work of Alexander Milne Calder, a talented sculptor whose son and grandson would also begin their artistic careers in Philadelphia.

Born in Scotland in 1846, Calder immigrated to America in 1868 and later studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.1 As a sculptor, Calder is best known for creating the statues around City Hall. While the Penn statue is the most immediately apparent statue on the building, there are numerous other carvings, figures, and animals located on the structure. In total, Calder spent nearly 20 years sculpting around 250 figures for City Hall.

After standing on City Hall for over a century, many of Calder’s statues needed a large amount of restoration work in the late twentieth century. The statue of William Penn was cleaned in the early 1980s, again in 1996, and just recently in 2007, but the eight bronze figures located around the clock tower of the Hall had not been cleaned since they were placed in their locations between 1894 and 1896. These bronze figures include four eagles with 15 foot wingspans and four groups of figures.2 The cleaning of the bronzes was completed in 2007 in conjunction with additional restoration work of the City Hall facade.

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Assisting Calder with the creation of the statues on City Hall was his son, Alexander Stirling Calder. An artist and art teacher, Stirling Calder studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, traveled and sculpted in Europe, and taught at both the School of Industrial Design of the Pennsylvania Museum and the Art Students League in New York.3 Calder focused on sculpture throughout his career and created several artworks that stand in Philadelphia. These artworks in the city include a statue of Samuel D. Gross near 10th Street and Walnut, the Smith Memorial Arch near Memorial Hall, the Shakespeare Memorial north of Logan Square, and the Swann Memorial Fountain in the center of Logan Square.4

Although both were well-known in Philadelphia, the artistic reputations of Alexander Milne and Alexander Stirling would be surpassed by that of Alexander Calder. The son of Alexander Stirling Calder and his wife, painter Nanette Calder, Alexander Calder was born on July 22, 1898 in Philadelphia. After studying art in the United States and France, Calder became famous in both countries for staging shows with his “Circus,” a collection of miniature performers made out of scraps of wire, wood, paper, string, and other miscellaneous items.5 From these figures, Calder continued to experiment with wire sculptures and movement. After trying several mechanized objects, he decided to hang his created items in order to have them respond to the wind or other surrounding movements. The resulting artwork, named mobiles by the French artist Marcel Duchamp, challenged previous ideas about the rules of sculpture and cemented his reputation as a leader in the modern art movement.6 Calder died in 1976, but his mobiles and other artwork remain on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and around the world.

The Calder artists and their work are both a part of the history of Philadelphia and a demonstration of how sculpture has changed over the course of a century. From a nineteenth-century sculptor to a master of modern art, three generations of Calders have brought their talent and creativity to artwork around the city.  

[1] “History for Alexander Milne Calder.” Bringhurst Funeral Home and Turner Funeral Home at West Laurel Hill.

[2] The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Philadelphia Completes Groundbreaking Restoration of Alexander Milne Calder Sculptures Atop City Hall.” February 26, 2007.

[3] “Alexander Stirling Calder.” Academy Stars. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

[4] “Alexander Stirling Calder.” Philadelphia Public Art

[5] Tuchman, P. 2001. Calder’s playful genius (Famous for his colorful mobiles, prolific sculptor Alexander Calder, 1898-1976, was also a master toymaker, wire portrait artist and painter of gouaches). SMITHSONIAN. 32 (2):87.

[6] “Alexander Calder.” American Masters.