Paul Howard Manship is perhaps best known as the creator of one of New York
City’s most beloved public art works, the Prometheus Fountain in Rockefeller Center.
Commissioned in the wake of the Great Depression, Prometheus, the great champion of
Man, remains a symbol of hope and prosperity. Manship was commissioned to design
this major piece of American public art at the height of his success, and it embodies the
dichotomy of classicism and modernism that existed in his work and made it so popular
with such a wide audience.
After studying at some of the most prestigious American institutes in his youth,
Manship won the esteemed Prix de Rome in 1909. He spent three years devoted solely to
his artistic development at the American Academy in Rome, and it was in Europe that he
discovered his affinity for the archaic style that would come to be predominant in his
mature work. Greek and Roman sculpture influenced not only Paul Manship’s style, but
also his subject matter. His exposure to classical Eastern sculpture is also evident in the
strong implications of motion in his works.
Stylistically Manship is considered a steward of Art Deco, the predominant
movement in the 1920s and 30s, although he himself did not proselytize it. 2 Works from
his mature period showcase a refined simplification of form and line, freeing the figures
from the inherent rigidity of their medium. As public taste shifted to embrace abstraction
towards the end of his career, Manship’s patronage remained steady. His work is situated
at an important cusp in the history of sculpture. Lauded for his skill as a craftsman and
his ability to translate archaic influences into the parlance of modernism, Paul Manship’s
legacy is that of an American artist embraced by the people.