- James M. Dennis
American sculptor of Austrian birth. Bitter is best remembered for his contributions to the late-19th, early 20th-century City Beautiful Movement. He thereby left a lasting imprint on New York City. Examples of his public sculpture grace not only streets and squares from Bowling Green to Morningside Heights but also numerous other urban sites in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Madison and Minneapolis. Born, raised and educated in Vienna, he no sooner completed his formal training at the Kunstgewerbeschule and Kunstakademie than he was conscripted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Refusing to serve an obligatory second year, he escaped to New York via Berlin in 1888 with little more than his sack of tools. His arrival marked the beginning of a prolific career lasting 25 years.
He was immediately discovered by the leading Beaux-Arts architect, Hunt family, §2, who put him to work producing allegorical figures for major, ongoing commissions. These included two Vanderbilt mansions: The Breakers on Newport Beach, Rhode Island, and better still, Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. His rich variety of works for the latter includes a lengthy mantelpiece relief, Return from the Chase (1893–5), carved in marble for the triple fireplace in the Banquet Hall, five oak relief panels depicting scenes from Wagnerian operas for the balustrade of its organ gallery (1893–5) and a bronze fountain figure of a nude boy stealing a struggling goose. Hunt and Bitter also collaborated on the central edifice of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Administration Building, for which Bitter created four “colossal” plaster-of-Paris groups: Elements Controlled and Elements Uncontrolled, visually exploding from the corners of the rooftop at the base of its dome.
In 1896 Bitter moved into a uniquely designed house and studio overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, and from there continued to pursue primarily public works. Foremost among these is another major architectural commission consisting of two narrative pediments and four freestanding groups representing Strength, Faith, Prosperity and Abundance (1910–2) high on the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin. Its architect, George B(rowne) Post, a Hunt student, had earlier contracted Bitter to provide giant Atlantes (1896) figures for his skyscraper, or so-called “elevator building,” the St Paul Building, in New York City.
While these conformed stylistically to the classic Baroque tradition of most academic sculpture, Bitter ultimately progressed toward an early Modern style anticipating Art Moderne. As may be witnessed in various details of his low-relief accessory figures for the1913 Carl Schurz Monument in the Morningside Heights of New York City and somewhat less in his innovatively recessed Planting and Harvesting figures for the 1915 Thomas Lowry Monument in Minneapolis, he accomplished this progressive change in view of a widespread interest in ancient Greek Archaic sculpture that he enthusiastically shared. Newly discovered sixth-century bc examples in Athens motivated him to travel to Greece in 1909, the year he returned momentarily to Vienna to receive an amnesty from the court of Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Thus, Bitter’s major stylistic phases evolved dramatically. In contrast to his narrative relief panels for the bronze doors of Trinity Church on lower Broadway in 1891 he created the enormous, super high-relief frieze, Spirit of Transportation, for Frank Furness’s large expansion of Pennsylvania Station in Philadelphia four years later. From his two gigantic equestrian Standard Bearers lifting draped flags over the Triumphal Bridge pylons leading into Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition in 1901 his career culminated with the 1915 Pulitzer Fountain gracing New York City’s Plaza between 58th and 60th streets.
The Plaza resulted from a collaboration with Thomas Hastings, the architect of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. Initially laid out by Bitter, the Plaza was designed to cross 59th street as a grand entrance to the Corso of Central Park paralleling Fifth Avenue. Its final plan called for moving Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ equestrian Sherman Monument in line with Bitter’s Pomona surmounting the fountain. Both she and the Victory figure leading Sherman’s horse were inspired by the famous life-model, Audrey Munson, who posed for numerous artists at the time. Also proto-modern in its degree of abstraction, the contrapposto Pomona existed only as a wax maquette when Bitter was struck by a runaway car as he and his wife Marie were leaving the Metropolitan Opera. He died the next morning.
Bitter’s sudden death prevented him from completing his direction of sculpture for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco as he had done for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1904 Saint-Louis Exposition. He was replaced by Calder family, §2 who also finished the design and execution of his Depew Memorial Fountain (1915–6) for University Park, Indianapolis.
- J. Dennis: Karl Bitter, Architectural Sculptor (1867–1915) (Madison, WI, 1967)
- S. Rather: “Toward a New Language of Form: Karl Bitter and the Beginnings of Archaism in American Sculpture,” Portfolio 25 (Spring 1990), pp. 1–19
- F. Schevill: Karl Bitter: A Biography (Chicago, 1917)