The Hunt for Function

Wilhelm Hunt Diederich was a metal sculptor known for his sleek, yet sensitive metal designs. Following the famed adage of William Morris, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” Diederich designed fire screens and candlesticks that featured stunning willowy animal forms. Expertly executed with the assistance of the Greenwich Village Blacksmiths, Diederich sought to make his art truly democratic for all. Often depicting zoological forms in play or combat, his works, both two and three-dimensional, feature his signature sense drama and are imbued with an exhilarating narrative. In the present lot, the horse is poised for movement with one hoof rearing up, and the rest of the body is taut with energy.

Classically trained at both the Boston Art School and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Diederich combined his academic training with the folk styles he grew up with in Switzerland and Hungary. As a child, he made paper cut-outs of animals in the Germanic tradition known as Fraktur. Drawing from this folk practice, Diederich updated the technique and crafted dynamic sculptures in the latest Art Deco style. After finishing his formal training, Diederich moved abroad to Paris, where he socialized with artists such as Elie Nadelman, Fernand Léger, and Jules Pascin. These artists working in modernism inspired Diederich, and his style evolved to include slender and streamlined sculpture that combined the old with the new.

Animals seem to me truly plastic. They possess such a supple, unspoiled rhythm.

Wilhelm Hunt Diederich

William Hunt Diederich

Wilhelm Hunt Diederich, born in 1884 in Hungary, was fascinated by animals from an early age. This interest was due in part to the influence of his father, a noted horseman who was killed in a hunting accident when Diederich was only three years old. Diederich remembered, he “loved animals first, last and always.” In 1894 he immigrated to the United States, settling in Boston. Eventually he became restless for the country and moved west to Wyoming to work at a horse ranch but soon after returned to study sculpting at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art. It was here that Diederich grew close to fellow sculptor Paul Manship as they both began to make work inspired by animals.

Drawing on the folk art practice of cut paper silhouettes, Diederich transformed traditional crafting methods to create dynamic sculptures in the latest Art Deco style. The classical nature of Diederich’s forms brought him critical acclaim: his Greyhounds sculpture was exhibited with much fanfare at the Paris Salon in 1913, he received the Gold Medal from the Architectural League for excellence in craftsmanship in 1921 and his work was extensively shown in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, throughout the 1920s and 1930s. During the Great Depression, Diederich crafted many sculptures for the WPA Program, including weathervanes for the Central Park Zoo, metal works for the Bronx Zoo, and a large scale sculpture (now lost) entitled Pegasus with Messenger for the Westwood New Jersey post office. Diederich died in 1953, and his works are held in the permeant collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Smithsonian, Washington D.C. and the Whitney Museum, among many others.