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After briefly studying art in his native Warsaw, Poland, Elie Nadelman embarked on an extended visit in 1903 to Munich, Germany, where the collections of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum and the Glyptothek kindled his lifelong interest in folk art and classical sculpture. In 1904, Nadelman moved to Paris, staying there for the next ten years. Inspired by the work of Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin, as well as the Louvre’s collection of classical sculptures, Nadelman started to produce elegant marble and bronze statues, emphasizing his figures’ curvilinear qualities. He soon began creating sculptures that accentuated the underlying structure of the human form by breaking it down into geometric components. The rectilinear vocabulary of these works paralleled the emergence of Cubism in Paris during this period.
From 1905 to 1914, Nadelman’s work became known in Europe through one-artist exhibitions in Paris, Barcelona, and London. His move to the United States in 1914 was facilitated by his patron, cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein. The following year, Nadelman had his first American one-artist exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. In New York, Nadelman further developed the attenuated, tubular figurative style that he had experimented with in Paris, translating it into wood and plaster to produce the dancers, circus performers, and musicians—complete with clothing and furniture—for which he is best known.
By 1925, Nadelman began experimenting with a process called galvanoplasty, in which a layer of bronze is added to the surface of plaster models. The technique involved dipping plaster figures into a bath containing a solution with metal and applying an electric current, which caused the metal to adhere to the plaster. In his later years, Nadelman produced editions of small papier-mâché, plaster, and marble figures. By 1930, he had retreated to his estate in Riverdale, New York, no longer exhibiting and selling very little. As a result, Nadelman’s art was all but forgotten in his last years, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s, when his sculptures were hailed as a precursor of Pop art.