About the Artist

Artist Alexander Calder with his works ‘Edgar Varese’ & ‘Untitled,’ Sache, France, 1963 Photograph by Ugo Mulas

Artist Alexander Calder with his works ‘Edgar Varese’ & ‘Untitled,’ Sache, France, 1963
Photograph by Ugo Mulas

Early Life

Alexander Calder was born in Lawton, Pennsylvania, in 1898, to a family of talented artists. His grandfather, Alexander Milner Calder was a sculptor, who emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1868. He is best known for his monumental sculpture of William Penn that sits on top of the tower of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Calder’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder, was commissioned to create many public monuments, including a sculpture of George Washington for the Washington Square arch in New York and ornamental works for Vizcaya, the James Deering estate in Miami.

His mother, Nanette Lederer Calder, was a portrait painter, who studied at the Sorbonne and his sister, Margaret, helped found the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Calder himself began making moving sculptures when he was young. Though he is best known for his mobiles and sculptures, he drew and painted in oils and gouache throughout his life. By the time he was four, Calder had already begun to sculpt in clay. When the family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1906, Calder was given the cellar of the house to use as a workshop. For several years, the family moved back and forth between New York and California, to allow Stirling to complete commissioned works. The family made sure that Calder always had a studio to work in.

Education and Career

After graduating from Lowell High School in San Francisco, Calder enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, to study mechanical engineering. Following his graduation from Stevens, in 1919, Calder took various engineering jobs. In 1922, he worked as a mechanic on a ship that sailed from New York to San Francisco. The scenic beauty that he saw during his voyage inspired him to resume his art work. He moved to New York to study at the Art Students League. In 1926, Calder moved to Paris to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. During his time in Paris, he created the Calder Circus, composed of moving circus figures, which Calder used as a performance work. It was purchased by the Whitney Museum in 1986.

In 1929, Calder had his first solo exhibit of mobiles at the Galerie Billiet in Paris. On a boat trip back to New York, Calder met Louisa James, the grandniece of author Henry James. The couple was married in 1931. In 1933, they returned to the States and settled in a farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut. They had two daughters, Sandra born in 1935, and Mary, born in 1939. Calder did many enormous commissioned sculptures, both in the States and in Europe. Calder died unexpectedly, in New York, in 1976, at the home of his daughter, Mary. His death came shortly after the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum.

Legacy

Calder’s work can be seen in and outside of major venues throughout the world. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but refused to accept it because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.