CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - When art historian Allen Stuart Weller died in 1997, he left behind a rough manuscript for a biography of Lorado Taft, the Illinois sculptor who helped the city of Chicago carve its reputation as a place of beauty and grandeur.
When historian Stephen Thomas and art historian Robert G. La France came across the unfinished manuscript among Weller's papers in the University of Illinois Archives, they found Weller's story on Taft's rise to prominence so compelling that they couldn't let it go untold.
"I knew that if I didn't finish it, perhaps no one else would," said La France, then curator of pre-modern art at Krannert Art Museum on the U. of I. campus. "I couldn't leave the great story of the most famous Midwestern sculptor, Lorado Zadok Taft, and Weller's final book buried in the archives. At Krannert, I had unparalleled access to the most significant Taft resources - the sculptures in the museum's collection, and both Taft's and Weller's papers in the archives."
The manuscript was published recently as the book "Lorado Taft: The Chicago Years" (U. of I. Press). Co-editors are La France, currently director of the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University; Thomas; and Henry Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University.
Weller's first volume on the artist, "Lorado in Paris: The Letters of Lorado Taft," (U. of I. Press, 1985), focused on Taft's studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
"The Chicago Years" begins with Taft's return to the U.S. in 1886, when he settled in the Windy City, thus commencing his most productive and influential period, which continued until his death in 1936. Nearly all of Taft's major works were produced during these years, and are lavishly illustrated in more than 200 color and black-and-white images throughout the book.
"The book explains Taft's contributions as a teacher, writer and energetic member of the cultural elite during Chicago's artistic and literary renaissance, from the end of the 19th century through the Great Depression," La France said. "It also highlights the influential role that he played in establishing programs for studying the arts at the University of Chicago and the U. of I."
However, the artist's greatest legacy may have been as an agent of social change, teaching and mentoring underserved students, who worked as equals in his studio.
Taft's studio "was a model of inclusiveness that gave women, immigrants and minorities the opportunity to realize their potential as sculptors," La France said. "Taft's affinity for the women's movement, and belief in the equal value of all Americans, makes him stand out from his peers."
The book concludes with Adams' intellectual biography of Weller, which outlines Weller's many accomplishments, including the series of Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture exhibitions that Weller inaugurated at the U. of I., bringing modern art to the prairie.
Weller joined the Illinois faculty as a professor of art history in 1947, served as head of the art department, then as the dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts and the director of Krannert Art Museum.
La France will discuss Taft's artistic and instructive legacies at an event celebrating the publication of the book from 4-5 p.m. Dec. 4 in the Knight Auditorium at Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana.
Wayne Pitard, the director of the museum and a professor of Hebrew Bible in the department of religion, will give a talk titled "The Plaster Taft," discussing the sculptor's vision to create a museum of the history of sculpture that would exhibit copies of masterpieces from across cultures and centuries.
A book signing and light refreshments will follow in the lobby.
The event, free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by Krannert Art Museum, Spurlock Museum and the U. of I. Press.