Angela Gregory is widely referred to as the doyenne of Louisiana sculpture.
Angela Gregory is widely referred to as the doyenne of Louisiana sculpture. She earned the title by creating portrait busts, monuments, and architectural embellishments that are praised by critics and admired by general art lovers alike. She did so while breaking with tradition in two major ways. First, she was a woman working in a field dominated by men, and second, at a time when artists were increasingly turning to abstract images, she continued to work with realistic ones. Many of her works can be seen today in parks, on buildings, and in Louisiana museums, particularly in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Exhibitions of her work have been hosted by such major venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Salon des Tuileries in Paris, France, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Studies at Home and Abroad
Born in New Orleans on October 18 1903, Gregory’s talent was apparent early in life; she expressed her ambition to become a sculptor when she was still a child. She was encouraged and instructed by her mother, Selina Bres Gregory, who had studied art at Newcomb College for women in New Orleans and was an early Newcomb potter. She taught art at the private school her daughter attended.
Gregory began formal art studies in summer classes with Ellsworth Woodward at Newcomb College when she was only fourteen. With him she learned clay modeling and relief casting. In 1921 she entered the Newcomb College School of Art, graduating four years later with a degree in design. As an undergraduate she received several awards for her watercolors. Gregory’s sculpting skills did not develop until she began to study with German sculptor Albert Reiker at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans in the city’s French Quarter. For a short time in 1924 she studied sculpture with Charles Keck in his New York studio.
Upon graduation from Newcomb, Gregory was awarded a scholarship to the Paris branch of the Parsons School of Fine and Applied Arts. She was expected to study illustrative advertising, but her real intent was to be admitted to the studio of the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who had worked for many years with Auguste Rodin. From 1926 to 1928, Gregory was the only American accepted into Bourdelle’s studio. During the same period she took classes from him at the Académie de la Grande Chaumerie. Her sculpture was exhibited at the Salon des Tuileries in Paris in 1928.
When Gregory returned to New Orleans from France in 1928, she was shocked by everything from the intense heat to the lack of artistic stimulation. She made friends with other creative spirits, such as Harriet Frishmuth, who recommended her for membership in the National Sculpture Society. Gregory set up a studio in her parents’ home on Pine Street, and so began her long career. She continued to work in that location for more than fifty years.
Notice of Gregory’s skill came quickly. Within a year of her return to New Orleans, General Allison Owen commissioned her to do the architectural sculpture on the façade of the New Orleans Criminal Courts Building at the intersection of Tulane and Broad streets. An article in the New York Sun by Helen Schertz was headlined “Prison Walls Made Less Grim by Girl Sculptor, Who at 25 Executes Many Commissions.” Other commissions followed. In the early 1930s she worked with a group of sculptors to create historical panels for the façade of Louisiana’s new state capitol building, a bold project of Governor Huey Long. Gregory created eight bas-relief profiles depicting men who shaped Louisiana, along with an iron railing bearing pelican motifs that surrounds a relief map of the state that is embedded in the lobby floor. Back in New Orleans, Gregory produced sculpture for McAlister Auditorium at Tulane University, a head of Aesculapius for the Hutchinson Memorial Building at Tulane Medical Center, as well as pieces for St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church, the First National Bank of Commerce, and Union Passenger Station, along with many portrait busts. Perhaps her best known piece is La Belle Augustine, an early work produced soon after her return from France. The bronzed plaster bust shows the influence of the classical training she had received overseas, but with an American twist. Its subject is a young African-American woman from New Orleans.
During the Depression years Gregory became involved with the arts programs sponsored by the federal government. In 1941 she became state supervisor of the arts program for the Federal Works Progress Administration in Louisiana. When World War II began, she used her talents in a quite different way. She became an assistant architectural engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, where she worked to design camouflage. She also served as women’s counselor for Pendleton Shipyards and as a consultant to the Celotex Corporation in New Orleans.
At war’s end Gregory returned to sculpture. She was given a commission to create bas-relief murals for the Louisiana National Bank in Baton Rouge, and she restored sculpture on New Orleans’s Gallier Hall. In the 1950s she worked for five years on a bronze sculpture depicting the first French colonial governor of Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, in the company of a priest and an Indian. She spent two years in France, where the monumental piece was cast. It stands today in a small park at the intersection of Decatur and Conti streets in the French Quarter.
Along with her artistic production, Gregory was active in teaching. For three years beginning in 1934 she taught at Newcomb College, where she was named artist-in-residence and professor of sculpture. Later she was professor and sculptor-in-residence at St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans for two decades. For the college’s library she made a series of walnut and aluminum panels that depict the life of Pope John XXIII. Other notable pieces of that period are a statue of St. Louis created for the Archdiocese of New Orleans’s Notre Dame Seminary and a statue of St. Fiacre that stands in the garden of Christ Church Cathedral. In the early 1960s, she sculpted a monument to Governor Henry Watkins Allen in Port Allen, Louisiana.
Upon her retirement from Dominican College in 1976, Gregory was made professor emerita. Both Tulane University and Newcomb College named her outstanding alumna. In 1982 she was honored as Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the minister of culture in France. When she died on February 13, 1990, she was one of the few female fellows of the National Sculpture Society.
Angela Gregory helped to change the New Orleans she had found so culturally lifeless when she returned from Paris in 1928. She not only used her talents and education to bring art to the city, she also turned her Pine Street studio into a meeting place for artists, celebrated friends, and distinguished visitors. The actor Kirk Douglas even had his wedding reception there.