Bufano was born in San Fele, Italy, but was brought to the United States by his family at the age of three. He spent his childhood in New York City and was educated by private tutors, eventually studying at the Arts Student League from 1913 to 1915. He entered a nationwide competition funded by Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney (ne. Gertrude Vanderbilt, who was the founder of the Whitney Museum of Art) on the theme of "The Immigrant in America." The contest was announced in the arts pages of the New York Times on August 15, 1915, and it was stated that Mrs. Whitney would give out $1,100 in prize money. The competition was directed to "secure the best possible expression of the meaning of America to the Immigrant." At the time there was considerable concern that the volume of immigration was such that 'loyalty and allegiance to America' needed to be promoted, and "Americanization Day" was created to that purpose. The Immigrants in America Review, headed by Francis A. Kellor, who had been top committeewoman in the Progressive Party was placed in charge of administering this contest. The chief of the Progressive Party, ex-President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt personally visited the exhibition of works submitted in response to the call for "the Meaning of America to the Immigrant."
Beniamino Bufano was a virtual unknown when he won first prize ($500) in the "Immigrant in America contest." The jury included luminaries of the art world such as John Sloan and Robert Henri of "the Eight," Frank X Leyendecker and Paul Manship, prominent in sculpture, and the most successful popular artist of that era, though arguably an illustrator, Charles Dana Gibson. There were reportedly 100 submissions to this exhibit and most were considered focused upon the struggle for survival experienced by many immigrants. It was a fact that much of the 'reality' ethos of what came to be known as 'the Ashcan School' espoused by "The Eight" would have encouraged such an approach. Within the Socialist movement there was a very strong anti-war sentiment abroad in Germany, and at home in America, which was viewed as unpatriotic and seditious once Woodrow Wilson and Congress joined in declaring our backing and military commitment to the Allied Forces. This anti-war movement was by no means confined to immigrants, however, Williams Jennings Bryant, who had come on as Secretary of State after backing Wilson for President, had resigned of the decision to enter the war by his chosen President, Wilson. Ironically, the title of the sculpture in tile, granite and steel, materials that would come to characterize Bufano's output over the years, was "Peace." Notwithstanding the notice and visibility afforded Bufano and the "Immigrant in America" show by the prize and initial notice shown by the New York Times, the visit to the show three weeks later when Theodore Roosevelt personally visited Mrs. Whitney's Eighth Street Studios (now home to the New York Studio School) to view the show, ensured it and its winner, Bufano, immediate small fame. "Colonel's Big Stick Batters Cubist Art" was the headline run on page 11, in the December 3 edition of the New York Times. In the Times article Roosevelt inveighs against 'cubist art' but singles out the first prize winning Bufano for praise and asks to meet him. "Wonderful work," exclaims the colonel according to the Times, "I should like to meet the sculptor." The Times article further relates that Bufano is "21 years old. He is one of twelve children of a family which came from Italy a few years ago."
"Bene”, as his friends referred to him, though this soon morphed into the Americanized ,"Bennie" in the hands of the press, first came to San Francisco to work on a sculpture for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, alongside Dirk Van Erp. He joined Mrs. Whitney in San Francisco who had several of her own sculptures in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Afterwards, he traveled extensively before returning to settle permanently in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Considered an outspoken radical at the time, Bufano chopped off his trigger finger and sent it to President Woodrow Wilson at the onset of World War I as a protest against the war. In addition to his work as a sculptor, he taught at the San Francisco Institute of Art (but was dismissed in 1923 because he was considered too modern), the University of California, Berkeley, and Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts.
Some of his best-known works include the statue of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen in San Francisco's Chinatown, his 93-foot (28 m) sculpture Peace in coastal Timber Cove (near Jenner, California) and his Bear and Cubs at Kauikeaouli Hale in Honolulu, Hawaii. Examples of his distinctive and large-scale work can be found throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and there is a Bufano Sculpture Garden at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
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