PRINT May 1978

Thoughts on Samuel Yellin and Blacksmithing

SAMUEL YELLIN (1885–1940) WAS, as he should be more and more recognized, an American master of wrought iron who played an important part in the history of American architecture. In the early 1900s the revival of many different crafts had substantially affected architecture. Yellin was engaged in making numerous wrought iron works for major building projects, including gates for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Cloisters in New York, as well as gates for such universities as Harvard and Princeton. The list is long.1

In the 1920s Yellin had over 200 blacksmiths in his Arch Street workshop in Philadelphia; according to his son Harvey, some of these men are still alive. Today Harvey Yellin runs a museum as well as the workshop, and there is also an important library concerning the history of decorative and sculptural ironwork and the relevant metal technology. Samuel Yellin was a famous expert, and he taught ornamental ironwork techniques and its history. The Yellin Museum is a real storehouse of ironworks, including replicas of Yellin’s commissions. The museum is unique in being a huge collection of the work of a single ironworker. The Henri René d’Allemagne collection in Rouen, which is probably the world’s most important single collection of ironwork, consists mostly of the work of unknown craftsmen.2 Yellin’s museum is the museum of a single exceptional craftsman; it was also set up with complete research facilities: “When specific structural and technical problems were solved in a job, details were re-created for study and future reference. These are a legacy in the history of ironwork.”3

Linear ornamental patterns are used in ironwork for gates, porticoes and staircases. Now linearity is a very specific aspect of iron, which has a potential for threadlike extrusion that clay and stone do not have. This has been one of the basic motivations for the use of iron in sculpture and ornament all along, especially since the work of Gargallo, Picasso and Gonzalez inspired interest in transparency and “open form.” Sinuosity or structural linearity in ironwork is mostly related to an important revival of metal crafts in architecture toward the end of the 19th century, notably in the buildings of Gaudi, Victor Horta, Hector Guimard and the iron constructions of engineers like Eiffel. The arabesques developed by Gaudi came from his study of Moorish art in Spain. The hammering of metal was often done not only to bend or give shape, but also to “mutilate” the smooth surface of metal sheets and flat, round or square bars. The hammering marks establish a quality of tactility in its own right and express a deep knowledge of the human body in relation to energy, movement and dimensions. Eadweard Muybridge, in his “Animal Locomotion” series (1887), studied the effects of movement in two hands hammering on an anvil, producing several photoplates of blacksmiths at work. Muybridge’s five plates, numbered from 374 to 378 (in the original edition), are among the most acute observations ever done concerning the physical involvement of the smith in the process of making an ironwork piece.

To understand the history of the last 75 years of iron sculpture, especially that of the artists I have mentioned above, it is essential to go back to the origins of modern iron sculpture in the blacksmith’s workshop. First, one observes in Samuel Yellin’s museum that nothing is welded. For, as Myra Tolmach Davis explains, wrought iron is fibrous in structure and, when hot, it is soft enough to be modeled and shaped easily. Separate pieces weld perfectly if they are simply hammered together. Two aspects strike me: (1) welding was never necessary; (2) metal never needed painting. Today the quality of metal has changed from wrought iron (fibrous and nonrusting) to metal/steel which is fabricated with carbon. The new metal is stronger, and although it rusts it nevertheless responds better to industrial needs.

Myra Tolmach Davis writes about the craft aspect, which by extension is a basic problem for sculpture. Although this would be true for all ironworkers, iron was the material in which Yellin expressed his personality. He deplored the modern tendency to cover ironwork with paint, since even one coat of paint covers all evidence of handwork, dulling sharp outlines and filling the deeper interstices of the design: then the beauty of the metalwork cannot be appreciated. Concerning color in iron, Samuel Yellin believed that the metal itself should possess and display the natural color obtained from the forge with an occasional application of wax or boiled linseed oil to prevent rusting and intensify blackness. The many works that come from Europe in Yellin’s museum—and which were collected by Yellin himself—have that quality. The power and energy that emerge from those marks, like those in woodcarving, contrast markedly with bronze, which is a result of casting from plaster or clay (Giacometti’s bronze work would be a good example). This is also true of a beautiful sculpture like David Smith’s Sacrifice (1950), which is done in painted steel, like many of his works.4 Even if the paint was applied to Sacrifice in order to prevent rusting, the sculptor seems careful about its chromatic effect. Smith no doubt did not feel that he was hiding anything, because he hardly hammered the surface of his metal. He started to care about the surface for its own sake only when, using stainless steel, he brushed the surfaces. For example, Tanktotem No. 1, 1952 (Art Institute of Chicago), uses both sheet and bar, hammered and drawn, steel. In the forging series that Smith did in the years 1954–1956, the hammering was done to shape and to bend more than to create an irregular surface. In the same way, Anthony Caro takes painting to be a major aspect of his work. Speaking of color, he answered Phyllis Tuchman: “I used brown or black paint and the sculptures looked more as if they were destined for a locomotive factory than an art gallery.”5

Picasso and Giacometti often painted their cast bronze sculptures. Probably in the case of Giacometti the reason can be found in the artist’s relation to his work: he simply never thought a bronze work was finished. With Picasso it has probably to do with a strong will to transform his materials beyond any respect for their specific qualities, which constitutes a basic difference from the tenets of Constructivism—as with Tatlin. Julio Gonzalez always left his metal vulnerable to the rusting process. (Unfortunately, many of his works are now cast in bronze.) It is not my intention to criticize painted steel categorically. But painted steel should let us have some sense of what is hidden or what was not in the artist’s intentions. It is the pulsation of handmade marks on the surface that allows the emergence of the artist’s subconscious.

The workshop is a black room where fire is controlled and where water, fire and physical risk are conjoined. When the artist holds the hammer in one hand and the red-hot rod or sheet of metal in the other, he understands the relationship between the energy he expends and his mark on the metal. He also understands the idea of time in relation to the various stages of the work—from incandescent metal which can be changed by hammering to metal that has cooled off and turned inflexible. Such an emphasis on the touch of the surface has nothing to do with a regressive, nostalgic attitude, or with artistic preciosity. These marks are the remains of acts not entirely consciously governed, which relates to Freudian analysis and shows how deep an involvement in the making of a sculpture can be.

Alain Kirili



1. See the study by Myra Tolmach Davis in the exhibition catalogue of the Dimock Gallery of George Washington University, Sketches in Iron: Samuel Yellin, Washington. D.C., 1978.

2. See Henri René d’Allemagne, Decorative Antique Ironwork: A Pictorial Treasury, New York, 1968.

3. Dona Z. Meilach, Decorative and Sculptural Ironwork, New York, 1977.

4. It would be interesting to do a particular study about David Smith’s Blackburn Song of an Irish Blacksmith, done in 1949–1950, now in the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Germany.

5. In Richard Whelan, Anthony Caro, New York, 1975.