Alexander Calder: Biography, Sculptures & Paintings

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Nearly every time new parents are setting up a nursery, they pick a mobile to hang above their child's crib to encourage visual stimulation. The mobile wouldn't be there if it weren't for Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile.

Early Life

Alexander 'Sandy' Calder was born in 1898 in Lawnton, Pennsylvania. There are some discrepancies as to his actual birth date. Some sources say it was July 22, but according to family history, August 22 was supposed to be listed on his birth certificate. Alexander was a family name, as his father and grandfather were named Alexander as well. In addition to sharing first names, they also shared a love of the arts. His grandfather and father were both sculptors, and his mother was a painter. Even though his family was full of artists, Calder was more inclined toward engineering and mechanics in his early years. After high school he attended the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, graduating in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Alexander Calder
alex calder

After graduating, Calder went to work. He held a series of odd jobs until he began to take drawing and painting classes. He enrolled in the Art Students League in New York in 1922 and soon found work as a freelance illustrator. One of his assignments was to illustrate acts of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Circus themes would recur regularly his later works.

Early Works and Avant-Garde Influences

In 1926, Calder decided to relocate to Paris, where he established a studio. Here he also made connections with other famous artists of the time, such as Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, and Piet Mondrian. These men all started as avant-garde artists, and their works influenced Calder's early sculptures. During this time, he also met the woman who would become his wife, Louisa James, the grandniece of writer Henry James. Louisa and Alexander married in 1931.

Engineering Meets Art

While he was still in Paris, Calder began experimenting with wire and creating figures with it. His previous experience with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus influenced him to create Calder's Circus with figures made of wire and cork and other found materials. Using his mechanical engineering experience, he was able to make the figures move. He would take his Circus around Paris and people would pay to watch the performances. During this time, he also began to create jewelry pieces. Wire would be a constant medium throughout his career.

calder circus

Moving Paintings turn into Mobiles

While still in Paris, Calder was also creating figurative oil paintings. He was heavily influenced by his friends Miró and Mondrian, who were influenced by him as well. Inspired by their works, Calder decided to figure out a way to make the figurative paintings come to life somehow. Using some of the techniques that were in his 'Circus,' he took pieces of metal and crafted them into a moving sculpture. He was unsatisfied with the way the motors made the sculpture move, however. The cranks and pulleys made things a bit stiff. Calder had to figure out a way to make the sculptures flow more smoothly.

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