In memory of Dr. Elizabeth Johns: A look at Nicolaus Koni’s ‘Opus 1 (Portrait of Marian Anderson)

By Elizabeth Johns, PhD &
Daniel Fulco, PhD,
Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

Our Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator Daniel Fulco has selected and written this WeekendArt in memory of Dr. Elizabeth Johns, who researched and worked with the museum’s collection for many years, as well as serving as a trustee. We will miss her scholarship and friendship, but the work she did to enrich our understanding of the collection remains. We hope you enjoy a closer look at this sculpture, which she researched. It is currently on display in the Small Exhibits Gallery. For more information about the life and work of Beth Johns, see below.

Opus 1  A

Opus 1 B

Nicolaus Koni (American, b. Hungary 1911–2000)
Opus 1 (Portrait of Marian Anderson), 1935
19 x 9 x 11 in.
Gift of Mrs. Mary Karasick, A0844,55.0400

“Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years,” so exclaimed Arturo Toscanini, the great conductor, when he heard African American contralto Marian Anderson (1897‒1993) perform. Another admirer, Hungarian-born sculptor Nicolaus Koni  made a portrait of Anderson. Koni, who had heard her sing many times,emphasized Anderson’s high cheekbones and heavy eyebrows, giving the sculpture a rich brown patina(finish). Most significantly, he sculpted her with her eyes closed, communicating to the viewer the full intensity of her music-making. The artist called this work “an interpretation of Marian Anderson singing ‘Death and the Maiden,’” by Austrian composer Franz Schubert. Perhaps Anderson sang it in Vienna while sitting for Koni’s portrait, for which he made sketches, then a clay model, and finally a casting in bronze.

Anderson was born and raised in poverty in Philadelphia, and her talent was recognized early. She was denied entrance to a local music school because of her race, but societies in the city awarded her scholarships for study in the US and abroad. She began concert tours throughout the American eastern and southern states, but performed primarily for Black audiences. To develop her career further, she went to Europe, where she faced less discrimination, and Koni was among many who were swept away by her voice.

In 1939, on the basis of her glowing reputation, the impresario Sol Hurok attempted to book Anderson for a concert at Constitution Hall, Washington D.C. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Hall’s owners, refused, citing rules that no person of color could use the facility. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt promptly resigned from the DAR in protest. A key figure in the struggle for African American artists to overcome racial prejudice in America, Anderson famously performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert (for an integrated audience of 75,000) on April 9, 1939, (Easter Sunday) The concert took place on the Lincoln Memorial steps, with the aid of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arranged this performance with the Department of the Interior.

In 1955, Anderson became the first Black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the same year the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts acquired Koni’s portrait. Anderson’s achievement followed the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled against segregation in schools, and helped propel the Civil Rights Movement.  On a related note, Koni later created another cast of Opus 1 for display at the Metropolitan Opera House (Lincoln Center, New York).

Initially studying in Hungary and at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna, Koni emigrated to the US in 1941 and joined the armed forces during World War II, after which he resumed his full-time career as a sculptor. In 1956, Koni’s portraits and figural studies were the subject of a large solo exhibition at the museum, which included Opus 1 and his notable large-scale work, Marshal Pilsudsky of Poland.

Carl van Vechten (American, 1880‒1964) Marian Anderson, 1940 Gelatin silver print Collection of Library of Congress, Washington, DC

Carl van Vechten (American, 1880‒1964)
Marian Anderson, 1940
Gelatin silver print
Collection of Library of Congress,
Washington, DC

Click here to learn more about Elizabeth Johns:

This WeekendArt is sponsored by Mrs. Theron K. Rinehart