Lee Lawrie was born in Germany in 1877 and came to America with his family four years later. As a young boy, he sketched the world around him and it became apparent he had great artistic talent. His first formal job as an artist came at 14 when he was hired in a sculptor’s studio to do odd jobs. It was at this job he taught himself how to model clay in the evenings. He was a natural and continued to hone and develop his skills, earning him some work for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.
He would eventually attend Yale where he earned a bachelor’s of fine arts. He stayed at Yale where he taught until 1919.
Lawrie and Bertram Goodhue met in the late 1800s when the two began collaborating on various projects. Lawrie specialized in architectural sculpture, which was a direct compliment to Goodhue’s appreciation of early Gothic revival designs. The two would achieve a breakthrough in their approach during the construction of the Nebraska State Capitol. They created an approach that fused architecture and sculpture into an integrated and simple design.
In 1922 after a great many preliminary sketches for the work of the Nebraska Capitol, Mr. Goodhue and I arrived at a new kind of architectural sculpture that is essentially a part of the building rather than something ornate or applied…Lee Lawrie’s memorial tribute to Goodhue
Sculpture, here, is not sculpture, but a branch grafted on to the architectural trunk. Forms that portray animate life emerge from blocks of stone and terminate in historic expression.
Lawrie was particularly devastated by the sudden death of Goodhue, and wrote about it in a letter to fellow Nebraska Capitol Collaborator, Hartley Burr Alexander:
It will be difficult for me to go on without him. This is the twenty-ninth year that I have worked with him. I am the only one who really needs his help, for while my part is sculpture, it is really nothing more than his architecture in plastic form.Lee Lawrie letter to Hartley Burr Alexander
Despite his somewhat diminished self-views after Goodhue’s death, Lawrie continued to be an influential and iconic artist up until his death in 1962. He remains one of America’s foremost architectural sculptors.