ARLINGTON - You might not recognize Cyrus Dallin’s name, but you probably know his work. The sculptor, who lived the last 44 years of his life in Arlington, created the rousing statue of Paul Revere that’s a favorite photo op in Boston’s North End, the image of a Native American on horseback that sits in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, and the sculpture of Wampanoag sachem Massasoit on Coles Hill in Plymouth.
Dallin also created more than 20 pieces for his adopted hometown, but largely slipped into obscurity after his death at 82 in 1944. It’s an oversight that the Cyrus E. Dallin Art Museum is determined to correct. Established in 1995 by the Arlington Town Meeting, the museum is “a labor of love,’’ says chairman emeritus James McGough. “Dallin is on a level with Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens,’’ he asserts, citing other sculptors of the era who created iconic public works. “He demands the same respect.’’
The museum occupies four rooms of an 1830s saltbox-style building that was relocated to Whittemore Park, right on the Minuteman Bikeway in the middle of town. Arlington’s collection of Dallin works has been augmented by purchases, donations, and loans. Volunteers, including McGough, lead informal tours for any interested visitors. Patterned wallpaper on some of the walls gives the museum a homey feeling and the guides speak of Dallin almost as if he were a friend.
Dallin, who was born in Utah in 1861, was known for his images of Native Americans. “Cyrus played with Native American children growing up and he treated them regally in his work,’’ says McGough, as he points to a plaster of “Appeal to the Great Spirit,’’ a smaller version of the monumental bronze that stands in front of the MFA.
The collection also includes a gilded bronze copy of the plaster model for the Angel Moroni that crowns the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City. (A version adorns the steeple of the Belmont temple.) But McGough has a soft spot for “American Agriculture,’’ a bronze of a woman in classical robes holding a sheaf of tobacco aloft in a pose that recalls the Statue of Liberty and her torch. “Tobacco was a major cash crop in Massachusetts,’’ says McGough. The sculpture used to crown the flagstaff next to Town Hall, just a short walk from the museum. (It was replaced with a copy to prevent further deterioration.) McGough’s curiosity about the sculpture and the others at the base led to his interest in uncovering Dallin’s work and celebrating his legacy.
“Early-20th-century Arlington was a unique place, with artists, writers, and poets,’’ says McGough. “Dallin was popular because he had a billiard table.’’ He was also a prolific artist whose subjects included mythological figures, historic figures such as Native American guide Sacajawea, abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe, and Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. He created loving images of his wife and sons and the family cat and even made seven versions of Paul Revere on horseback. The museum displays an 1899 plaster of the fifth version and a series of photos that show the design evolution from one attempt to the next.
“It took him more than 50 years to get that Paul Revere behind Old North Church,’’ says McGough, warming to the twisting tale that unfolded between 1882 when Dallin first won a design competition and 1940 when the statue was finally unveiled. Dallin seems to have kept a sense of humor about the whole ordeal. Inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,’’ he penned his own poem in 1939. It begins: “Listen, my children and you shall hear / of the ignoble failure of Boston to rear / the greatest creation of my long career, / the equestrian statue of PAUL REVERE.’’
By the way, the museum is in the midst of a yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dallin’s birth. A rededication of the Paul Revere monument is planned for this month in the North End. Check the website for details of this and other events.
Cyrus E. Dallin Art Museum 611 Massachusetts Ave., 781-641-0747, www.dallin.org, Wed-Sun noon-4, free.