Beloved Bronze Rhinos Nearby

After visiting bronze frogs on the Boston Common in December, I decided to revisit two bronze rhinos in my own Cambridge neighborhood.  Their names are Bess and Victoria, three tons each, created in the 1930s by sculptor Katharine  Lane to flank the entrance of Harvard’s then-new biological laboratories complex. By returning once again, this time with camera and revived curiosity, I tuned in more closely to the  rhinos’ surroundings and their impressive stories too. 

One of the stories is about how the artist, chosen for her award-winning animal sculpture,  devoted her energy in collaboration with various selected artisans  for more than five years to create the two sculptures (scaled to match the largest known female Indian  Rhinoceros unicornis). At an early phase, she had considered and proposed other animals. At last she  made a decisive case for rhinos based on their  great size, handsome armor, grand horn, and “rarity” in the world. She referred back to her extensive studies of a rhino named Victoria at the Bronx Zoo.

In this post I can’t adequately summarize what the artist did for the absorbing, complicated project. Happily I can share a photo and its deliciously rich source in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. The photo shows Katherine Lane in her studio at work on one of an extensive sequence of  slowly scaled up clay models for a final bronze piece that would be thirteen feet from horn to tail.

Since their unveiling, timed to match England’s coronation of King George VI  in May 1937,  the rhinos have endured student pranks, such as toenail painting and holiday costuming.  Mainly they have won respect, admiration and affection from faculty, students, staff and visitors throughout the decades. Their presence inspired a gala 70th birthday celebration in 2007 with several notable speakers, including Deborah Dluhy, Dean of the School of the  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her speech developed into an article about the creative accomplishments of Katharine Lane Weems* (1899-1989), featuring three related projects that added character to the courtyard of the laboratories. ( *She added “Weems” after marriage in 1947.)  The article was a key reference for information presented here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Above and Beyond

Above, along the top of the five-story buildings are the friezes, which depict animals from four regions (temperate, equatorial, polar, marine). Along with her own  study of animals and historic architecture, Katharine Lane designed these in consultation with Harvard scientists and, quite crucially, with the crafts workers who had to inscribe the designs into brick.  The friezes were done several years before the rhinos. “About Those Rhinos” , an article  by Louise Todd Ambler, biographer of  Katharine Lane Weems,  provided information given here.

Beyond the rhinos are the three doors with designs based on microscope or magnifying glass views of  specimens grouped by the categories Sea, Air, and Land.  The door panels also came before the rhinos, but are “beyond”,  or behind, them as you approach the building. Besides visual research and consults with scientists, Katharine Lane worked closely with skilled artisans who brought the doorway and  twenty-four bronze panels to completion.

Closer view of  a few panel designs in each door:

All three  projects required clear, respectful communication between the one relatively young woman artist and established male scientists or craftsmen. All three projects demanded lots of thinking about size and its impact on viewers. All three reflect the artist’s determination, perspective and  style that will likely inspire celebrations in the courtyard for decades to come.

Whatever I have learned so far about  Katharine Lane (Weems)  has enticed me to find out more about her process, personality, and persistent productivity.  After I visit other sites of her notable work in the Boston area, I may have more to show and tell about her.

Katharine Lane at work with clay rhino in studio, photo from Smithsonian Archives of American Art


  1. One of my favorite places in Cambridge. Great to learn more about it!


  2. Peter L. · · Reply

    In the videos of three men taken the forms the rhinos apart……. the gentleman in the center is my grandfather … Agostino (santino) Cassettari


  3. […] BELOVED BRONZE RHINOS NEARBY  Art Outdoors post, January 2014 * […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: