Roosevelt miniatures in Oslo


It isn’t unusual for some tourists to take hundreds of photographs when traveling, especially if there are multiple destinations. But finding among them photos of six Gustav Vigeland miniature sculptures of Theodore Roosevelt that even members of his family didn’t know existed? That’s an entirely different matter.

Leonard Lehrman, a composer and conductor who is also a reference librarian at the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Library, and his wife, Helene Williams, a musician, were on a 15-day trip to Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany in May. The visit was a working vacation for the Valley Stream couple, which included a meeting with a conductor in Helsinki who was interested in staging one of Lehrman’s operas, and an opportunity for Lehrman and Williams to perform in Hamburg.

They also planned to be tourists in Oslo for a few days. Art lovers, they were pleased when they found out that one of the places to see was the Vigeland Museum, which has a garden filled with 200 nude sculptures created by the noted Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Williams said she was struck by “the faces, the poses, the intensity of emotion in many of the sculptures.” Wanting to see more of Vigeland’s work, they ventured into the museum.

“All of a sudden we saw six miniature sculptures of Roosevelt,” Lehrman said. “It was a startling discovery.”

The works included a bust of TR, two sculptures of him on horseback and another of him shaking hands with an Indian chief.

“We were told that TR sat for the sculptor three times when he was in Oslo,” said Lehrman, “presumably to receive his Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War at the Treaty of Portsmouth.”

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, that is not what happened. Housed at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, the center is something of a final arbiter of all things Roosevelt, with a digital library of documents and photographs. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is currently being built there.

Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. In May of 1910, U.S. Rep. Louis Hanna, later a governor of North Dakota, asked Roosevelt to sit for Vigeland, the center’s website says. The artist planned to create a large statue of the former president to represent the state.

But Roosevelt didn’t much like the idea. He sat for Vigeland, but told Hanna that a sculpture of a pioneer or a cowboy would be more appropriate.

The story could have ended there, but it didn’t. According to the center, in the 1970s, the American Scandinavian Foundation helped procure a cast of the plaster model. There is now a statue of Roosevelt on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo.

The other possibility is that Roosevelt sat for Vigeland on both occasions. No one is quite sure.

Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of TR who lives in Massachusetts, said that the Theodore Roosevelt Association, of which he is the immediate past president, was not aware of the miniature sculptures in Oslo. “But there are stories like this all over the place,” said the grandson of TR’s son Archie. “Sometimes people call and say they have TR memorabilia and want to sell it. I try to convince them to donate it.”

At Harvard, which Tweed attended, there were a number of animal heads in a lunchroom that were said to have been TR’s hunting trophies, Tweed said, and many more like them, with similar claims, in other parts of the country. “They couldn’t all have been shot by TR,” Tweed said, “or he would have done nothing but shoot.”

Looking at the photos of the miniatures in Oslo, he said they could be clay models that the artist hoped to pitch for a statue. “The possible exception would be the one where he’s on the galloping horse, where it looks like he’s looking at a cellphone,” Tweed joked. “Theodore Roosevelt was always way ahead of his time.”

Roosevelt did not enjoy sitting as a model for artists. “But he had a stiff upper lip and did it, though he grumbled,” Tweed said. “The artists probably grumbled, too, since it was hard to get TR to sit still.”