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Douglas Tilden



Since the 1870s, pedestrians entering the Berkeley campus from downtown Berkeley have walked through a grove of oak trees and crossed Strawberry Creek. For more than a century, those walking along that route have also passed by the University’s first permanent outdoor artwork: “The Football Players” by Douglas Tilden.

In the early years of the 20th century, the statue had one primary meaning for students. It was a symbol of a triumph in a college rivalry. As the 20th century neared its close, however, the statue took on another meaning for many students. It became a homoerotic symbol on a campus where openly gay and lesbian students were becoming increasingly visible.

The story of the statue dates back to the earliest years of institutional development in California. In the 1860s, one of the first students at what is now the California School for the Deaf was a young Douglas Tilden. Tilden had been left profoundly deaf after a childhood bout of scarlet fever. When he was graduated from the School for the Deaf (which was then located in Berkeley, where the Clark Kerr Campus stands today), he had the opportunity to attend UC Berkeley, where he would have been one of the earliest disabled students. He decided instead to travel to Paris to study sculpture. Supporters at the School for the Deaf helped pay his way.

In Paris, Tilden studied under the sculptor Paul Chopin, who was also deaf. The young Californian made a name for himself, creating several bronze statues and winning medals in prestigious competitions. He was the first native Californian sculptor to establish a reputation for himself outside the state.

It was in Paris that Tilden created and exhibited “The Football Players”. Using two Frenchmen as life models, Tilden froze a moment of athletic camaraderie in bronze. Despite the title of the sculpture, the uniforms appear to resemble British rugby clothing more than the American football uniforms of the time, but whatever the liberties taken with the equipment, the statue makes a compelling statement about male bonding in the realm of sports competition. Art historian Melissa Dabakis writes:

Tilden’s sculpture illustrates the attention to the body required by sports, particularly by the grueling physical punishment of football, as one player kneels and bandages the leg of his standing teammate. Both figures, muscled and fit, produce a composition of interlocking limbs and torsos. The standing youth supports himself by leaning upon his colleague’s left shoulder; he lifts his leg over the other shoulder to rest his foot upon his friend’s right thigh. The kneeling youth tenderly wraps the exposed calf. The intertwining of forms suggests the mutual dependency of these two young figures. Moreover, the bandaging process highlights the protective and caring actions of team members toward one another — a recognition of the vulnerabilities of even the fittest of male bodies. This sculpture not only champions the youths who participate in these disciplined and virile activities but also identifies sports as a privileged site for homosocial displays of affection and desire.

During the period when Tilden’s reputation was growing abroad and at home, Cal and Stanford were in the early years of a spirited sports rivalry. They had begun playing what is now called “The Big Game” in football in 1892, and the upstart private university from down the Peninsula had dominated the competition thus far. Although Cal had managed a number of ties, it had not won a single Big Game by the end of the 1897 football season.

San Francisco’s Mayor James Phelan, an art patron and adherent of the grand gesture in public life, purchased a casting of “The Football Players” and announced a plan. He would award it to whichever college won two consecutive Big Games. Thus inspired — and with the skilled coaching of Garret Cochran — Cal’s teams trounced Stanford in the 1898 and again in the 1899 Big Game. “The Football Players” came to the Berkeley campus to stay, and was enshrined in its current location, atop a stone pedestal which lists the names of the players and the donor. It was dedicated on 12 May 1900.

Although Tilden’s sculptures are still of enduring appeal, his career faltered in the 20th century. He apparently had a falling out with Phelan, his major patron, his popularity declined, and for various reasons he was unable to bring to completion some of his monumental designs. His personal life was also in disarray. Though he married the beautiful Elizabeth Delano Cole in 1896, the relationship was not a happy one, and it eventually degenerated into a bitter permanent separation. In 1926 they divorced. “Estranged from his wife, patrons, and friends,” reads one biography, “embittered by the failure of his dreams for an artistic and educational Utopia on the West Coast, and in straightened circumstances, the unhappy, proud, and lonely old man was found dead in his studio [on Channing Way] from heart failure on Aug. 6, 1935.” His funeral at Mountain View Cemetery was conducted in part in sign language.

Historians and art critics alike have noted Tilden’s unusual penchant for portraying in his artwork --- almost exclusively --- muscular young men, often scantily clad or completely nude. The most prominent example is the Mechanics Monument on San Francisco’s Market Street, with its five near-nude machine workers (annually festooned with live young men who climb up for a view of the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade).

Other local examples of Tilden’s work include “The Tired Boxer” in the DeYoung Museum, “The Bear Hunt” (showing two loincloth-clad young Indian men fighting a bear) now at the School for the Deaf in Fremont, and “The Ball Player” (a tall, slender baseball player tensing before a pitch) now in Golden Gate Park.

Douglas Tilden’s lifelong fascination with the young male body has inevitably raised questions about his sexual orientation, questions which for the moment are only speculations based on readings of his artistic works. On the Berkeley campus, his portrayal of two young football players sharing a tender, bonding moment has been referred to as the “gay statue” from at least the 1970s. Thus “queered” by the campus community, it has helped establish a sense of place for gays and lesbians within the University.

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Read More About It

  • Mildred Albronda, Douglas Tilden: the Man and His Legacy (Seattle : Emerald Point Press, 1994)
  • Melissa Dabakis, “Douglas Tilden’s Mechanics Fountain: Labor and the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ in the 1890s”, in American Quarterly, vol. 47, issue 2 (June 1995), p. 204-235.
  • Melissa Dabakis, Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture: Monuments, Manliness, and the Work Ethic, 1880-1935 (Cambridge, Eng. : Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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