The Washington Post

Gretta Bader, portrait sculptor known for bronzes, dies at 83

Gretta Bader, standing before her sculpture of Sen. J. William Fulbright at the University of Arkansas, 2002. (Fred Miller/University of Arkansas)

Gretta Bader, a Washington portrait sculptor known for her ability to capture the likenesses of well-known figures in bronze, died Aug. 1 at her home in the District. She was 83.

She had congestive heart failure, son Christopher Bader said.

Mrs. Bader studied sculpture in college and in Europe and then raised a family before practicing her art full time. During a three-decade career that began in 1973, she had commissions for more than 30 portrait sculptures, each painstakingly made in a time-consuming process.

Her largest and best-known work was a full-length likeness of former senator J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), completed in 2002.

Her husband, William Bader, had studied abroad as a Fulbright scholar in the 1950s and later had served on the senator’s staff. Mrs. Bader, who met Fulbright in 1966, made a portrait bust of the senator that is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

In her preparation for the sculpture, which she completed in 1982, Mrs. Bader spent hours with Fulbright in his office, observing him at work and interacting with other people.

“One of the things I learned while doing the portrait bust,” Mrs. Bader told the alumni magazine of Pomona College in 2002, “is that Fulbright was a very intense listener and conversationalist. Talking to him gave his face an animation I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

In 1999, four years after Fulbright’s death, Mrs. Bader won a commission over almost 100 other artists to create a full-body sculpture of the senator. She worked on the project for three years, examining hundreds of photographs to capture the right pose.

She portrayed Fulbright standing, with his hands in his pockets, one foot ahead of the other.

“There’s nothing quite so stiff as a man in a suit,” Mrs. Bader told the alumni magazine. “The lines are so straight. I needed the rumple of a sleeve — as much rumple as possible on a dignified man — to find a way to break the line of the jacket.”

She modeled the sculpture in clay, and the final bronze — standing 7-foot-3 — was cast at a foundry in New Jersey. The completed work was transported to the University of Arkansas, where Fulbright had served as president before being elected to the Senate in 1944. Former president Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication in 2002.

“I wanted students not to be intimidated by the man, not to see him as remote,” Mrs. Bader said at the time. “What I tried to do here was to capture the intensity, the accessibility and the physical liveliness of the Fulbright of the tumultuous ’60s.”

Margaret Marie Lange was born in Glen Ridge, N.J., on May 25, 1931. Her mother’s name also was Margaret, and she became known as Gretta from an early age.

Her father was a city manager. Mrs. Bader lived in New Jersey and Massachusetts before completing high school in Evanston, Ill. She graduated in 1953 from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. She studied sculpting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where she and her husband were married in late 1953.

He later became a Foreign Service officer and an official with the Ford Foundation, and the Baders lived for several years in Vienna, Paris and Geneva before settling in Alexandria, Va.

Survivors include her husband, a former assistant secretary of state, of Washington; four children, Christopher Bader of Medford, Mass., Katharine Bader of Durham, N.C., John Bader of Kensington, Md., and Diedrich Bader, an actor who had a regular role on “The Drew Carey Show,” of Los Angeles; a brother, John Lange of Washington; and six grandchildren.

Mrs. Bader’s other work includes sculptures of former senators Frank Church and Claiborne Pell, golf course designer Donald Ross and former Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. She also made a series of portrait busts based on her children that were reproduced by the hundreds for a display of various occupations above the atrium at the National Building Museum.

Mrs. Bader was interested in abstract art early in her career and turned to realistic portrait sculpture only after she became a full-time artist in the 1970s. She said she received much of her education by visiting museums and keeping her eyes open while traveling around Washington, which she said “has more portrait busts — good, bad and indifferent — per square mile than any place in the world.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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