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Ivan Mestrovic Papers

Identifier: MST

Scope and Content

Correspondence and photocopies of correspondence with other artists, museums and galleries, admirers of his work, Yugoslav emigrants, clients who have commissioned work, and friends and family; contracts, reports, and architectural plans relating to his commissions; his unpublished manuscripts of poetry, a novel, a play, and two books on Michelangelo; articles on and interviews with Mestrovic; and contracts and inventories relating to the disposition of his homes, artwork, and other possessions left in Yugoslavia when he and his family fled the country during World War II.

Correspondence deals with his approach to art; arrangements for exhibits, publications, and castings of his sculpture; the commissioning and sale of his work; the history and politics of Croatia, Serbia, and other Yugoslav republics; the events and aftermath of World War II; and the plight of friends who remained behind in Yugoslavia after the war.

Correspondents include Ljubo Babic, Milan Curcin, Cvito Fiskovic, Josip Hamm, Fedor Kabalin, Vladko Macek, Dominik Mandic OFM, Pavle Ostovic, Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac, Josip Broz Tito, Ante Trumbic, Maurice Lavanoux, Nikola Tesla, Milan Marjanovic, Malvina Hoffman, and John Foster Dulles.

Also an extensive collection of photographs of Mestrovic's work, his studios, his family, and his friends; and a collection of published articles on his art and relevant art history, his exhibits and publications, and Yugoslav history and politics.


  • Creation: 1924-1962.

Language of Materials

In English, Croatian, German, Italian, French, Russian, and other languages.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.


by his daughter Maria Mestrovic

Ivan Mestrovic was born in 1883 and died in 1962. He lived at a time of unexpected changes. He continued to develop as a sculptor through the time of the Russian Revolution, the Balkan War, World War One and World War Two. During his life he participated in over 150 exhibitions. Political events not only marked his artistic expression, but actively involved him as a man who served individual freedom and national independence.

Mestrovic spent his childhood in the grim and forbidding mountainous country of Dalmatia, close to the luxuriant coast of the Adriatic and at the same time removed from it. The destiny of the Croatian people played a strong role in the formation of his personality. By tradition his father's ancestors had been hadjuks, outlaws who defended the people from the harsh rule of their Turkish masters.

As a child Mestrovic tended sheep while listening to orally transmitted epics, folk songs, and historical ballads. Before he ever had the opportunity to see an accomplished three- dimensional work of art, epic heroes and their heroic deeds inspired him to carve in wood and stone. During the long winter evenings his mother would recite Gospel parables from memory. Matthew, his father, farmer and mason, was the only literate man in his home village of Otavice. At age twelve Mestrovic taught himself to read and write by comparing the written text of the Bible (one of the two books in his father's library) with passages he had committed to memory. In 1899 the attention of a stone-cutter named Pavle Bilinic was drawn to Mestrovic's unusual talent, and the boy went to live in his workshop in Split.

The apprenticeship assured Mestrovic one meal a day. Split is a town rich with vestiges of Greek and Roman culture, and Mestrovic spent his spare time copying ancient works of art. Bilinic's wife, a high-school teacher, helped Mestrovic to continue his education, though he attended no formal classes. Nine months later, a mine owner from Vienna became sufficiently interested in him to consent to pay for his trip to Vienna and schooling at the Art Academy. Neither his new patron nor his benefactors in Dalmatia took into account that Mestrovic had never had formal school training. He did not speak a word of German. To make things worse, the mine owner did not keep his promises. Mestrovic's beginnings in the Austrian capital were marked by the greatest hardships. Yet Vienna was the first window into the world for the peasant prodigy. He developed psychologically, culturally, and artistically from his exposure to the society of Vienna at the turn of the century. He rebelled somewhat against the atmosphere and spirit of the Vienna Art Academy, disliked the director, the sculptor Edmund Hellmer, but admired one professor, the noted architect Otto Wagner.

In 1904 he married Ruza Klein, one of fourteen children of a poor Jewish merchant. Mestrovic completed his studies at the Academy in 1905, when he exhibited his works for the first time with the Secession Group in Vienna. At a group show in Zagreb, the Austrian emperor purchased the sculpture "Mother and Child." In Vienna Mestrovic met Rodin, who recognized his talent and encouraged him to travel. Charles Wittgenstein commissioned the "Source of Life" for his palace. The money from this commission permitted Mestrovic and his young wife to discover Italy and Paris, Michelangelo and the Louvre. Only six years after arriving barefoot in Vienna, Mestrovic started to participate in national and international exhibits. In 1908 he moved to Paris. In his Montparnasse studio, in only two years, he executed over fifty sculptures, each larger than life, and became an international success.

During the first months of 1911, Mestrovic and his wife were living in Belgrade. From the capital of the Kingdom of Serbia, they moved to Rome, in these years the international meeting point of artists and intellectuals many of whom befriended the Mestrovics -- Papini, Ungaretti, Bistolfi, de Chirico, de Pisis, Pica, Barilli, Croce, Rodin, Gorki, and Anglade among others.

The spectacular turning point in Mestrovic's career was the international exhibit in Rome in 1911. He won the first place award for sculpture; critics called him the greatest sculptor since the Renaissance. The heroes that fought the Turks in the famous Kosovo battle in 1389 came to life again in bronze and stone. He presented them to the European public as symbols of the patriotic aspiration and striving of the southern Slavs towards freedom and independence -- this time from the Austro- Hungarian oppressors. On the eve of World War I, Mestrovic was fighting with his chisel for the future destiny of his people. His voice was heard all over the world thanks to his artistic success.

Except for a short first visit to London and summers spent in Otavice, Ruza and Ivan remained in Rome until 1914. Mestrovic had a studio in Via Flaminia, just off the Piazza del Popolo. The day the Emperor Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Mestrovic took a boat in Venice for Split. He had participated in the eleventh Bienale in Venice and intended to organize a large exhibit in his homeland. Two days after landing in Split he had to escape to Italy: a friend warned him that his life was in danger due to his well-known political opposition to the Austro-Hungarian authorities. His art collection was saved at the last moment, just as the crates were leaving the pier in Venice. Back in Rome Mestrovic continued to work and reinforced his friendship with Rodin, who at the time was hoping to execute a bust of the Pope.

Politics and art went hand in hand throughout Mestrovic's life, during the years of World War I and later in Paris, Cannes, London, Switzerland, and again in Rome. Wherever he made a home for awhile, he had time and found the means to continue working feverishly. Considering that, especially for sculpture, space and materials are prerequisites and crating and shipping complicated and expensive, it was not easy to remain both artistically and politically active. The difficulties were even greater in war time. But Mestrovic managed.

The exiles in Italy at the beginning of World War I were informed that the allies were secretly negotiating with Italy to enter the war on their side. Italy, as a price, demanded Croatian and Slovenian territory. Two Croatian political leaders, Ante Trumbic and Frano Supilo, with Mestrovic to support them with his reputation, conceived a Yugoslavian Committee of National Liberation to save Dalmatia from Italian expansion and to fight for Yugoslavian union. The seat of this organization, during the four years of war, was London.

By then Mestrovic was well known to the British public. His English friends, aware of the unjust territorial compensation promised to Italy, organized a Mestrovic one-man show in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The great admiration that they felt for his talent prompted them to draw the attention of the British public to the cultural achievements of the southern Slavs and to underscore the solidarity of the Croats, Slovenians, and Serbs of Austro-Hungary with the small Kingdom of Serbia. On the 24th of June, Lord Cecil, Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, opened the exhibit. Other exhibits throughout the British Isles, including Glasgow and Edinburg, followed.

Mestrovic exhibits stimulated concerts of Slavic music, lectures on southern Slavic history, literature and architecture, and many presentations of other Serbo-Croatian plastic artists in Great Britain. From this time on, Mestrovic's sculpture and Croatian historical ballads and folk legends found their way into the books of Margaret Yoursenar, D.H. Lawrence, and even Agatha Christie. Perhaps Mestrovic did more to revive the spirit of the Kosovo heroes in his modeling and carving than Goethe did when he translated the Croatian Ballad "Hosanaginica" into German.

The climax of this series of Mestrovic exhibits took place at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1919 at the time of the Versailles Peace Conference. At this exhibit Mestrovic showed 40 of his works.

After World War I, Mestrovic returned from exile to Yugoslavia. He no longer emphasized heroic themes; musical instruments became increasingly important in his work. At this time he built the Racic Memorial Chapel: "Our Lady of Angels" dominates the dreamlike peninsula of Cavtat, near the city of Dubrovnik. Mestrovic built this chapel, working both as architect and as sculptor, to keep his promise to a young shipowner's daughter, Maria Racic Banac. Before she died, after two other members of her family died in rapid succession, she asked her mother to have Mestrovic "build me a tomb and console me with the thought that death is just a shadow." As an answer to Maria the artist inscribed on the bronze bell hanging from the cupola: "Know the mystery of love and thou shalt solve the mystery of death and believe that life is eternal."

In Dubrovnik Mestrovic met Olga Kestercanek, a woman who embodied the ideal traits and forms he had been modeling for years. Her beauty and the beauty of the city and the Adriatic coast nearby, the sense of returning life after so much tragedy and destruction, the hopes which went with the achievement of national freedom and unity after gigantic efforts in exile, all contributed to Mestrovic's desire to perpetuate himself in his love for this woman, who could give him a family -- which, by now, he couldn't hope to have by Ruza.

The first child was born to Olga and Mestrovic in Vienna, the other three in Zagreb, where the artist purchased a house in 1922, a 17th-century mansion located in the old city. Mestrovic restored it and added an extensive working studio. There he lived with Olga and the children in the winter months. Beginning in the thirties, Mestrovic spent the summer months in Split, where he built for himself and his family a substantial home with a magnificent view of the island and the sea. After his death he hoped that it would be used as a museum of his works. In the meantime his resting place and that of his family, had already been taken care of. In Otavice, after building a big stone home for his parents in 1913, he erected on a hilltop nearby the Church of the Holy Redeemer, which was also to serve as the Mestrovic Memorial.

Between the two world wars Mestrovic's reputation continued to be international. He got commissions in Europe and in the two Americas; he executed many monuments and mounted many exhibits on all three continents. Besides projects, monuments and statues, which embellish many hilltops, public squares, and museums in his homeland, Mestrovic was most generous to the Catholic Church, in Croatia too poor to purchase his art. He built churches at his own expense and gave his statuary as a gift to those he renovated. Between the wars four books presenting his work were published, one in London and three in Yugoslavia. The one published in 1933 was edited by his lifelong friend Milan Curcin, publisher of the important review New Europe. Mestrovic became a member of the Academy of Art an Science in Belgrade and Zagreb, Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur in France, bearer of the Cross of St. George in England. During his life he became an honorary member of many art academies and universities in Europe and America. Between the two wars he became a professor and then for 20 years the director of the Art Institute in Zagreb. He distributed all of his salary from this position to the poorest students.

In 1924 Mestrovic came to the United States for the first time. He had a most successful exhibit of 132 pieces, with a catalogue by Christian Briton, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. In 1925 the Ferguson Institute commissioned the Chicago indians. In 1927 Mestrovic went with friends on a study trip to Egypt and Palestine. In 1934 he opened a gallery of his works in Zagreb, where he continued to buy property, as he did in Split. The same year he projected the Art Pavilion, also in Zagreb. Here he initiated and organized the exhibit "Half a Century of Croatian Art."

Among his contemporaries, artists, intellectuals, writers and critics, especially in Yugoslavia, there were both highly positive and highly negative reactions to Mestrovic's growing success. Mestrovic influenced many generations of artists and inspired great new talents in Croatia.

In the late 1930s the Mestrovic mansion in Split was completed. Now the artist started building a small convent complex called Crikvine a short walk from his residence. On this site he preserved a 16th-century chapel and erected a new one, much larger. In this Chapel of the Holy Cross, Mestrovic intended to put 28 wooden reliefs of the life of Christ and a crucifix on permanent display. He had begun working on this series in 1917 and did not finish until 1954. The final works of this period were the large equestrian monuments of Kings Ferdinand and Carol of Rumania, unveiled in Bucharest shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

For Yugoslavia the twenty years between the two world wars were a period of growing Serbo-Croatian conflict leading to police repression and dictatorship. Despite Mestrovic's status as a leading and influential citizen of the country, the conciliatory role he played in political circles caused him many difficulties. His efforts to defend the interests and rights of Croatians while working on commissions from King Alexander were misinterpreted by both Serbs and Croats. Finally the outbreak of war in 1941 accounts for disastrous consequences for Mestrovic and his country.

The National-Socialist regime in Germany had noticed the monumental and powerful form of Mestrovic's art. Consequently the artist was invited to exhibit in Berlin in the middle 1930s. Hitler himself intended to open the exhibit if Mestrovic would be there for the occasion. Mestrovic declined. After the downfall of Yugoslavia, Hitler and Mussolini established a puppet government in Croatia. The local Quisling, Ante Pavelic, was the president of this Independent State of Croatia. Mestrovic refused to collaborate with this new government, which handed over to the Duce the greatest part of the Dalmatian coast.

Mestrovic was in Split with his family when the Italians occupied the city. Secretly he got word that the Fascists wanted to liquidate him. They couldn't forgive him the role he played against their plans and interests in the First World War and his repeated refusal to cooperate in the cultural programs of Nazi and Fascist occupying forces. When Tito started fighting the Axis, with his more or less organized troops, fratricidal passions led to horrors. Indeed, for Serbs and Croats this became an occasion to settle accounts. After escaping from Split, in spite of all the danger, Mestrovic returned to Zagreb. The famous Croatian writer Mile Budak, at that time Minister of Culture, gave Mestrovic hope that he would be able to obtain passports and visas to leave the country with his family. Nevertheless, ten days later he was taken to the ill-famed Savska Cesta prison.

After months of negotiations by friends through the Vatican, Mestrovic was released and left for Venice, where his works were exhibited at the Bienale. For a while he lived and worked in Rome at the Institute of St. Jerome. In return for all the kindness and hospitality, he executed two major stone reliefs for the Institute on the open square of Augusto Imperatore near the Tevere River. At the same time he developed projects which he had put onto paper in prison, among them the big "Pieta" and "Job."

His family finally made it to Rome, except his daughter Marta and his brother Petar. Because the increase of German power in Rome made life there dangerous for Mestrovic and his family, they crossed the border to Switzerland. In spite of having escaped the horrors of the war and death, the following three years in this neutral and safe country were a great trial for the artist. He was seriously ill for almost a year. His eldest daughter Marta, who finally, more dead than alive, arrived in Geneva, was put into a hospital. Ruza Mestrovic died in 1942 in Zagreb and 30 members of her family were killed in the Holocaust. Mestrovic's brother Petar was imprisoned by the communists, while Tvrtko, Mestrovic's older son, was heading inexorably towards his desperate style of life. Bedridden and unable to work for a long time, Mestrovic wrote incessantly. He finished two book-length manuscripts. As soon as he was allowed to be on his feet, he worked on the reliefs of the life of Christ.

Finally the war ended, but with its end little by little all hope of returning to his beloved Croatia vanished. From Geneva he returned to Rome and tried to finish the projects he had started there. Olga Mestrovic stayed in Switzerland with her sick daughter Marta and her youngest son Matthew.

In Rome Mestrovic lived with his 18-year-old married daughter Maria in the Via della Conciliazione almost on St. Peter's Square. He was offered a lovely studio on Mount Gianicolo at the American Academy. Some peace returned to his life and he experienced the joy of becoming a grandfather for the first time.

Tito's government urged Mestrovic to return to the new Yugoslavia. The Marshal himself came to offer the artist personal freedom and material wealth. His properties were the only ones not confiscated and were waiting for him to return. Mestrovic refused as a protest against the cruel abuses of the rights and liberty of the individual in a communist country. He couldn't accept privileges while his people and friends were being imprisoned, persecuted, and deprived of all human dignity.

In 1946 Mestrovic was offered a professorship at Syracuse University. Through Malvina Hoffman, a well known American sculptor and author, Chancellor P. Tolley contacted the artist, first in Switzerland, then in Rome. Finally Mestrovic made the difficult decision and sailed for the United States with his wife Olga and their sixteen-year-old son Matthew. They arrived in New York in January. In the spring of the same year, invited by the academy of Arts and Letters, Mestrovic mounted a memorable show at the Metropolitan Museum. The sculptures which came to life during the war years and just as the war concluded were displayed on this occasion. These Carrara marbles, bronzes, and woods were not inspired by far-removed facts of Balcan history. Mestrovic's art was no longer inspired by politics either. His sculpture now was the expression of cruelty and tragedy, injustice and endurance, faith and hope for mankind. It was the testimony of personal, dramatic experiences. Mestrovic's "Job," "Persephone," "St. Francis," "Supplication," "Pieta," "Woman under the Cross" all speak of supreme sacrifice which is also a promise of salvation to those that recognize immortality imprisoned in every soul in love with eternity.

In 1949 his daughter Marta died at age 24. In 1952 Mestrovic signed an agreement with the Yugoslavian government to give the Croatian people his homes in Split and Zagreb, Crikvine, the Mestrovic Memorial, over 400 sculptures and numerous drawings. In 1954 he became a citizen of the United States at a ceremony conducted by President Eisenhower at the White House. He moved to Notre Dame in 1955, and the president of the university, Father Hesburgh, had a studio built for him on campus.

Before he died Mestrovic went to Yugoslavia one last time in order to visit his sick friend Cardinal Stepinac, who by that time had been released from prison but was under strict house arrest. During his brief stay he also spent time with Marshal Tito. At the request of various churches, convents, cities, towns and villages, Mestrovic sent 59 statues from the United States to Yugoslavia. At the end of his life he felt this was the only way that he could show his love and speak words of hope and courage to his people, with whom he wanted to be united after death by burial in his native land.

On September 26, 1961, his son Tvrtko died in Zagreb. The magnitude of his grief was uttered in clay, the only language with which he could express his feelings. He worked on four pieces dedicated to Tvrtko and Marta until death came to set him free.


20 linear feet. 41 audio tapes. 7 video tapes. 7 linear feet of photographs. 150 lantern slides. 3.5 linear feet of printed material.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Following the death of Ivan Mestrovic in 1962 his papers remained with his widow Olga until her death, when they became the property of his son Matthew. Following the death of Olga Mestrovic the papers were stored at the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame where they had been transferred along with artworks purchased by the Snite from the Mestrovic heirs. In 1988 the papers were deeded to the Notre Dame Archives by Matthew Mestrovic.

Processing Information

Collections of photographs and published articles were assembled largely by the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame and came to the Archives of the University of Notre Dame with the Mestrovic Papers and the Snite Museum's records.

Ivan Mestrovic Papers MST
University of Notre Dame Archives
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the University of Notre Dame Archives Repository

607 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame Indiana 46556 United States
(574) 631-6448