Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


LEO BERGER (Solothurn, Switzerland 1885 – Pieterlen, Switzerland 1983)

A Figure Skater Believed to be Gillis Grafström

signed L. Berger and stamped Guss V. Pirner & Franz, Dresden. on the base

bronze, chocolate brown patina, mounted on a black marble base with white veins

height: 24¾ inches (62.8 cm.) excluding marble plinth


Private Collection, New England


Leo (also called Léon) Berger was initially apprenticed as a stonemason in Solothurn. He then trained as a sculptor at the École des Arts Industriels in Geneva followed by the academies of Florence, Rome and Berlin. He also spent quite a bit of time visiting Paris. From 1919 to 1927 he maintained studios in Dresden and Solothurn. In 1928 he moved to Zurich and after 1950 to Montagnola until 1966. Later he was in Massagno and lastly Losdorf.[1]

Berger worked in bronze, marble, granite, wood and terra cotta. His typical subjects were portraits, nudes, allegorical figures and genre. He also executed monuments which can be found in Manegg, Olten and Solothurn. Other works are in the museums of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Selzach and Zurich. The influence of Auguste Rodin is notable in a number of his works.[2]

The first Olympic Games after World War I were held in Antwerp in 1920. Gillis Grafström (1893-1938) was a young Swedish figure skater participating in the games for the first time. During the course of the trials he broke a skate. Forced to go into town for a replacement, he could only find a pair of antiquated curly-toed skates. In desperate need of a new blade he reground and adjusted the old-fashioned skate to the best of his ability and strapped it onto his boot. Astonishingly, despite this handicap, he won the gold medal. In 1924 and 1928 he again won Olympic gold medals as well as the World Championships of 1922, 1924 and 1929. He was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the greatest skaters of all time.[3] T. D. Richardson, the august English skating expert wrote Grafström’s “personality combine[d] the greatest knowledge of the art of skating possessed by any living soul, with a rare intelligence, intense artistic feeling, perfection of technique and supreme athletic achievement.[4] Grafström’s home was in Potsdam where he worked as an architect as well as a painter and sculptor.[5]

Berger’s figure dressed in wool cap, tightly wound scarf, tunic, trousers, high socks and boots, gracefully glides forth with his arms extended for balance. The skating attire is that of the 1920s. The features of the figure could easily be those of Grafström, particularly the long straight nose. Although the title of the work is unrecorded, evidence for the sitter’s identity lies most strongly in the fashioning of his skates, as quite uniquely they represent
two different types. The left foot on the ground wears an old-fashioned curly-toed skate. The skate on the extended right foot is ½ inch shorter, thinner and topped by a smaller open-hole-curved blade which is much more in keeping with the period. The bronze must date from after 1919 to 1927, as it was cast in Dresden during the period Berger maintained a studio in the city. These dates coincide with the majority of Grafström’s greatest achievements and a time in which his amazing story at the 1920s Antwerp Olympics was legendary. Bronze works that feature skaters are quite unusual, but Berger was drawn to figures in motion. Further he was known for his sculpted portraits and allegories. Berger’s bronze figure skater, sporting mismatched blades, defies any logical explanation other than the embodiment of Gillis Grafström at the moment of his greatest victory.


[1] Biographical information taken from A. Lechner, “Leo Berger” in Schweizerisches Künstler-lexikon, herausgegeben mit unterstützung des bundes und Kunstfreundlicher privater vom Schweizerischen Kunstverein, volume 4, Huber Frauenfeld, 1905-1917, pp. 29-30; Hans Vollmer, “Leo Berger” in Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler, Veb. E. A. Seemann Verlag, Leipzig; De Gruyter, “Leo Berger” in Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon–Internationale Künstlerdatenbank–Online; and “Leo Berger” Museum of Design, Zurich, website.

[2] De Gruyter, op. cit.

[3] Beverly Smith, Figure Skating: A Celebration, McClelland & Stewart, 1995, p. 20; James R. Hines, Historical Dictionary of Figure Skating, Scarecrow Press, Inc., Plymouth, 2011, p. 100; and “Gillis Grafström”, Encyclopedia Britannica, website.

[4] Carol A. Osborne, ed., Women in Sports History, Routledge, New York, 2012, p. 43.

[5] Bill Mallon & Ian Buchanan, “Gillis Emanuel Grafström” in Dictionary of the Olympic Movement, Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, MD., 2006, p. 11.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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