The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Phillip Ratner, sculptor who cast immigrants in bronze, dies at 86

Displayed at the Statue of Liberty and on Ellis Island, his best-known works serve as a monument to the immigrant experience

Washington-area artist Phillip Ratner died Nov. 9 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 86. (Dave Giroux)
7 min

Practically under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty, a set of smaller statues stands outside on Ellis Island, the site in New York Harbor where more than 12 million immigrants first stepped onto American shores beginning in the late 19th century.

In one sculpture, a slim man grasping a violin case locks arms with his wife. In another, a willowy woman in a kerchief nestles her head against her baby’s crown and holds tight to an older child at her side, their pathos cast in bronze.

The sculptures are diminutive, even miniature, next to the beacon-handed colossus that towers above on nearby Liberty Island. Yet since the Statue of Liberty’s centennial in the 1980s, they, too, have been a feature of the historical entryway to the United States — a monument, collectively, to the “huddled masses” and the “tempest-tost,” as poet Emma Lazarus remembered the newcomers who passed through America’s “sea-washed, sunset gates.”

Phillip Ratner, a grandson of Jewish immigrants and a self-described “storyteller in art” who created those sculptures and dozens more seen by the millions of people who visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island every year, died Nov. 9 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 86. The cause was a neurological disorder, according to his family.

Mr. Ratner worked for decades in the Washington area, with a studio downtown and private sculpture students including Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. The Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian were among the institutions that collected Mr. Ratner’s work. His sculpture of a panda was displayed at the National Zoo.

With his cousin Dennis Ratner, the founder of salon chains including Hair Cuttery, he established the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda, an exhibition space and repository of Mr. Ratner’s sculptures, paintings, drawings and other works of art depicting figures from the Old Testament. Years earlier, Mr. Ratner had opened a similar space in Israel, the Israel Bible Museum, today located in the Negev desert city of Be’er Sheva.

Phillip Ratner was already a respected artist when he was introduced in the 1980s to David L. Moffitt, then the superintendent of the Statue of Liberty, which along with Ellis Island was undergoing a restoration.

Moffitt supported a proposal for sculptures portraying immigrants and knew of Mr. Ratner’s work. “You’re the guy to do the monuments on immigration,” he was said to have told him. All the works by Mr. Ratner were gifted by donors to the National Park Service.

For Mr. Ratner, the agonies and hopes of the people who passed through Ellis Island were “terribly real,” he told the New York Times.

All four of his grandparents arrived there after fleeing antisemitic pogroms. His paternal grandfather, Moses Ratner, who became an original member and concertmaster of Washington’s newly created National Symphony Orchestra, sailed to the United States with his wife on their honeymoon and inspired the sculpture of the man with a violin case.

In addition to eight sculptures displayed outside at Ellis Island, Mr. Ratner created 33 smaller sculptures exhibited indoors at the island’s museum. They, too, depict immigrant scenes — a man looking over the railing of a ship, an elderly couple gazing skyward with a suitcase and bundle at their feet. In its elongated grace, his style was often said to have recalled that of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

Hank Burchard, a writer for The Washington Post, drew another comparison.

“Phillip Ratner is the Norman Rockwell of bronze. Which is to say he has raised caricature to the level of high art without losing its emotion, accessibility and humor,” he wrote. “Dancing on the very edge of sentimentality, and occasionally slipping into it, Ratner re-creates the bold, sad, promising and fearsome experience of cutting off one’s family roots in hopes of finding free soil where the branches can grow.”

Visitors to the Statue of Liberty encounter sculptures by Mr. Ratner honoring people who helped bring about its inauguration in 1886. They include Édouard de Laboulaye, the Frenchman who proposed the monument as a gift to the United States from France; the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the statue; Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, the French architect and engineer who helped lay out its internal structure; and Joseph Pulitzer, the U.S. newspaper publisher who raised funds for the construction of the statue’s pedestal.

Another sculpture depicts Lazarus, the American poet and refugee worker who composed the sonnet “The New Colossus,” with its oft-quoted invocation of the very people Mr. Ratner had brought to life on Ellis Island:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …

Phillip Joel Ratner was born in Washington on June 3, 1937. His father was a violin and trombone player who, like his father, performed with the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Ratner’s mother was a pearl stringer.

After graduating from Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, Mr. Ratner studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in advertising design in 1959. He then enrolled at American University in Washington, where he received a master’s degree in arts in 1962.

Mr. Ratner spent the first two decades of his career in education, teaching at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington and later at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., before he devoted himself full-time to his artwork. The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum awarded him some of his first commissions, homages to the neighborhood.

“My purpose in teaching high school is to heighten the sensitivity of all the kids to what’s around them,” Mr. Ratner told The Post in 1978. “I can show them that trashmen and street vendors are as valid a topic [for art] as Washington crossing the Delaware.”

Mr. Ratner, who described himself as an observant Jew, explained the museum in Israel as his lifelong dream. Funded by the Ratner family and other donors, it opened in the northern city of Safed in 1985 and was later moved to Be’er Sheva. The Bethesda museum opened in 2001.

In all his biblical art, he sought to make the stories of the Old Testament come vividly alive. “I’m not hanging drapes on the Grand Canyon,” he told the publication World and I in 1998, an apparent reference to the artist Christo.

“I don’t stick rods in the ground and call them Abraham,” he continued. “I’m a narrative artist. A representational artist. I’m a sentimentalist. A romantic. I believe the Bible. The Bible is very real to me. Artists today are supposed to make a statement. They are not supposed to be storytellers. Or mystics. … I’m both. Everything that happens to me happens magically — just like Jacob and his dream.”

Mr. Ratner’s marriage to Miriam Lavine ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Ellen Miles of Bethesda; four children from his first marriage, Hal Ratner of Chicago, Marni Ratner of Olney, Md., and Sari Ratner Judge and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, both of Madison, Wis.; a sister; a brother; and nine grandchildren.

Reflecting on his contributions to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Mr. Ratner told the Times that with his renderings of immigrants who tossed themselves to the wind with all their worldly possessions contained in a bundle or suitcase or trunk, he had sought to put his “dreams and memories into tangible form.”

“They were meant to be the trapped ghosts of our ancestors,” he said, “who are not that far away from us.”