Ivan Meštrović was born in Slavonia to a family of itinerant agricultural labourers, but his parents soon moved back to their native Dalmatia, settling in Otavice near Drniš. Meštrović was too busy tending sheep to attend school, and had to teach himself to read and write. At the age of 16 he displayed some drawings in a local inn, prompting locals to apply to art schools on his behalf. He was turned down, but managed to land a job with a Split stonemason, thus beginning his training as a sculptor.
Awarded a place at the Viennese Acadamy in 1901 (quite a feat considering his background), he was soon exhibiting with the Art Nouveau-influenced Secession group. At the age of 22, Meštrović was already receiving big public commissions – like the Secession-influenced Well of Life (1905), which still stands outside the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. By the time he moved to Paris in 1907 a distinctive Meštrović style was beginning to emerge, blending the earthy Romanticism of Rodin with the folk motifs of southeastern Europe.
Like many men of his generation, Meštrović was convinced that the Austro-Hungarian empire could not survive, and that the expanding Kingdom of Serbia would provide the basis of a future Yugoslav state in which all South Slavs could live as equals – he had grown up in an area of mixed Serb–Croat settlement and was familiar with the folk culture of both communities. When the Austrian government invited Meštrović to represent them at the Rome International Exhibition of 1911, he chose to exhibit in the Serbian pavilion instead (of the 23 artists in the Serbian pavilion, incidentally, fourteen were Croat). During World War I Meštrović moved to London, where his involvement with the Yugoslav cause helped land him a one-man show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1915. In 1918 Meštrović hailed the creation of Yugoslavia as the “greatest accomplishment that our people have hitherto performed”, although his enthusiasm would subsequently wane.
Meštrović was made Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in 1923, and was in constant demand as an artist over the next two decades, working on monumental public projects such as the Grgur Ninski sculpture in Split (1929) and two vast, muscular Indians on horseback for Grant Park in Chicago (1928). His architectural work was in many ways more innovative than his sculpture, developing a cool, sepulchral style which found expression in the Račić mausoleum in Cavtat (1923), the Meštrović family mausoleum in Otavice (1927–31) and the Art Pavilion in Zagreb (1939).
In 1941, Meštrović was imprisoned by the Ustaše because of his history of pro-Yugoslav activity, but was subsequently allowed to emigrate. Meštrović eventually made his way to the US, where he became Professor of Sculpture at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Much of his later work was religious, although he’d been tackling sacred subjects on and off ever since 1916, when the cycle of reliefs displayed in Split’s Kaštelet was begun.