Tango, c. 1918–1924
Elie Nadelman, American, born Poland, 1882–1946
Cherry wood and gesso
(.A) male figure: 33 1/2 × 17 1/2 × 13 1/4 inches (85.1 × 44.5 × 33.5 cm) (.B) female figure: 34 3/4 × 17 1/2 × 11 3/4 inches (88.3 × 44.5 × 29.8 cm) oval display base: 36 3/4 inches high
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meredith J. Long

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect


Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Explore historical waves of immigration to America, including push and pull factors
  • Construct a biography of a notable immigrant to America, using primary and secondary source material





Social Studies


Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Born in Poland, Elie Nadelman studied art in Warsaw and Munich. In 1903 he moved to Paris, where he established a sculpture studio that was visited by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. His work combined the diverse influences of ancient Greek art, modern sculpture, and folk art. Nadelman emigrated to New York in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I. He was immediately drawn to the city’s popular culture—including theater, jazz, dance, and even the circus. Nadelman achieved enormous success and quickly established himself as the nation’s leading avant-garde sculptor. In 1919 he married a wealthy widow who shared his passion for folk art—objects created in traditional ways by artists with little or no formal training. Nadelman became an American citizen in 1927.

Nadelman’s work is infused with the energy and charm of American life. Drawing inspiration from the folk-art dolls that he collected, he created witty and sophisticated sculptures that are at once delightfully nostalgic and strikingly modern. Between 1923 and 1928, Nadelman and his wife spent more than a half million dollars acquiring American folk art. At the time, few people appreciated this art form. In 1926, the Nadelmans opened the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, the first museum of its kind in the nation. However, in the wake of the disastrous stock market crash of 1929, they were forced to sell their superb collection— much of which was bought by John D. Rockefeller and Colonial Williamsburg. Nadelman eventually vanished from the art world, and many of the friends he made later in life never knew that he was an artist.


In this masterly work, two doll-like figures perform the tango. Nadelman playfully captures the seductive grace of the dance and the exaggerated posturing of the dancers. Tango is actually two separate sculptures that were intended to be placed together. Nadelman created the sculpture while living in New York and exploring the various entertainments offered by the city. He also created sculptures inspired by other performers, including an orchestra conductor and a woman playing piano.


Tango was carved from the humble medium of cherry wood. Nadelman painted the sculpture with gesso, a chalky pigment mixed with glue. He rubbed and sanded the figures so that they would resemble the aged folk-art sculptures he admired and collected. While this technique creates an impression of naivety, the elegance of the figures is highly sophisticated.


  • What are the materials that you see in this sculpture? How would you describe each one?
  • Look closely at the gesso on the surface of the cherry wood. How has Nadelman chosen to apply it? What effect does it lend to the overall sculpture?
  • Look at the two figures’ poses. How do their bodies interact with one another?
  • Look closely at the negative spaces created between the figures’ bodies and limbs. How does Nadelman use negative space to create a sense of balance?
  • How would you describe the figures’ facial features and poses? Are these naturalistic figures, or more abstract? Are they moving in a realistic way?
  • Which parts of this sculpture seem aged to you? Which seem more modern? Why?


  • Why do you think that Nadelman chose cherry wood—a relatively common material—for this sculpture? How might the effect change if Tango were made of another material, like steel or polished marble?
  • How does Nadelman balance stillness and movement in this sculpture?
  • How might this sculpture embody Nadelman’s interest in folk art as well as his love for American pop culture, especially the music and art of New York City?
  • Characterize these two dancers. Do they seem at ease? Are they swept up in the music, or do they retain a sense of calmness about them? What clues has Nadleman given us about these figures?


Nadelman left Europe in 1914, as World War I erupted. Many other artists, writers, and scientists fled Europe for America at this time. Guide students to research this wave of immigration and its impact on American culture. What push factors prompted people to leave Europe, and what pull factors attracted them to America?

After researching the wave of immigration in general, students can extend their research by focusing on one notable immigrant—like Nadelman—and discovering their biography. Introduce students to primary and secondary sources, and encourage students to focus on these immigrants’ contributions to American culture.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.