Arguably one of America's greatest animal sculptors, Arthur Putnam began his career in San Francisco in 1894, when he arrived with high hopes of studying art. As he had no financial means with which to support himself, he began working in the slaughterhouses, which gave him a unique opportunity to study and sketch animal anatomy. During this time, he also enrolled at the San Francisco Art Students League. However, as there was not strong formal education for sculptors at this time, he eventually found this education to be limiting. He traveled to Chicago, and although his study with animal sculpture Edward Kemeys was stimulating, he still felt confined and disliked city life. Ultimately, he returned to San Francisco. In spite of his continued poverty, he endeavored to create beautiful animal sculptures and he eventually sold several to the Crocker family. This first financial success enabled him to travel to France and Italy for further study.
Arthur Putnam and his wife arrived in Paris in 1906, while Putnam was recovering from an acute respiratory illness. Paris welcomed the Putnams with the onset of a cold, wet winter and Arthur immediately found the city to be crowded, and he disliked the language and otherwise resented the culture. In spite of this, Putnam was ultimately interested in the work of French sculptors such as Antoine-Louis Bayre, and in particular by the work of Auguste Rodin. "Impressed by young Putnam's work, Rodin was reported to have said of the animal sculpture: 'This is the work of a master.' Putnam was greatly influenced by Rodin's impressionistic style. Rich modeling and lively surfaces give Putnam's sculpture tremendous vitality." (P. Broder, Bronzes of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 244)
After a very productive time in Paris, the Putnams traveled back to San Francisco to find the city in the throes of recovery from the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Arthur went to work creating architectural sculpture for the city and eventually built a house with studio, where he cast his own sculpture. In 1911, Putnam developed a debilitating brain tumor, which left him unable to work for the remainder of his life. He was generously supported by Mrs. Adolf Spreckles of San Francisco, who took a keen interest in the sculptor and purchased a number of Putnam's bronzes, drawings and plaster casts. She sent the plaster casts to Paris to be cast by the foundryman Alexis Rudier, who also cast bronzes for Rodin. These bronzes were cast in multiple and many were ultimately given to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which was presented to the City of San Francisco by the Spreckles family.
First conceived in 1900, Reclining Lion is a rare example of an Alexis Rudier cast. Through his handling of mass and form, the work shows Putnam's innate understanding of the animal's heavy musculature. However, unlike the French sculptors who portrayed their animal sculptures in active or aggressive movement, Putnam frequently preferred to present his subjects in a relaxed state. An iconic example of Putnam's sculpture, Reclining Lion rests in an undisturbed and deep slumber.