Lorado Taft was born on April 29, 1860, in Elmwood, Illinois, the first of four children for Don Carlos and Mary Lucy Taft. His father was born in 1827 in Swanzey, New Hampshire, and received his education at Amherst College, graduating in 1852. He married Mary Lucy Foster in 1856, and taught at several high schools until becoming a non-resident Professor of Geology at the University of Illinois in 1871. The following year he was appointed Professor of Geology and Zoology, a position he held until 1882 when he left to travel around Europe. The Taft family moved to Champaign after his appointment, where as a boy Lorado received instruction from a Belgium sculptor on drawing, modeling, and sculpting. He went on to attend the University, receiving his Bachelor's degree in 1879 and Master's in 1880.
After receiving his Masters's Taft studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris from 1880 to 1883. Soon after returning to the United States he became an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago, holding that position from 1886 to 1907. Taft taught at the University of Chicago during the period 1893 to 1900 and again in 1909 as a lecturer on the history of art. In his later years he was a non-resident Professor of Art at the University of Illinois. In addition to his lecturing Taft wrote a great deal about the history of art and was very active in professional societies. In his personal life his first wife, Carrie Scales, died in 1892 after two years of marriage. In 1896 he married Ada Bartlett and they had three daughters.
Taft opened his first studio in Chicago upon returning from Paris, and went on to win a number of awards at national and international expositions, including the Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, and the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. His first important commission was for the Horticultural Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, when he designed two sculptural groups at the entrance entitled "The Sleep of the Flowers" and "The Awakening of the Flowers." His next major works included "The Solitude of the Soul," which earned him a gold medal at the 1904 Exposition, the "Fountain of the Great Lakes," and the sculptural group, "The Blind." This last sculpture can be seen in a 1988 casting in the Krannert Art Museum on the University of Illinois campus.
Taft then began focusing on monumental, heroic sculptures, including a statue of the prominent native American Black Hawk, which was fifty feet in height and placed on a promontory overlooking the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois. One of his most noted sculptures was the 100 foot long "Fountain of Time" at the University of Chicago. Although many of his works are in Illinois, he also had many commissions for statues, sculptures, and fountains throughout the United States, including Louisiana, Colorado, Washington, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Taft continued working up until a week before he died on October 30, 1936. Less than three weeks before then he had traveled to Quincy, Illinois, to attend the dedication of his sculpture commemorating the Lincoln-Douglas debate. Taft's final work was the unfinished "Fountain of Creation," which he had hoped to put at the opposite end of the midway from his "Fountain of Time." After his death the statues that had been completed were given to the University of Illinois. Two of them are located in front of the east entrance of the University Library, with two more on the south side of Foellinger Auditorium. But his greatest legacy to the University remains the Alma Mater statue, which stands in front of Altgeld Hall at the corner of Green and Wright streets in Urbana. Lorado Taft remains one of the most outstanding graduates in the history of the University of Illinois, and his legacy lives on to this day.