Some Ecclesiastes for the Days of Awe:
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
In last week’s post, “You Say Patina and I Say Patina,” I wrote about Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana the First, who was too big not to fail—as a weathervane, that is.*
Diana the Second, five feet shorter and hundreds of pounds lighter, turn, turn, turned. Saint-Gaudens sculpted her in the round. But why did he give her such a detailed beauty, impossible to appreciate from Madison Square, 347 feet below? (And from Brooklyn? Fuhgeddaboudit!)
Well, one could use opera glasses or binoculars or a telescope (“The Square is now thronged with clubmen armed with field glasses.”—New York World, 1891), and buildings of similar height could reasonably be expected to rise nearby.
In fact, Madison Square Garden’s 32-story tower was out-erected in 1909 by the 50-story, Sons-of-LeBrun-designed Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, soon to be an Edition Hotel (Ian Schrager plus Bill Marriott, what could go wrong?).
Better reasons: Diana was a labor of love. The Saint waived his fee for the Beaver, his fellow Tile Club member Stanford White, the Garden’s architect. And it’s no great leap to suppose that she was a shot at immortality—both for the sculptor and for his model, Saint-Gaudens’s handsome Swedish-American mistress Albertina Johnson Clark, with whom he had a son, Louis, nicknamed Novy.
Saint-Gaudens’s name for Albertina was Davida. She was his female David. He intended Diana—not sure if this is documented—to stand with the David and with the surviving masterpieces of the ancient world (also Michelangelo’s “competition”).
So in this sense it is appropriate for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to give Diana the place of honor in the niche (pronounced NEESH by the British art historians I studied with, who also said PAT-ina, not pa-TEE-na) at the top of the museum’s Great Stair Hall.
In my post “Busted! Ben’s Busted Bust on a Bus,” I offered a HOPE (as in Diamond) acronym to determine the drawing power of an object: Historical Significance, One-of-a-kindness, Provenance, Excellence.
Philadelphia’s Diana is well-endowed in all four categories. She is the one-and-only. Big sister is gone for good and the cast at the Metropolitan, though not Tinker Bell, is desk lamp-sized.
She was not surrounded by admirers earlier this month, when I went to see her new gold outfit. Perhaps it’s embarrassing to look too closely, as if you were checking her anatomical correctness (not 100%). Her body—Dudie’s?—is breathtaking.
Great care was taken in the surface treatment and lighting to arrive at a muted effect, a golden glow that the sculptor would have approved (as far as can be determined). Saint-Gaudens was particular about the appearance of his outdoor works, “Sick of seeing statues look like old stove pipes,” wrote his son Homer. He himself paid for the double gilding of his Sherman Monument, unveiled on Memorial Day in 1903 near the southeast corner of Central Park, opposite the Plaza Hotel (Henry Hardenbergh’s Plaza, the one we know today, followed four years later).
To learn about the “Saint-Gaudy” regilding of the Sherman Monument in 1990, which upset Frances Lear and others, and for which Donald Trump was unjustly blamed, read “Gilding the Sherman Memorial” by Mark Rabinowitz, a September 26, 2006, article on the website of Conservation Solutions, Inc. Conservation Solutions carried out the most recent regilding of the monument, in 2013.
I found the work on Diana, though tasteful and historically informed, somewhat off-putting if not indecent. Being this close to such a gorgeous naked woman…isn’t there a commandment about that? It felt as if I were standing before the Golden Calf, or had made Actaeon’s little blunder:
As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies. But the goddess stood head and shoulders above all the others. Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun, or Aurora’s brightness. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III, trans. Anthony S. Kline]
Being turned into a stag and ripped apart by your own hounds is not the way I want to go.
We were not meant to look upon Diana up-close—surely Madison Square Garden would last forever, just like Pennsylvania Station—but she is a masterpiece and it is rewarding to do so. For me, this experience was lessened by the regilding. Without getting into Marxist and Feminist theory (which have plenty to say about the Gilded Age), all that new gold seems to overemphasize the connection between Fornicatio and Avaritia.
And what about the American antiques commandment, Thou Shalt Not Refinish? In Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them, Thatcher Freund writes about dealer Roger Bacon, who:
refused to refinish anything. He loved what he called a “crusty” thing. When he saw a thing with “good surface,” he’d say, “It’s right as rain.” Bacon developed a following—something like a cult—of dealers who saw the tragedy of refinishing. [Chapter 9]
In a July 24, 2012, post about weathervanes (remember: that’s what Diana is), Stephen Fletcher, executive vice president and Americana head at Skinner Auctioneers, notes:
We’ve sold weathervanes with fabulous surfaces that have had big bullet holes through them; they still brought a lot of money. Weathervanes were sometimes used for target practice, and as long as there aren’t too many bullet holes, it’s not necessarily going to matter too much—as long as the weathervane has great original surface.
Okay, enough of this superficiality, let’s go past the surface…
Poised in her lighted niche between two Ionic columns with painted capitals—ironically, the regilding makes her stand out less than when she was dark green—Diana has elevation, but not rotation. If the museum had wanted to suggest her original appearance and function, that would have been the way to go.
Unless you stumble across one of the two wall labels, you’d never guess that she’s a descendant of the Faneuil Hall grasshopper. She looks like she escaped from a French fountain. (Before the regilding, it’s true, she looked like some Greek fisherman pulled her up in a net.)
Her only sculptural company in the Great Stair Hall is the large Calder mobile Ghost (1964), the white panels of which block your view of Diana when you stand at the balcony window facing the Rocky Steps.
Ghost is there to make a point: you can look out the window straight down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philly’s Champs-Élysées, and see the Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle, designed by Calder’s father, and, beyond it, the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall, designed by Calder’s grandfather.
(You can also look to your left, where there is a pediment at the end of the museum’s north wing, flanked by two of those green griffins I told you about, containing—speaking of ghosts—one of the most ghastly sculptural groups in America: 10 figures plus an owl, a lion, and a serpent in multicolor glazed terracotta designed by C. Paul Jennewein and John Gregory in 1932.)
Continuing up the stairs to the left of Diana will take you to European Art 1100-1500; passing her on the right will take you to European Art 1500-1850. Behind her is Arms and Armor. She looks stunning when the museum throws parties in the Great Stair Hall (see the inside front cover of the Fall/Winter program guide), but shouldn’t it be easier for visitors to do more than soak up her aura?
Where’s American Art, you ask? Go back down the stairs, make a right, walk through a corridor of prints and drawings, and there’s Davida again! Here she’s the Angel of Purity, a marble work of 1902 by Saint-Gaudens, commissioned as a memorial to 22-year-old diphtheria victim Maria Mitchell by her parents. (The Philadelphia church it was designed for sold it to the museum about 10 years ago.)
Same face, but everything else is different. For one thing, the only exposed parts of the winged figure, holding up a tablet, are her head, her neck, and the area just below her neck; her forearms from the elbows; and her toes. There is barely any sense of a female body under the gown. Bulging folds under the figure’s breasts obscure them.
Head deeper into American Art, now, until you reach Gallery 111, where several works from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition reside (including—when it’s not at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, perhaps the greatest American painting of them all, which narrowly escaped the clutches of Alice Walton and the National Gallery in 2006).
Cousins of Diana, well worth comparing, include two marble sculptures, La Première Pose (1873-76) by Howard Roberts and The Lost Pleiad (c. 1874-82) by Randolph Rogers; and the stained-glass window Spring (1900-1902) by John La Farge.
So, to me, the isolation of Diana means that two important educational opportunities—not just art-historical but aesthetic—are less accessible to visitors: that of seeing and understanding her in the context of Saint-Gaudens’s oeuvre and that of seeing and understanding her in the context of the Gilded Age.
There are other directions in which Diana could point—no shortage of virgins and goddesses in world art of all periods—if she weren’t affixed to her pedestal and gilded into silence (figuratively speaking). These could be mapped in guided and self-guided tours or discussed in what the museum calls Spotlight Gallery Conversations. However, outside of the party photo I mentioned, our heroine is absent from the Fall/Winter program guide.
Right now she’s aiming her arrow at the warriors in the Sea Battle between the Fleets of Constantine and Licinius, part of The History of Constantine the Great, a set of 17th-century tapestries, some by Rubens and others (including this one) by Pietro da Cortona.
Constantine and Licinius were the two emperors who proclaimed the pro-Christian Edict of Milan in 313. If you were a Roman goddess, you’d want to put some holes in those guys too.
* After being farmed out to the Agriculture Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (the Women’s Christian Temperance Union objected to her placement on the Women’s Pavilion), she lost her lower half in a fire. Her upper half made a second Chicago appearance in 1909 at the Art Institute’s tribute to Saint-Gaudens, who died in 1907, then was scrapped.