Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Redwood's Dying Gaul - Commissioned for the planned RIAA Museum?

Marble Copy of the Dying Gaul by Paul Akers. Commissioned in 1854 by Edward King. Collection of the Redwood Library. 
The American sculptor Paul Akers spent the summer of 1854 in Providence, probably at the behest of his close friend Paulina Wright Davis. (See entry above on The Una.) Two of his works from Davis’s collection were exhibited at the first RIAA exhibition in Sept 1854. Through the RIAA, Akers met Tefft and the important Newport collector, Edward King, who had contributed two paintings by his well-known uncle, Charles Bird King, to the same exhibition. It is likely in this context that Edward King commissioned Akers to travel to Rome and make the fine marble copy of the Dying Gladiator “executed by Paul Akers” and copies of five other antique sculpture in the Vatican Museums. In Oct 1858, these six marble copies were referred to as being on display in Edward King’s Newport house. 

It is my speculation that Edward King might have intended these works for the planned RIAA Art Museum, since it is documented that Tefft and Akers were working together to create a free museum of the best marble copies of antique sculpture.  As we have seen, the RIAA plans for an Art Museum were derailed first by the Panic of 1857 and then by the death of Tefft in 1859.  Akers died shortly afterwards, in 1861.

In 1861-3, Edward King began to try and give the Dying Gladiator and the other marble copies to the Redwood Library, if they could make a place for them.  The Redwood had expanded once in 1858, but was almost immediately overwhelmed with a gift from Charles Bird King of 78 paintings, to be hung in the new room, followed by a bequest at his death in 1862 of an additional 75 paintings.

The Redwood finally accepted Edward King’s gift of the six marble copies in 1869.  In a thank you letter written by Hamilton Hoppin (of Bogardus and Hoppin, the NYC-based firm that was involved in the Franklin Lyceum’s Benjamin Franklin commission of 1858) Hoppin notes that this “little group is but the nucleus of a larger collection of statuary art, which ought in the future form a portion of the treasures of this institution.” The Redwood added the main room that you currently enter into in 1875, followed by other additions in 1912, 1940, 1985, and 2005.

The Redwood’s Dying Gaul and other marble copies are still exhibited. This is positive but unusual considering that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Art, and RISD, Museum of Art all abruptly stopped exhibiting casts and copies in the late 1930s. In many cases these were destroyed, or even broken up and used as rubble for road construction. The BMFA has some on display again. The RISD Parthenon Friezes are still installed in what is now Furniture Storage.  The canon for copies has changed again, and an international conference was recently held on copies of antique sculpture and their meaning in the history of nineteenth to mid-twentieth century American art.

Finally, it is also worth noting here that the famous Washington (D.C.) Art Association, of which Charles Bird King of Newport was a founding year member, postdates the Rhode Island Art Association. The RIAA was founded in Dec 1853 and Charles Bird King exhibited work in the first September 1854 RIAA Art Exhibition. The Washington Art Association lasted for five years, from 1856-1860.

© Nancy Austin, 2010
Newport, RI

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