Gilding the Sherman Memorial

This is not a review of a conservation treatment per se. I was not a party to the treatment about which the questions I would like to discuss revolved. My involvement in this project began only after the work had been completed, when I was engaged by the Central Park Conservancy. I thought I was to work in an in-house conservation program but it turned out that I was really there to act as the whipping boy for the fall-out over this treatment. Given these conditions, I will withhold any discussion of technical issues about the treatment for a different forum.

I would instead like to present issues which grew from the conservation of a significant public monument that, although regrettably deemed beyond the scope of the treatment itself, were ultimately central to its success or failure. These issues are esthetic in nature.

The commonly used method to contract for treatment of public sculpture is the Request for Proposal, RFP. The request often defines no more than the owner’s intention to conserve an object. Bidding conservators submit proposals in which they describe their methods for treatment. The idea is for the specialists, to propose directions to the owners who would not normally be in a position to understand the best solutions to their needs. One can question whether this is a useful method technically but it certainly leaves little chance for effective solutions to esthetic issues. In most cases, any documentary evidence of the sculpture’s original appearance will no longer exist on the object. Archival research is usually the only means available of determining such questions as patina, value, tone, reflectivity and color. As a result, the final appearance after treatment of the sculpture can receive less attention during the process than the technical means to arrive at it.

What the sculpture will look like in the end will be essential to the success of the treatment. This seemingly obvious point remains, unfortunately, poorly served by these common contracting procedures as there is little room for the necessary input from researchers, art historians, curators and other knowledgeable parties in developing the treatment plans. This is a case where those procedures failed to deliver a satisfying treatment because there was no way to include the necessary historical information in it.

The Sherman Memorial, located in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, was the crowning creation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s career. It was dedicated on Memorial Day 1903 in a ceremony the featured a parade of the surviving veterans from Sherman’s Army whose infamous march through Georgia the monument memorializes by a crushed pine bough beneath the horse’s hooves. The base was designed by Stanford White, the last of a series of collaborations that had included the Farragut Monument and the Madison Square Garden Diana.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens based the portrait on a life study he had done of the aged and reduced Sherman. Augustus Saint-Gaudens had 18 sittings with the general when he modeled a bust from life in 1889. His weary cragged face projects none of the vigor of youth and leadership traditionally depicted in martial equestrians. Sherman, in response to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ entreaties to button his coat and straighten his tie so that he could look the part with the proper solemnity of other generals like Von Moltke or Bismarck responded “I don’t give a tinker’s damn how men chose to wear their coats, but I want you to know that the General of the Army of the United States will wear his coat any damn way he pleases.”

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was 55 when he completed the monument. It had taken him 12 years to complete in addition to the time he had spent on the bust. He was to becoming increasingly weak with the beginnings of the cancer that was to kill him 4 years later and the presence of death hangs heavily over the monument. Henry James noted at its dedication that the image of Sherman “symbolize(s) the very breath of the Destroyer.” To me it remains the most complex and riveting of martial memorials. By depicting the conquering general not with raise sword or commanding presence, but wizened, frail and vacant eyed, his hands hanging limply by his sides, his horse rearing in resistance to the violence of its task, the victory’s features maddened with a crazed energy, Saint Gaudens has depicted General Sherman’s statement, ” War is Hell” more effectively than if he had shown him placed within one of Dante’s circles. At its dedication it was hailed as one of the great equestrian groups in the world and time has not diminished that assessment.

Saint Gaudens was concerned with both the appearance and preservation of his work. His son’s biography of his father noted that Augustus was “Sick of seeing statues look like old stove pipes” as his reasoning for gilding the sculpture. He had the memorial double gilded at his own expense partly to avoid the bronze surface deteriorating and darkening. After moving the original plaster from Paris and exhibition at the Centennial Exhibition he had it set up in his Cornish, New Hampshire studio for another of the numerous re-workings it went through. When he was finally satisfied he had it moved out of doors, gilded and experimented with various shades of patine until he was satisfied with the result. “He always spend a lot of time over the color of his productions, struggling to obtain the proper ‘mat’ upon their surfaces either by paint, or acids or gold leaf.” That wording would come to haunt the conservation treatment as much later discussion went into whether he meant that treatments were exclusively one or the other means, which would imply gold leaf instead of coloring, or a combination of practices in which the gold could have been toned.

In 1990 the monument was conserved through funds donated by Richard Schwartz, a patron of American sculpture. The monument was cleaned and corrosion removed mechanically. An epoxy primer was applied to seal all exterior surfaces and a layer of 23.5 karat German gold was mordant gild using 12 hour oil size. The treatment was performed and supervised by French trained conservators and gilders. When it was revealed many noted the glaringly bright finish, which is typical for Parisian gilded monuments. It certainly stood out against the otherwise muted tones of Central Park. Published comments appeared shortly that were mostly negative. Public reaction, in letters to the papers and the Parks Department varied but included much concern for the appropriateness of the bright appearance.

An important architect with extensive knowledge of Saint Gauden’s finishes wrote to the NY Times and the NYC Art Commission to complain about the inappropriate re-gilding without any effort to match the artist’s original patina. The Art Commission is a official city agency empowered in 19th century to act as a knowledgeable oversight board to comment on the artistic merits of all construction on public lands, including the design and placement of monuments. No new construction can occur on public property without their approval. Their response to the letter was to state that they had no legal authority over this kind of egregious mistreatment as this was a restoration of an existing work, not new construction. It took 2 years until the City Council and Mayor changed the City’s charter to allow oversight of restorations by the commission as well. The President of the Art Commission then proudly stated that they would now be able to avoid further damage to the City’s monuments by incompetent workers, specifically siting the “re-gilding of the Sherman statue at great expense without any attention whatsoever to the sculptor’s original plan for the character of his statue’s patina”. This statement was issued by the president of the Art Commission in 1936 after Stanford White’s son, Lawrence Grant White, had complained about the first re-gilding of the monument in 1934.

At that time a conservation program had been implemented with funds from the WPA and the re-gilding of the Sherman was their first and highest priority. The completed re-gilding was trumpeted in a long article in the NY times of 1934 describing the beginnings of the project in which the director described their goal as ”not to make everything look…as bright and shiny as the statue of General Sherman just after it was recently re-gilt.” Despite the assurances of the Art Commission president in 1936, things didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. In fact, the commission’s authority ultimately became the impediment to achieving that goal.

Examples of intact exterior gilding treatments by Saint Gaudens are not known but gilded works of his that remain in interior collections all have had some amount of toning applied to the gold surfaces. The victory figure in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, although a posthumous production, was ordered through effort of Daniel Chester French and created under the direction of Saint Gauden’s widow and one assumes the toning reflected their understanding of his wishes. The toned pieces all have a similar treatment theme in which the hollows and shadowed areas are darkened while the highlights are left brighter. In value they resemble freshly patined bronzes which corresponds with Homer Saint Gauden’s description of his father’s intentions.

Historic photos of the monuments shortly after installation reinforce this view. There is none of the reverse shadows, light bouncing off of the undersurfaces, or other obvious evidence that these were gilded finishes and not simply patined bronzes which they resemble in the black and white. Even without the photographic evidence the documentary material and remaining examples seem to leave little doubt of Saint Gauden’s intentions.

Regrettably, the art commission appeared to have revised their concept of their mission between the first re-gilding in 1934 and the later treatment. The proposal for this treatment which was submitted under an ill defined RFP did not clearly address the requirement for a toning layer nor was it a requirement of the contract. Like most RFP’s, the specifics of the treatment were left to the conservator to propose and the New York City Art Commission’s Conservation Advisory Group to review. The French gilder did not recommend a toning layer and none was applied. In fact, throughout the ensuing discussions regarding toning the French gilder maintained that it was inappropriate, uncalled for and would be deleterious to the surface. To be fair, historical research was not within the contractor’s scope of work and as his proposed methodology had been reviewed and accepted, he was in his rights to reject any call for further work which included toning. Two competing bids had included the application of a toning layer and both had been reject in favor of the winning contractor.

After the completion of the treatment and the resulting outcry over the appearance, several proposals to tone the gold to more closely match the original were developed and submitted to the Art Commission for approval. They were rejected because among other things, some commissioner’s stated a preference for the bright, shiny color. Comments included that the treatment acted to brighten up the otherwise dingy gray city and looked better for it. When they were presented evidence that the commission’s legal authority over the matter was specifically created to avoid exactly the condition that they were now defending, only a modest recanting of their position was admitted. They approved the application of a very lightly toned un-modulated layer of paste wax which, together with oxidation of the leaf and other factors, did reduced the specular quality of the treatment without really achieving any approximation of the artist’s original intentions. The original donor no longer had any interest in the project, feeling, I think justifiably frustrated, and no funding was available to achieve more than this compromise.

The monument has had repeated maintenance treatments over the 10 years since this treatment. Localized failures in the leaf due to vandalism and separation of the primer from the substrate have been repaired on a periodic basis and the entire monument has been repeatedly cleaned with water misting. Failures in the gilding have continued as well as increases in deterioration from pigeon infestations. A new re-gilding treatment is in order. Although it will require addressing the technical conditions relating to this pervious treatment, specifically the viability of the primer layer, the next effort should provide an opportunity to re-address the visual characteristics as well.

This gets to the point of this paper. Changes in a monument’s appearance are curatorial decisions and should be made by owners informed by appropriate art historical and analytical information yet they are often left to conservators to define as almost besides the point of other aspects of the treatment. The appearance will ultimately have more effect on the monument in the eyes of the viewer than the longevity of the coating system which in this case was only about 10 years. It behooves us to work to assure that the owners assume their responsibility for adequate research into their monuments before settling on treatment methods. Conservators do not usually have the resources, including contract funding, time or access to archives and often dispersed institutional records, to perform the research needed to assure that our work conforms to these standards.

It is within our power to, at the least, notify owners of the need for them to perform this work with us before selecting a treatment regimen. Better would be a revision in the contracting method that would perform the necessary archival research before requesting conservation input. Only then we, the owners, and the public will be assured that the technical goals of a treatment are aligned with the appropriate art historical ones.

The documents regarding the Art Commission’s position on the 1934 treatment were all found in their own archive, but in a scrapbook on the commission’s history, not the files relevant to the memorial, and had not been searched before I found them while trying to redress the patina issue. Even if research had been included in the contract requirement it is unlikely that anyone other than a curator familiar with the available resources would have located them. Although we are often called on to propose treatments without complete art historical materials in hand, I believe we must resist the tendency of owners to have us assume responsibility for this crucial treatment component.

Author: Mark Rabinowitz