Art Notes: Saint-Gaudens Crowdsources An Exhibition
This life mask of Abraham Lincoln is part of "The Hairstyle Files: Hirsute Gentlemen and Coiffured Ladies of the Gilded Age," a show at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site that was curated by the site’s Facebook followers. (Image courtesy of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site)
A bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens of Wayne and Virginia MacVeagh.(Image courtesy of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site)
Museum directors the world over may quake at the thought, but the staff at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish embarked on an unusual experiment this spring: turning the curating of an exhibition over to the public.
Staff on the Saint-Gaudens Facebook page asked the public to suggest themes for a small show, and objects from the collection they’d like to see. Once a theme was selected from a few contenders, the public then curated the objects that would be exhibited. Followers of the National Historic Site Facebook page settled on “The Hairstyle Files: Hirsute Gentlemen and Coiffured Ladies of the Gilded Age,” a show in the park’s visitors center that is better than its name would suggest.
This kind of crowd-sourced show represents the first time that this has been attempted in the National Park system, said Saint-Gaudens Superintendent Rick Kendall.
“The park Facebook page allowed 1,500 Facebook fans to dictate the terms of engagement,” Kendall said. “Social media spoke!”
Most of the site’s Facebook followers are from the Upper Valley and New England, although people also post from other locations around the country, Kendall said.
Although there were concerns that a show curated by the public might focus on the frivolous or too obvious, it turned out that the Facebook faithful chose a theme that spoke indirectly not only to class issues of the late 19th century, but also demonstrated the bravura Saint-Gaudens technique in relief sculpture.
“He was a master of relief sculpture,” said the park’s chief interpreter Gregory Schwarz. “He was a natural at it, I guess.”
It’s estimated that Saint-Gaudens completed between 125 and 150 reliefs during his career, said Kendall. As arguably the most famous sculptor of his era, he was highly sought after for commission work. But he did not work rapidly, Kendall said. “He would agonize over small, trivial details.”
There are 15 objects in all exhibited in a small room that include reliefs of high society types with names like van Rensselaer (hair up and carefully coiffed) and one of a middle class abolitionist from Buffalo, Maria Love (hair down and in some disarray, which was unusual for women of the period.) The men were often bearded, and those who weren’t bearded often wore mustaches.
Also on view are a plaster copy of the original life mask of Abraham Lincoln, done early in his presidency, which Saint-Gaudens relied on to make his famous sculpture, in Chicago, of a standing Lincoln; and a plaster copy of the death mask of Ulysses S. Grant.
The criteria for the objects shown were these, said Kendall: they had to be of small or moderate size, they couldn’t already be on display elsewhere in the park and they had to be in good condition. Shows such as this at the park allows the curatorial staff to exhibit objects that aren’t ordinarily seen, such as a delicate relief of Wayne and Virginia MacVeagh, a couple in middle age who sit facing each other on a bench.
The MacVeagh relief has the kind of meticulously rendered detail you want to study at length. With one hand, Virginia MacVeagh holds a small dog on her lap, its fur silky and its ears pricked up. She extends the other hand toward her husband on the top of the bench. He also reaches out his hand for hers, but their fingers do not quite touch. She wears a necklace, and has her hair tightly tied up in a bun; he has a tidy mustache and sports a boutonniere in his jacket. They have the serene repose and noble profiles found in Roman funerary sculpture, a couple comfortable with each other who also come across as independent personalities.
The Lincoln life mask and Grant death mask are curiosities, but what curiosities! The mask of Lincoln was done shortly after he assumed the presidency in 1861 — and before he grew a beard.
A sitter such as Lincoln would have plaster affixed to the face and would have to wait while it dried, which could take up to 20 minutes, said Schwarz; subjects breathed through straws inserted in the nostrils. The plaster cast registered the deep lines already formed around Lincoln’s mouth, the way his tapir-like nose twisted a little to one side, the hollows in his cheeks.
Grant’s death mask shows a face narrowed and redefined by illness; he suffered from throat cancer. The famous Grant beard is still there, his eyes, like Lincoln’s, are deep-set, the nose is aquiline. Even in death, his face seems to register both exhaustion and determination; he’d completed his famous memoirs just before dying.
From concept to completion the exhibition took six to seven months, Kendall said, and the staff is pleased with the way it has turned out. “We would definitely do it again,” he said.
The show continues through Oct. 31. To join in the conversation about this show, and future exhibits, go to facebook.com/SaintGaudensNPS.
O penings and Receptions
The DHMC Summer Art Exhibit opens today at the hospital in Lebanon from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the 4th floor south information desk (best accessed through the parking garage) with brief remarks by the artists and a reception with light refreshments. The works of artists Jeanne Amato, Arief Suriawinata, Wendy Tucker, Mark Vernon, and the Upper Valley Ship Modelers Guild will be on view at the hospital through September.
“Of Fabric, Ink, Mud and Paper,” a show of work by brother and sister John Quimby and Jane Quimby, opens today at L ong River Studios in Lyme with a reception from 5:30 to 8 p.m. John Quimby, former chef at the Middlebrook Restaurant in Fairlee, will exhibit his ceramics, and Jane Quimby her shibori fabric panels, and ink on paper prints.
Opera North pairs with the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College Friday at 3 p.m. to bring culture vultures an afternoon of music. Museum curators will talk about the works on view while singers from Opera North’s Young Artists program sing works by Mozart, Verdi, Schubert and others. This event is free-of-charge to the public but you must register as space is limited to 25 people. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A VA Gallery , Lebanon. Steve Chases’s acrylics and oils are on view through Saturday.
Aidron Duckworth Art Museum , Meriden. Duckworth’s former home and studio on Bean Road in Meriden hosts “Exhibition XXIII: Simplified Forms in Color,” paintings and drawings by Duckworth, up through July 27. The textiles of Randolph artist Bhakti Ziek are also on view through July 27, as are the the ceramics of Mark Shapiro. The sculptures of Bob Shannahan and Fitzhugh Karol are on view through Nov. 2.
Art on the River Gallery , Springfield. “802: Just Vermont,” a photography show by artists Goldie May and John Sinclair continues through Aug . 19.
Big Town Gallery , Rochester , Vt. “A World of Wonder,” an exhibition of early 20th-century wooden games and toys that have been collected by artist Peter Thomashow, continues through Aug. 24.
Chandler Gallery , Randolph. “Floral Seductions,” a show including the works of nearly 30 artists, runs through Aug . 24. An exhibit of portrait and landscape paintings by Andy Newman continues through Aug. 24.
Cider Hill Art Gallery , Windsor. Egg tempera paintings by Gary Milek, co-owner with Sarah Milek of the gardens and gallery, are up through the summer.
Converse Free Library , Lyme. The Betty Grant Gallery in the Lyme Library exhibits drawing and paintings by Carole-Anne Centre through July 31.
Great Hall , Springfield , Vt. Jack Rowell’s exhibition of photographs of The Hale Street Gang can be seen t hrough Oct. 10. Also exhibiting is Randolph designer and artist Phil Godenschwager.
Hood Museum of Art , Hanover. The Hood Museum of Art hosts “The Art of Weapons: Selections from the African Collection,” on view through Dec . 20.
Hopkins Center , Dartmouth College, Hanover. A show of drawings by artists Charles Spurrier, Elizabeth Mayor, Christopher Schade, Jane South, Joey Slaughter and Doug Wirls is on view in the Strauss Gallery through Aug. 31. Paintings by Luca Molnar and photographs by Matt Storm, both recipients of the Department of Studio Art’s Perspectives on Design (POD) Award, are up in the Jaffe-Fried e Gallery, also through Aug. 31.
Howe Library , Hanover. “Out of Persia! Images from Tile and Textile Hooked in Wool” continues through July 23.
Kilton Public Library , West Lebanon. A show of photographs by Brenna Colt, “hmmmm......it made sense at the time”, are on view in the Gallery at the Kilton Public Library through Sept. 22 .
Library Arts Center and Studio , Newport. Watercolors of Gerard Doucette are on view through Aug. 1.
M ain Street Museum of Art , White River Junction. David Fairbanks Ford’s homage to Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera , with contributions by a broad range of Upper Valley artists, continues.
Scavenger Gallery , White River Junction. The works of Ben Peberdy and W. David Powell are on view through August.
Towle Hill Studio , Corinth . The work of weavers Mary Hays, Kathryn Price and Betsy Wing is on view until July 25. For information go to towlehillstudio.com.
Tunbridge Library , Tunbridge. ArtSpace at the library features the works of Abel Fillion and Lyal Michel through July 25.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.