A Gilded Goddess Would Rather Be in Philadelphia
JAN. 22, 2014
The Philadelphia museum secured a grant to have the statue, made of molded copper sheets, regilded. In November, Diana was again taking aim, but with a new coat of 23.4-karat red gold. Joe Mikuliak/Philadelphia Museum of Art
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
PHILADELPHIA — Can we speak frankly? New York really didn’t deserve Diana.
To be sure, when she was young, brilliantly gilded and fresh from the workshop of Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1893, Diana was the toast of the town.
Even moralists could not make too much of her nudity, since her lithe contours were barely discernible, except in silhouette. She did her hunting from the pinnacle of Madison Square Garden — the one on Madison Square, the one designed by Stanford White, who perished under Diana’s gaze in 1906, shot to death by the jealous Harry K. Thaw.
The Statue of Liberty envied Diana the perch from which she could watch horse shows, cat shows, sportsmen’s shows, pageants, banquets and balls. Or so O. Henry wrote in “The Lady Higher Up.” The two would exchange gossip of a quiet summer night, when they could hear each other’s voices over the great distance.
“Ye have the best job for a statue in the whole town, Miss Diana,” Mrs. Liberty said, in an unexpected Irish brogue.
Launch media viewer
Diana’s original place in New York was atop Madison Square Garden in 1893.
Answering in a clear soprano voice, Miss Diana took pity. “It must be awfully lonesome down there with so much water around you,” she told Mrs. Liberty. “I don’t see how you ever keep your hair in curl. And that Mother Hubbard you are wearing went out 10 years ago.”
Poor Diana. She was herself soon to go out of style. When she reached her 30s, New York’s ardor cooled. Madison Square Garden was razed to make way for the New York Life Insurance Company headquarters. Diana needed a new home.
But not one place could be found for the 13-foot-1-inch slip of a goddess; not in Madison Square Park, not on New York University’s campus in the Bronx (now Bronx Community College), not over the portal to the Manhattan Bridge, not above a Coney Island hotel.
So after waiting seven years in storage to alight somewhere in the five boroughs, Diana finally decamped in 1932 for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There, she was prominently placed at the summit of the Great Stair Hall, framed by twin Ionic columns. With arrow perennially poised to fly from bow, Diana became almost as much a symbol of the museum as its griffins. (We’ll leave the Rocky statue out of this.)
Philadelphia, it was clear, knew how to treat a goddess.
It still does. In November, after five months, scaffolding came down to reveal Diana’s new coat of 23.4-karat red gold. It was the first regilding since her days on East 26th Street.
In a stroke, the sculpture had been transformed from a patinated relic back into a dazzling, daring emblem of the confident young metropolis of New York.
Launch media viewer
Diana currently stands atop the summit of the Great Stair Hall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
“Looking at it as a Greek antiquity was totally past the point of what the sculptor and architect wanted,” said Andrew Lins, the senior conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the museum. “This is really about the Gilded Age.”
Visitors are certainly conscious of the sculpture. One middle-aged man on the staircase assumed Diana’s pose for a snapshot: left foot tiptoe, right leg slightly raised, left arm extended, right hand gripping an imaginary arrow shaft.
“It refreshes something people have been walking by for years,” said Kathleen Foster, the senior curator of American art.
Ms. Foster said it would have been unthinkable for the museum to regild the sculpture when it arrived, during the Great Depression. The idea was considered in the mid-1980s, she said, but neither time nor resources were at hand. Mr. Lins said regilding had not been a high priority because the statue itself, made of molded copper sheets soldered together, was in acceptable condition.
What permitted the regilding was a grant from the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project. Museum officials and a public relations representative of the bank would not disclose the amount. (The recent regilding of the Sherman Monument by Saint-Gaudens in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan cost $500,000 but was far more complex.)
In 1967, when the current Madison Square Garden was being constructed over Pennsylvania Station, New York’s mayor, John V. Lindsay, asked his counterpart in Philadelphia, James H. J. Tate, if New York might get Diana back and install her at the new Garden.
“When no one wanted this poor little orphan girl,” Mayor Tate replied, “Philadelphia took her in, gave her a palatial home and created a beautiful image for her with a worldwide reputation.” In a word: no.
New York has the gorgeous consolation prize of a 28-inch bronze cast of Diana, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ms. Foster said she was approached a few years ago by a Garden executive who wondered whether big Diana might return temporarily for an exhibition. The curator explained that the copper sheets were too malleable to withstand shipping and handling.
She was impressed by the request, however. “New Yorkers,” Ms. Foster said, “never give up.”