Restoring the Urn of Life
Behind the Scenes / Decorative Arts & Design / Fine Arts / Uncategorized /
George Barnard Grey’s Urn of Life, now on view in the Scaife Galleries.
ORIGINS OF THE URN
The Urn of Life (c. 1898–1900) is the unfinished repository for the ashes of Anton Seidl, the Hungarian composer and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Upon Seidl’s death, a group of the composer’s friends asked American sculptor George Grey Barnard to design his funerary urn. Barnard agreed to the commission and worked on the urn for two years. However, before Barnard could complete the sculpture, the original patrons decided the urn was too large, accepting instead a smaller model of one of the figures. The unfinished urn remained in Barnard’s studio until 1908 when he included it in an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The original urn as it appeared in 1908, with four large, chiseled feet. Also, the structural support behind the female figure’s head on the left no longer appears on the work. From the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The urn was purchased by Carnegie Institute in 1919, and today it looks markedly different from when it arrived here in Pittsburgh. Still an unfinished work at the time, the smooth, conical section at the bottom was very roughly textured with point chisel marks and had four large, lobular feet that extended outward from the bottom edge. A letter from the Carnegie Institute archives from then director John Beatty to Barnard mentions: “Your man expects to finish the base on the Urn of Life tomorrow….” And thus the urn was given the form that is visible today.
Conservation technician Tasha Mowery begins the long restoration process.
It had been quite a long time since the urn was on view here at the museum, and our curatorial staff decided it would be a nice addition to the newly renovated Scaife Galleries. At the time of the treatment, the white Carrara marble had become dark greenish-gray with embedded dust and soot; it had likely never been cleaned. Cleaning tests were conducted on the surface of the marble, starting with dry cleaning methods such as vacuuming and rubbing with powdered white vinyl eraser crumbs. Most conservators prefer to start with dry cleaning methods, as the use of cleaning liquids are a comparatively much more aggressive method. Vacuuming did remove a small amount of surface particulate and the eraser crumbs were found to reduce the ingrained dust and soot, but the eraser crumbs were difficult to apply and control on vertical surfaces and in tight recesses.
Through systematic testing we were able to develop a cleaning solution which selectively lifted away the dust and soot and left the marble unharmed. The most effective way to loosen the deposits was by poulticing the marble surface with a cotton pad soaked with the solution for several minutes and then gently scrubbing the area with cotton swabs, cotton pads, and soft brushes. Residues of the cleaning solution and any remaining dust or soot particles were cleared from the surface with a pressurized industrial steam generator which directs a concentrated jet of steam from a nozzle. While much of the sculpture had a smooth surface which could be more easily cleaned, there still remained large areas where the tooth chisel and point chisel texture remained. The layer of dust and soot was extremely tenacious in these areas, and they needed to be poulticed numerous times for extended periods. But after many hours and thanks to the hard work of conservation technician Tasha Mowery, we were able to restore the urn to its original color.
Installing the nearly 1650-pound (!) urn in the newly renovated Scaife Galleries.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1863, Barnard attended the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1883 to 1887 worked in Paris while attending the École des Beaux-Arts. He lived in Paris for twelve years, exhibiting for the first time in the Salon of 1894. After returning to America in 1896, Barnard began to enjoy a successful career as a commissioned sculptor. Greatly influenced by Rodin, his major sculptures appear in cities throughout the eastern United States, including New York, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Among these are the monumental Carrara marble figural groups (completed in 1912) that flank the entrance to the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Barnard once remarked that his work on the Urn of Life guided him in the creation of these much larger works—”I found the seed which, when I planted, grew into the two compositions known as ‘Labor’ and ‘Love’ on either side of the Capitol…” Barnard died in 1938 and was buried in Harrisburg.
Barnard working on The Hewer, one of his best known works, first exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. This photo appeared in World’s Work in 1902, not long after the Urn of Life was completed.
THE CYCLE OF BIRTH & DEATH
As you walk around the urn, the figures appear as one continuous group, flowing seamlessly into each other around the circumference of the sculpture. But Barnard conceived the figures as seven groupings of mystical beings representing distinct stages in the cycle of birth and death. (Inspired by Gothic sculpture and historiated capitals, Barnard originally intended to fill the surface of the urn by carving a second register of figures below the existing ones, but the work was never completed.)
Read Barnard’s own descriptions of the seven figural groups in the gallery below (the images move around the urn counterclockwise):
Quotes from “The Urn of Life by George Grey Barnard,” undated handbill, George Grey Barnard Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.