Published: September 24, 2019
By W.A. Demers, Senior Editor
SALEM, MASS. – When the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) opens a new 40,000-square-foot wing designed by Ennead Architects, N.Y., on Sunday, September 29, the light-filled atrium will usher visitors into a new experience with the museum’s collections. One of the institution’s exceptional works of art with which they will be able to engage is a celestial ship’s figurehead that was carved by Pennsylvania sculptor William Rush around 1805-09. She will be prominently displayed on a pedestal near two entry doors to the museum’s new Maritime gallery on the ground floor. She is no new arrival, however, having been the subject of a decade-long project to reveal her beauty under layers of paint.
Her most recent saga begins in January 2005, when, according to PEM’s Russell W. Knight curator of maritime art and history Dan Finamore, a particularly well-carved ship’s figurehead appeared at a Christie’s Americana auction. “Just a few days before the sale, the specialist Andrew Brunk called me to say that not only was it an excellent carving, but he had a strong feeling that it was by famous Philadelphia wood carver William Rush,” recalls Finamore.
Rush, he continues, was one of early America’s most celebrated artists and is the first native-born sculptor to achieve international acclaim. He specialized in architectural carving, both interior and exterior, as well as ship figureheads. He is known to have been carving by the late 1780s, including figureheads for the Philadelphia banker and shipowner Stephen Girard, and he worked until about 1830. “We know a considerable amount about him because he was so prominent in his day – he held many commissions for public buildings – and because many of his papers and work receipts survive, showing us who he worked for and what he carved for them,” says the curator. “His work was also recognized in Europe because his figureheads traveled transatlantic and were seen first-hand by Europeans.”
Works by Rush can be seen in such prominent institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Art Museum and others.
When Finamore attended that Christie’s sale preview more than a decade ago, he said he found “a somewhat contentious scene. The small group of people who claimed to know about Rush and who had seen the carving were fairly split down the middle on the attribution. I admit that at that time, I was unable to make up my own mind, since I hadn’t seen many of Rush’s works in the flesh myself, mostly only in photos.
“With only a few days before the sale, I was not able to get a bid together to go after it. So, lo and behold, two days after the sale, I get a call from the Christie’s specialist to say that the carving did not sell at the auction. By this time, I had also come to the conclusion that whether or not it was by Rush, it was an extremely well-executed ship figurehead from about 1805-15.”
And who could blame any potential buyer? The carving’s rough shape was further marred by many thick coats of paint that obscure the original carved surface. “Figureheads got very beaten up while in use,” points out Finamore, “most don’t survive at all, and the survival of those that do can often be credited to the presence of so much paint.”
Later, when PEM conservator of objects Mimi Leveque encountered the figurehead, she found that it was not only “wildly over-painted,” obscuring any features, but also was riddled with deep chips and cracks throughout the white pine.
Having secured the figurehead at private sale, Finamore headed off to Philadelphia, where most of the known carvings Rush reside. “We had a very informative day,” he recalls, “looking at carvings all around the city, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we saw several architectural carvings that were created by Rush. What he saw made him very comfortable about the attribution to Rush, and this comfort was bolstered by a consultation with a former Rush exhibition organizer who echoed its authenticity.
Leveque took a full series of paint samples in 2008 with Christine Thomson, a conservator who specializes in painted wooden objects. “From the 2008 paint cross sections, we learned that there had been at least 30 layers of paint in some places – in fact, when we started the work, you could not see any details of carving on the figure, as the paint layers were so thick,” said Leveque. “Her face was particularly thickly covered. We also learned that the early paint layers had been removed in most places when the paint was stripped using a torch about halfway through her ‘life,'”
Despite those losses, Leveque and her team were able to discover what her original paint colors were; Her dress was originally a peachy cream, her shawl was robin’s egg blue, her eyes were blue and her hair was light brown.
Now that her features have been revealed, will the figurehead get a name? “That is up to Dan Finamore,” replied Leveque. “Since we don’t know her ship’s name, we can’t use that. During the research that Dan and Kathryn Carey, our paper conservator, had done on Rush carvings, we believe that Rush used the same model for this carving that he used for the ‘Nymph and Bittern’ sculpture that he carved for the waterworks in Philadelphia. That model was Louisa Vanuxem, the daughter of the chairman of the Waterworks Commission. Looking at the surviving head from that carving, it seems likely that Rush found her a good model for this and possibly for other works, like ‘Peace,’ carved after the War of 1812. That sculpture looks much like this figure but slightly older. So we have been referring to her as ‘Louisa.'”
The Peabody Essex Museum is at 161 Essex Street. For additional information, 978-745-9500 or www.pem.org.
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