This post originally appeared on the National Museum of Natural History's blog, Unearthed.
Who would think that behind the west wall of NMNH's paleontology hall is a painting of a goddess that created a sensation when installed in 1910? Some of you who visited the museum fifty years ago may remember the captivating Diana of the Tides as she surveyed the hall.
Diana was painted by American artist John Elliott (whose mother-in-law was Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") as a gift to the Smithsonian from Washington residents Mr. and Mrs. Larz Anderson. Diana was painted in Rome between 1906 and 1908, and she was finally unveiled at a special exhibition there in 1909 which was attended by King Victor Emmanuel II. Her charms were not lost on His Majesty as he told Elliott that he found "much in the picture genuinely of interest." The Chinese Minister also visited Diana, "to signify his profound Celestial veneration for the Fine Arts."
The Andersons purchased Diana for the Smithsonian’s new “National Gallery of Art,” housed in what was then called the U.S. National Museum's grand north hall (now the Sant Ocean Hall of the National Musem of Natural History). Not to be confused with the National Gallery of Art as we know it today, the name “National Gallery of Art” was given to the Andrew Mellon collection that became the National Gallery of Art in 1937 – just to the east of Natural History. The Smithsonian’s collection was renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts and now is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Prior to Diana’s arrival at Natural History she was stored in the Smithsonian Castle’s Regents Room for safekeeping while construction of the building was underway. Richard Rathbun, who oversaw the erection of the building, wrote to Mrs. Elliott “I am certain from all that has been said that Mr. Elliott’s painting will become such a feature of the new building that people will journey there for its sake alone.”
The 25 foot wide by 11 foot high canvas of Diana was placed in north hall for the opening of the new gallery on 17 March 1910. As they are today, Smithsonian staff back then were given “other duties as assigned,” and Dr. William Henry Holmes, the Smithsonian’s eminent Curator of Anthropology who also happened to be an artist, became Curator of this new gallery. Holmes reported that “Diana received much attention and much praise.” At the end of the year, Diana was moved to the paleontology hall (a tenuous connection was made with skeletons of sea mammals) where she remains to this day. Diana was (and still is) part of the SAAM collection.
The original exhibit label described Diana standing “erect in her chariot, a rainbow-tinted sea-shell drawn by four white horses. The horses typify the flow of the tides, their action repeating and amplifying the rhythm of the breaking waves. The moon behind the goddess in the east rises through the purple shadows that follow the setting of the sun in the west.” In other words, Diana was ablaze in living Technicolor long before Technicolor was invented. She was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
Diana was admired by many and by all accounts met with critical acclaim. Charles D. Walcott, the Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, told the artist’s wife, “I never pass through the hall without stopping to look at it.” Even President Theodore Roosevelt was taken with the goddess. In a letter to Mrs. Elliott he wrote “by the way, tell your husband I like his mural painting in the Natural History Museum in Washington.”
Diana was on view until the early 1960s when she was obscured by a wall. In 1979, the hall was undergoing renovation and Diana was rediscovered. Richard Fiske, the director of the museum, thought about uncovering Diana and talked to Joshua Taylor, the director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, about doing so and having her preside over the hall as before. Sadly for Diana, it was not to be, and she remains hidden from view.
Plans are in the works for the hall to undergo another renovation – this time to return it to its original Beaux-Arts architecture much like – the Behring Hall of Mammals and the Sant Ocean Hall. To paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein’s song from The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Diana?” What will happen to Diana? Prior to the design of the new hall, Diana will be uncovered and examined by a conservator to see how she has withstood time, hidden from the world for so long. There is no doubt that she is an important part of the history of the institution…will she be relevant today? We’ll keep you posted!