Art Room in Smithsonian Institution Building, 1903

The Mystery of the Art Room Frieze

 We examine a long accepted, undocumented, but oft repeated account that the Smithsonian’s Parthenon plaster friezes had been transferred from the Corcoran Gallery of Art sometime in 1897.

Samuel P. Langley, by Unknown, 1887, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 10610 or MAH-10610. The Art Room, a greatly scaled down successor to the Smithsonian’s original 1857 Gallery of Art, is located on the second floor of the Smithsonian Building (the Castle). It was designed in 1899 by the architectural firm Hornblower and Marshall to house the Smithsonian’s collection of prints and drawings. When the room was first completed in 1900 three panels of the Parthenon Frieze, plaster casts of the famous Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, were mounted to the south wall above the door leading to the hallway. In 1902, at the request of then Secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel P. Langley, eighteen panels were added, extending the frieze to all four walls. Langley perceived the décor of the room as “distinctively aesthetic rather than scientific or historical.”

A long accepted, undocumented, but oft repeated account was that the frieze had been transferred from the Corcoran Gallery of Art at the time the gallery moved into its new building in 1897. That assumption is problematic given that photographs of the sculpture hall in the Corcoran’s new building taken shortly after it opened clearly show the frieze in place. Furthermore, contemporary reports stated that the transfer of all the sculptures and casts from the old Corcoran building (now the Renwick Gallery) was completed in early 1897.Painting of the Renwick Gallery

With the Art Room panels now considered historic objects in their own right, it was time to verify their true provenance and to catalogue them into the Castle Collection. While photographing the panels for the record, a clue was revealed in the form of a perfect oval of delaminating paint in the lower left corner of one panel; the frieze had been painted and repainted many times over the 116 years since its installation. Removal of the thick paint exposed a label impressed in the plaster which read “P.P. Caproni & Bro., Plaster Arts, Boston, USA”. The company, established in ca. 1880 by Pietro and Emilio Caproni, specialized in the manufacture of plaster casts for schools, galleries, and museums. Only with the company name in hand was it then possible to search the Disbursement Journals of the Smithsonian Institution Archives to determine if the panels were purchased. These invaluable records list a vendor’s name, payment date, and the amount paid, but not the purpose for the purchase. The entry for P.P Caproni & Brother on October 03, 1902 recorded the disbursement of $162.75. The eighteen panels listed for $12.00 each in the company’s 1902 catalogue for which they offered a “liberal discount to educational institutions according to amount of purchase.” That proved how the second set of panels were acquired, but what of the first three panels installed in 1900? Could those have been transferred from the Corcoran and thus been the source of the story or were they purchased as well?

Art Room in Smithsonian Institution Building, 1903

Found in the Archives was an undated handwritten scrap of paper in Record Unit 165 which listed several minor expenses for the Art Room, one of which seemed promising as it appeared to read “Castelucchi & Co.” Searches for that name in the directories of several east coast cities found none involved in cast making or anything remotely similar. The 1897 New York City Directory however did have a listing for “Louisa Castelvecchi, widow, L & Co. Statues.” Back to the Disbursement Journals in which the purchase record dated October, 1899 for L. Castelvecchi & Co., New York, was located. According to advertisements, Louisa’s company manufactured and imported “plaster casts, Antique, Roman & Mediaeval, for the use of schools, colleges, amateurs, etc.” Mystery solved! None of the panels had been acquired from the Corcoran.

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