Now that the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery has announced it will be closing for major renovations for the next three years, it seems an opportune moment to address a subject which one of my readers alerted me to some time ago. The grand museum on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington, across the street from the even grander Old Executive Office Building, was known as “The Louvre of Washington” when it opened in 1874, thanks to its combination of French Second Empire style and luxurious gallery spaces. It was the first home of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which by 1897 had grown so large that it moved to its present location a block away.
However the keen-eyed observer of the building will notice something amiss on its imposing red brick and sandstone: why are there only two statues, when there appears to have been space for so many more? The answer, as it turns out, is that the museum was originally adorned with many over-life-sized statues of important figures from Western civilization. So where have these works gone?
The eleven statues that originally stood along the facade, each standing around 7 feet high, were carved in Rome to order for William Corcoran by American sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844-1917). After the Corcoran collection left the building in 1897, it was turned over to the Judiciary, and served as a Federal courthouse for the next 50 years. Ezekiel’s statues were subsequently removed from the exterior, since it was determined that they had no relevance to the new use of the building, and in 1901 they were sold at auction to local heiress Evelyn Walsh.
Walsh owned what was formerly known as the Friendly Estate in NW Washington; a gigantic expanse of land that was later sold off and subdivided into numerous communities. She arranged the Ezekiel statues around her swimming pool, and presumably bathed under the appreciative gaze of Da Vinci, among others. Through subsequent auctions after the sale of her estate, the collection of statues was eventually split up among several owners in Virginia.
Meanwhile, by the 1950’s and continuing through the Kennedy Administration, Congress began to consider a proposal that the old, crumbling Corcoran museum be demolished, so that a new and more efficient courthouse could be built in its place. Eventually LBJ intervened, thanks to lobbying pressure from people like Jackie Kennedy, historic preservationists, and S. Dillon Ripley, the influential Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for many years. In 1965 the building was turned over to that body, and following renovations it opened to the public in 1972 as the Renwick Gallery, a museum of American craft and design.
Today the statues carved by Ezekiel for the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery stand in the Botanical Garden of the city of Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of miles away. An owner of six of the sculptures donated his to that city, for placement in the public garden back in 1963. Eventually the owners of the remaining five were located, and persuaded to donate their statues to the city of Norfolk as well.
Several months ago a friend from Twitter alerted me to the fact that he had taken his family to see these same gardens, and while admiring the statues was surprised to learn that they had been transported to his city from Washington. While originally these sculptures would have had at least some protection from the elements, standing in their covered cubbyholes studded across the facade of the Renwick Gallery, for decades now they have been completely exposed to the elements, standing out unprotected in the snow, rain, and summer heat which characterize this part of the country. No doubt standing around Mrs. Walsh’s swimming pool did not do them much good either.
While the Ezekiel statues are no longer the property of the Federal government, it is a pity in some ways that they cannot be returned to their original home on the facade of the building for which they were designed. Today, copies of two of the statues – those of artists Peter Paul Rubens and Esteban Murillo – stand in their original niches on the facade. They seem isolated and forgotten, without purpose, particularly without their brethren.
Admittedly, the Renwick, unlike the Corcoran which preceded it in the space, is not an institution that attempts to provide a reasonably encyclopaedic overview of the history of Western art. However one cannot help but think that those empty niches ought to be filled with what was originally placed there by the architects, artists, and donors who built it. Instead, these original works of art are now covered in mold, crumbling away in a public park, leaving the building originally designed to display them lacking a crucially important part of its intended decoration.
“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Moses Jacob Ezekiel (c. 1871)
Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia