Monday, September 28, 2009

Houdon in Hastings: The Life Mask of George Washington

As soon as we had finished writing the previous week’s post on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Robert Fulton in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we realized that that eminent French sculptor is actually represented in Hastings, in our own collection.

In our small but select library, in a glass case, is a copy of the life mask that Houdon made of George Washington in 1785. At the time, Houdon was working on a commission for the Virginia Legislature. Two years previously, America, France, and England had signed the peace treaty that finally ended the Revolutionary War, and General George Washington had retired as commander of the Continental Army and returned to private life. The Virginia Legislature decided to honor Washington for his courage and patriotism with a full-length marble statue that would stand in the capitol building in Richmond. The governor asked Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ ambassadors in Paris, to suggest the best artist for the commission. They both recommended Houdon. “I find that a Monsieur Houdon of this place possesses the reputation of being the first statuary in the world,” wrote Jefferson, using a term for a ‘sculptor’ that has since gone out of fashion.

Houdon was delighted with the commission, which he considered the most important of his career. The American artist Charles Wilson Peale painted a portrait of Washington and this was sent to Houdon as a guide for his work. But Houdon insisted on taking Washington’s image from life. He accompanied Franklin back to the United States and arrived at Washington’s Mount Vernon residence in October of 1785. During his two-week stay, Houdon followed Washington around, observing his posture and expression. He also took detailed measurements of his body and created the life mask to serve as a model for Washington’s face. He applied grease to Washington’s skin, put quills in his nostrils so he could breathe, and then covered his face with wet plaster. This impression created a mould that, once dried, could itself be filled with plaster to create a positive image of Washington’s face. Because Washington necessarily had his eyes closed, Houdon had to hollow out the pupils of the plaster mask to give the face a life-like expression.

Houdon took the mask back to Paris with him and used it to create the likeness of the final statue, which was erected in Richmond in 1796. Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and many of Washington’s relatives praised the statue as the most lifelike representation of Washington that had ever been made. By 1796, General Washington had become President Washington, and was just finishing his second term. He had become, if possible, even more famous than he had been in the 1780s, and Houdon’s statue drew national attention.

The mask itself was prized as the most authentic likeness of America’s first president. In order to make the positive mask, the mould had to be broken, so only one mask was ever made from the original mould. This mask is now in the collection of the Morgan Library in New York City, most likely purchased by financier and art collector J.P. Morgan on one of his many trips to Europe.

Ours is but a humble copy, made at least a century later. It was on display here in the Draper Observatory Cottage in the 1950s when the cottage housed a public reading room, but it certainly may have been purchased long before, probably by one of the Draper family. The round plaster pedestal that is part of the mask is unusual and may someday help us identify when and where our copy was made. Masks and busts of famous men and women were popular library accessories at the turn of the century, and there are many copies of Washington’s mask in libraries around the United States. In fact, you can still buy one today -- on eBay.

The Draper Reading Room as it appeared ca. 1950. Washington's mask is not visible in the picture. It may have been where it is now, in the Transit Room, which you can see through the doorway in the center of the photograph.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mystery Photo: French Assembly, ca. 1947 – 1954?

In 1981 Elizabeth Filkins Gessler, long-time French teacher at the Hastings High School, donated to the Historical Society an album containing dozens of wonderful photographs. The album is dated "1935-1954", and the photographs show the activities of the French Club, a club which “Madame Gessler” sponsored. The most spectacular pictures in the album are the ones of the French Assembly stage shows, like this one. It is not dated, however, nor do we know the names of the participants or what the subject of the sketch was. If you have any ideas, let us know! Click the photograph to see it on Flickr -- select "All Sizes" above the photograph to enlarge it. Does anyone look familiar?

If you don’t know, but are curious about the answers, come back to the blog and check this post. We’ll attach comments with any information we receive.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Robert Fulton in Paris

Due to technical difficulties, today’s blog post will take a break from extolling the glories of our own collection, and point you instead to one of the many fabulous items to be seen in other New York collections.

Painted plaster bust of Robert Fulton by Jean-Antoine Houdon, ca. 1803. The bust is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art ( Wrightsman Fund, 1989 (1989.329)

The next time you are passing through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, do not neglect to pay your respects to Mr. Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat that, in 1807, focused the attention of the world on the Hudson River. You will not find him in the American Wing, but in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts galleries, in the same room as the Emperor Napoleon. Why is the bust of an American engineer and inventor in the French decorative arts galleries, and why would anyone have commissioned a portrait of him before he built the steamboat that made him famous throughout the world? Those of you who read Judy Chamberlain’s excellent biography of Robert Fulton in the Spring 2009 Hastings Historian will know the answer to those questions. But for those who didn’t, we shall recap.

Robert Fulton was born in 1765 in a farming community in Pennsylvania and quickly demonstrated talents for both art and engineering. He was fascinated by mechanical problems, but his real passion was painting. When he was twenty-one, he left the United States to study with his idol Benjamin West, an American painter who had found fame and fortune in England. West was the official historical painter to King George III and a founding member of the British Royal Academy. Fulton studied with West for about five years and then gave up painting as a career. Scholarly opinions differ as to whether this was due to financial difficulties, a growing fascination with engineering, or a lack of artistic talent.

In any case, in West’s studio Fulton met important men who became the patrons and supporters of Fulton’s inventions, many of these concerned with solving problems in naval engineering. In 1797, Fulton went to Paris looking for money to develop a new kind of vessel – the Nautilus, an underwater warship armed with torpedoes. (The name was borrowed, many years later, by Jules Verne for the ship of Captain Nemo.) With the support of a few ministers in the French government, Fulton built a test model and demonstrated it on the Seine in 1800. For a time, both the French and English governments had their eye on the submarine, but they eventually lost interest.

Another of Fulton’s long-time interests was the steamboat. Many men had worked on designs for steamboats, and some even worked, but no one had yet made a commercial success of a steamboat business. Another man obsessed by steam travel was Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York. He arrived in Paris in 1801, having been appointed U.S. Ambassador to France. Livingston had an estate on the Hudson River and had himself attempted to build a steamboat, which had ultimately failed. This was of vital concern to him, since in 1798 he had managed to finagle the exclusive rights to navigate the waters of New York by steam for twenty years. This would be worthless if he could not produce a machine that could carry a decent-sized cargo and keep a reliable schedule. With financial support from Livingston, Fulton constructed a steam-powered ship to his own design and, in August of 1803, the boat steamed up the Seine. The trial run attracted an enormous crowd, including officers of Napoleon’s staff and members of the French National Academy.

1804 painting by Louis Leopold Boilly of Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpting the bust of Pierre Simon, Marquise de Laplace, a friend of Fulton and instrumental in arranging for government support of the submarine project. The women in the studio are Laplace’s wife and daughters. The painting is in the collection of the Musee des Art Decoratif, Paris.

In the same year, perhaps in celebration of the successful steamboat trip, two portrait busts, one of Fulton and the other of Fulton’s friend Joel Barlow, were commissioned from the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon was the most famous portrait sculptor in Europe. All the important men and women of the age came to Houdon for their portraits – the Emperor Napoleon and Josephine, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson even arranged for him to come to the United States to take the likeness of George Washington. It isn’t known who commissioned the busts of Fulton and Barlow, but there is speculation that Barlow, a wealthy diplomat living in Paris, ordered both of them. A young inventor who had yet to make his fortune would probably not have been able to afford such a luxury.

But Fulton’s luck was soon to change. He and Livingston returned to New York in 1806 with the test results of Fulton’s 1803 ship. Fulton immediately started work on a new vessel called the North River Steamboat. There had been so many failed attempts at steam navigation that the boat was popularly referred to as “Fulton’s Folly.” But when the North River Steamboat set out from Manhattan for Albany on August 17, 1807, it exceeded Livingston’s expectations. Later renamed the Clermont after Livingston’s estate, the ship was the cornerstone of the first successful steamboat business, opening up the Hudson River to trade, travel, and industry. In the decades that followed, steamships based on Fulton’s designs transformed rivers all over the United States from barriers into highways of commerce and colonization.
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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mystery Photo: Hastings Policemen?

We have all sorts of objects in the archive, and all sorts of mysteries. Here is an advertisement for Champion spark plugs from our documents collection. It appeared on page 15 of the Saturday Evening Post for January 18, 1958. The caption below the photograph reads: "Police cars have to start in a flash -- and go like the wind. Nearly twice as many use Champions as any other plug! Above: Champion-equipped police cars in Hastings on Hudson, N. Y."

So are these really Hastings policemen? Or are they actors? Was the photograph taken in Hastings, or was it just a stock photograph that the advertising agency pulled out of the files? What do you think? Do you recognize either of the policemen? Let us know!

If you don’t know, but are curious about the answers, come back to the blog and check this post. We’ll attach comments with any information we receive.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Billie Burke and Burkeley Crest

Mary William Ethelbert Appleton “Billie” Burke, best known as the good witch Glinda in the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz,” began her film and stage career in 1907. She was 24 years old and already a star when she bought the Kirkham estate on Broadway in Hastings in 1910. The estate possessed a fine mansion that Billie re-christened Burkeley Crest. In 1914 Billie Burke and Flo Ziegfeld were married, and for a while they lived in New York City.

Their daughter Patricia was born in 1916, and it was at that point that the family moved permanently to Burkeley Crest. They decorated the house with Italian and English antiques and Chinese hangings. They installed a fully-equipped projection room where they could watch movies, and built a “playhouse” for their daughter that was modeled on George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. Flo loved flowers and had the gardens around the house planted with hyacinths and daffodils, 24 blue spruce trees, and an English box hedge at the gate. A staff of seventeen servants catered to the needs of the Ziegfelds, their guests, and their menagerie of animals that included deer, parrots, geese, pheasants, bears, ponies, and buffalo.

At the time, having celebrities like the Ziegfelds living in Hastings was the village’s claim to fame, as Stephen Zebrock recalled in an article written for the Hastings News in 1941.

The names of Billie Burke and Florenz Ziegfeld of course went hand in hand every time anyone mentioned Hastings. It seemed as though no one could ever speak of our village without invariably adding, “You know, that’s where Billie Burke and Ziegfeld live.” It even got so Aunt Mary Salaky from Perth Amboy made a special trip one Sunday – just to see if this fantastic tale was really true. Every time my mother would say ‘this’ or ‘that’ about Billie Burke, Aunt Mary would look at her skeptically and murmur, “Go on – it isn’t so.”

Steve Zebrock at age 12, standing in front of the gates of the Burke Estate

Finally, she could resist no longer and made the trip; as she stood in front of “Burkeley Crest” on South Broadway and took in the vast estate, she shook her head from side to side, chanting, “Florenz Ziegfeld, Bille Burke – right before my eyes.” Then turning to my mother as we walked back, “Just wait til I get back to Amboy and tell the others that I saw Billie Burke’s house.” We all looked at her, beaming with pride, while my mother added the burning remark, “Well, I told you so.”

Aunt Mary took on a bit of local pride from them on, and every time she went to see a Billie Burke movie she would preen herself and, at the same time, whisper to her companion, “I saw her house in Hastings – I really did!”
After the stock market crash of 1929 the Ziegfelds were left badly in debt. They closed up the Hastings establishment and moved to the west coast so that Billie could continue her career in the movies. Flo died there soon after, and in 1940 Billie sold the estate. Burkeley Crest was later demolished, marking the end of Hastings’ most glamorous era.

Billie Burke sitting at her desk in Burkeley Crest

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mystery Photo: Portrait by Lewis Hine, ca. 1935

Among the 50-or-so original photographs in our collection by documentary photographer and Hastings resident Lewis W. Hine are these two pictures of a young man in a suit.

Who is he? Why did Hine take his photograph? Did he win a prize? Was he captain of the football team? Does his face look familiar? If you have any ideas, let us know!

If you don’t know, but are curious about the answers, come back to the blog and check this post. We’ll attach comments with any information we receive.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Dateline: HASTINGS, September 7, 1900

as reported in the Hastings column of the Dobbs Ferry Register

Warburton Avenue, looking north from the bridge. (Click on any photograph for more information.)

Counselor Wm. H. Blain of Tower Ridge is spending his vacation in town.

Thomas F. Martin [village tax collector] has been enjoying a well-earned vacation during the past week.

Dr. Albert Shaw of Broadway, Editor of the Review of Reviews, is spending his vacation in the Adirondacks.

Mr. J. Perry Worden, the well known literary man and lecturer, has returned from Germany for a brief visit to his home here.

The Fraser Free School opened on Tuesday with the largest attendance in its history. The Board of Education was unable to accommodate all who applied for admission, thus emphasizing the necessity of having a new school, the need of which has been apparent for several years.

A well contested game of baseball between the Hastings Athletic Club and the Uniontown Fire Company’s team on Labor Day resulted in a decisive victory for the fire laddies, the score standing 12 to 6 in their favor. Charles Gerkin pitched for the Firemen and John [Falbush?] Jr. for the Athletics.

The winning team: Charles Gerkin is the in the back row on the far right.

The firemen were called out at eight o’clock on Wednesday evening to extinguish a fire which started in the laundry of Mr. Robert Behr’s residence on Broadway. The prompt and efficient work of our fire fighters prevented the flames from spreading beyond the apartment where they originated, and as a consequence the damage was slight.

The ladies’ fair for the benefit of St. Matthew’s Church opened in the parish hall on Monday evening. The tables are in charge of the following ladies: Mrs. Walter A. Burke (St. Matthew’s table), Miss Marie H. Murphy (Sacred Heart table), Miss Josie Monk (Young Men’s Catholic Association table), and Miss Eliza Booth (refreshment table).

Gus Wagner (second from left), owner of the town's bicycle shop, outside Goodwin's cigar store with some of his stock and customers.

There are several voting contests in progress, among them being a contest for a bicycle, to be awarded to the most popular boy or girl; a contest for a silver trumpet between Protection Hose Company No. 1 and Union Hose Company No. 2; and a contest for a child’s crib to be given to the most popular baby.

The regular monthly meeting of the Village Board was held at the Corporation Rooms, on Tuesday evening. There were present: President [James E.] Hogan, Trustees [Francis] Curry, [Frederick G.] Zinsser, [William] Steckert, and [Monahan?], and Village Counsel [Melvin G.] Palliser. The minutes of the regular meeting of August 24th were read and approved. The Committee on Streets reported that all streets were in good condition. The Committee on Lights reported that arc lights had been placed at either end of the bridge. The Village Counsel reported that the new contract with the Hudson River Gas and Electric Company had not yet been executed. Mr. Curry called up the matter of the extension of Nepperhan Avenue, and on motion the Village Counsel was directed to acquire title to the property required for the extension, in accordance with the map prepared by E. Wulff, Civil Engineer. …

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mystery Photo: Labor Day Parade, 1984

In honor of Labor Day 2009, let’s look back twenty-five years to Labor Day 1984. Here are two photographs that were taken at the parade that made its way down beautiful and historic Warburton Avenue. The quality of these Polaroids is not terrific. We do recognize our beloved former mayor Frances MacEachron in the bottom photograph. The top photograph shows a fife and drum band. We don’t know if the band included Hastings residents or not. But if you recognize anyone in the photograph, let us know! You can click on the photograph and look at it more closely in Flickr. If you need to enlarge it, click the “All Sizes” link above the photograph.

If you don’t know, but are curious about the answers, come back to the blog and check this post. We’ll attach comments with any information we receive.

And Happy Labor Day, from the Hastings Historical Society!

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