JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 59 to 81)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 59 to 81)




The Boston Public Library (fig. 1) is one of the great Renaissance Revival buildings of America. Designed and built between 1888 and 1895 by the distinguished architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the library remains an impressive testimony to the late-19th-century fashion for buildings both monumental in scale and eclectic in their architectural and artistic sources. The building embodies the impulse toward a cultural continuity that brought European civilization and the classical world to America. Its architects sought to unite the most celebrated artists of the day to accomplish this goal.

Fig. 1. The facade of the Boston Public Library, 1904. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–98), widely considered the greatest European muralist of the time, was the ideal candidate to decorate the grandest and most complicated space in the new library. By the 1890s he had painted most of his major mural decorations, including projects for the Pantheon and the Sorbonne in Paris, and for museums and municipal buildings in Lyon, Rouen, Amiens, Poitiers, and Marseille. Although in his youth he studied for brief periods in the studios of Eugene Delacroix, Thomas Couture, and Theodore Chasseriau, Puvis's individual style and technique were developed largely independently. Combining idealized classicism with simple flat designs and pale colors, his murals were in great demand.

From the beginning, the intention was that the library's imposing grand staircase and loggia be decorated with murals. Thus it was that in 1891 Charles Follen McKim traveled to Paris to engage Puvis's services. Convincing the aged painter to undertake the commission proved no easy task, but McKim was initially successful. Soon after, however, Puvis was awarded a commission for the Paris City Hall and had second thoughts about the American project. Another emissary was sent to Paris in 1892, and as a further inducement the artist was given a plaster scale model of the library's interior. Finally, on July 7, 1893, Puvis signed a contract for the murals that guaranteed him 250,000 francs, the equivalent of the then-unparalleled sum of $50,000. A year later, after completing the Paris City Hall project, the painter began working on the Boston murals and asked for more detailed measurements. He also requested, and was sent, a sample of the marble to be used in the staircase so that he might harmonize his palette with the surrounding architecture.

Puvis's oversized murals were executed on canvas in a specially designed studio at Neuilly, which included a two-story door (fig. 2)(Milner 1988). The Inspiring Muses was the first mural to be painted. It was exhibited at the Salon du Champs-de-Mars, then rolled and transported to Boston in October 1895, and finally mounted on the east wall of the loggia a month later (fig. 3). During the following year, the other eight panels were completed, exhibited in Paris, shipped, and installed (fig. 4). In fact, the artist himself never saw his works in situ. Their installation using a marouflage technique was overseen by Puvis's trusted collaborator Victor Koos. The arrival of the murals in Boston was met with much fanfare and celebration. In France, on the other hand, the art critic Gustave Geffroy expressed the feelings of many Frenchmen when he wrote:

It is a great shame to see these works go to the Boston Public Library, to faraway America. It is certain that many among us will never see them again. But, on reflection their going is to be admired: art crossing the globe, braving the waves of the ocean, to a new people, is a confirmation of one of its roles (Geffroy 1897, 148–49).

Fig. 2. The interior of Puvis's studio at Neuilly showing The Inspiring Muses before it was sent to Boston in 1895. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston

Fig. 3. The Grand Staircase of the Boston Public Library showing the loggia with The Inspiring Muses Acclaim Genius, Messenger of Light on the east wall

Fig. 4. North wall of the Grand Staircase with the murals Virgil, Aeschylus, and Homer. At the far left, the mural Physics can be seen on the west wall

So it was that Boston acquired the only murals by Puvis to be found outside of France.

Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works