TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER THE BOMB: MAINTAINING CLEVELAND'S THE THINKER
2 HISTORY OF TREATMENT, 1916–1970
Records about the care of The Thinker come from three sources—the museum's archives, the curatorial records, and Conservation Department records. As might be expected, over a halfcentury these records are uneven and often sketchy. In the early years, day-to-day records and correspondence document the treatment the sculpture received during the administration of Frederick Whiting, the museum's first director (May 1913–August 1930). Records of treatment stop in 1925. The museum's Conservation Department was established in 1958, and before that date conservation work was undertaken by a number of outside conservators, notably William Suhr and Rostislav and S. N. (Nicky) Hlopoff. Information presented here also comes from personal communications with the late Frederick Hollendonner, former chief conservator, and with Superintendent Victor Kavosic, Cleveland Police Department, and from direct observation of coating procedures carried out at the museum.
The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired The Thinker in 1917 (1917.42), one year after the museum opened its doors, as a donation from Ralph King. First displayed inside in the rotunda (fig. 1), within several months the sculpture had been moved outside to the south entrance of the museum (fig. 2). In a letter dated February 2, 1918, to Miss Anna Seaton-Schmidt, a pupil and friend of Rodin, Whiting explained this move.
1917 photograph of The Thinker still inside the Cleveland Museum of Art with an intact patina
1930 photograph of the The Thinker outside the south entrance of the museum
Your article in the February American Magazine of Art on Rodin reminds me of your intimate association with him, and prompts me to write to ask your opinion regarding a matter which has been much in my mind of late. You perhaps do not know that we have had given to us a full size bronze replica, purchased before Rodin's death and through him, of the “Thinker.” This was originally placed in the Rotunda of the Museum, which is not strongly lighted, but with the consciousness on my part that this was not the condition of lighting for which the figure was planned by Rodin. After showing it in this position for several months I removed it to the platform in front of the Museum which in a way approximates its position in Paris in front of the Pantheon. Miss Malvina Hoffman had urged me to do this when she saw it in the Rotunda, where she thought it was not properly lighted. I have recently learned, to my regret, that the donor is very much disappointed that it had been placed out of doors instead of being kept in the Rotunda. If you agree with me as to what Rodin's wishes would be in the matter I feel that a letter from you expressing your pleasure that the figure has been properly placed in front of the building in full daylight would aid me in convincing the donor that I am right. Of course, such a letter could be in answer to my inquiry as to the better place for the figure and not refer to my cause for making such inquiry.
Anna Seaton-Schmidt replied on February 7, 1918, expressing her delight that the museum had been fortunate enough to acquire The Thinker. As to the sculpture being placed outdoors, she wrote:
She emphasized in another paragraph: “Above all it must be high. Even the one in front of the Pantheon is not high enough, but that could not be helped.”
Oh I so hope that you can place it as originally intended, up high, and in a strong light, or a rather diffused light, so that the strength of the figure may be revealed and no small details accentuated. I presume an out door position might be best, as, of course, it was intended to crown his great doorway “La Porte d'Enfer”— (designed for the Palace of Decorative Arts, never completed) …. But I don't know that he desired it seen in a certain way—no one ever paid more attention to the proper light in which his figures were seen, because it is so very important for sculpture.
Once the sculpture was outside, Whiting noticed problems with the patina almost immediately. Two letters provide insight regarding the appearance of the original patina. In a letter dated October 9, 1917, to Malvina Hoffman, another student and friend of Rodin, Whiting wrote:
Whiting went on to ask what Rodin would have wanted under the circumstances. Unfortunately, Malvina Hoffman's reply does not exist in the archives.
I am taking this opportunity to ask your advice about the large Rodin “Thinker” which you saw when it was installed in the Rotunda of the Museum and which since, in accordance with the suggestion which I made to you and of which I was glad to have your approval, I have moved out onto the plaza in front of the building. You will remember that it had a rather lovely blue patina on it while it was inside, and this has entirely washed off in the outside weather so that the figure is now very dirty looking and of no uniform color, there being some few little patches of blue left, some brown, and others a rather raw brass color.
The color of The Thinker is again mentioned in a letter to Purdy of the Gorham Company, dated October 22, 1917. “The large bronze replica of ‘The Thinker’ by Rodin which Mr. King got for us we have placed outside in front of the building where it is very gradually changing color. The bluish patina has almost entirely washed off, the statue now being extremely streaked.” Purdy apparently had close ties to Rodin. A letter from Purdy to Whiting, dated July 28, 1915, asks if the Cleveland Museum would be “interested in obtaining any of the original works of Auguste Rodin. I have favorable indication of being able to secure some of his work from the Master himself, in fact, am at present negotiating with him for a full size copy of his ‘Age of Bronze.’ I should esteem an expression of opinion from you in this regard in strictest confidence.”
Purdy would become a key player, advising the museum on care for the sculpture. Letters between him and Whiting, from 1917 to 1921, are the earliest records regarding the care of the sculpture. On October 24, 1917, Purdy recommended:
Whiting's reply, on November 2, sheds some light on this hand rubbing method:
With reference to the bronze of “The Thinker,” it ought to be possible to rub this down by hand in such a way that the patina would come together. Bronzes which are out of doors should be treated in this way about once a year. After that they should have a beautiful skin that would require treatment every two years. Just before the outbreak of the War, Colonel Harts of the White House and the Bureau of Weights in Washington and myself were collaborating with the idea of treating all of our Public Monuments in this way, so they would ripen with time, rather than to get looking like old iron.
On October 31, Purdy instructed:
[A]nd we will try the flannel and hand method in treating the bronze “Thinker.” I am sure that I told you before that the figure is now out of doors and the thing I hoped to find was how I could remove some of the spotted effect which has come about by the washing off of the bluish patina which Rodin put on it and which was apparently not thoroughly grounded into the bronze. I presume from what you say that this will come off gradually with the hand rubbing and I will see that a man is delegated to give a frequent treatment of this sort.
I should strongly depreciate the using of ammonia water, no matter how thoroughly diluted, unless handled by an expert, for the reason that if the ammonia starts to eat into the bronze, there is no known way of stopping it.
If it should transpire that the particular Bronze you have has any porous spots, which is more than likely to be the case, the ammonia might eat straight through, unless administered by a practiced hand.
As I stated at the Metropolitan Museum Meeting in the Spring, there is nothing on earth so good for any Bronze as the human hand. If I had the same condition as you have, I should provide a man with several pieces of clean soft Canton flannel, and rub the bronze frequently, using the soft side thereof, all over, and if you should induce your man or men to use the palm of their hands—first a rub of the flannel, then of the hand, an enamel finish should be produced that would be beautiful and lasting.
Of course I could provide you at any time with an expert to repatinate the figure completely, but I believe that this hand and cloth rubbing will give you a beautiful result.
I should depreciate the use of any solutions whatever. The method I describe is simple, not costly, and absolutely safe.
By June 1920, Purdy had changed his thinking on the care of outdoor bronze sculptures and advised the museum to apply wax to The Thinker. On June 10, Whiting described the new stone pedestal for The Thinker as already somewhat discolored by the bronze figure and asked if the wax would stop the staining of the stone base. He also complained that the figure looked dull. Could the wax be buffed? In Purdy's reply, dated June 24, Purdy asserted: “The wax coat should prevent further discoloration absolutely of the bronze, and should not contribute in any way to the discoloration of the pedestal.” He went on to say that if desired the wax could be carefully rubbed with a soft cloth. In a December 21 letter to Purdy, Whiting wrote:
By April 1921, Whiting asked if Purdy would be in Cleveland in the near future “as there seems to be a constant running of the color, despite the treatments with the wax preparation, and the artificial stone base is fast becoming a greenish color from this cause. We do not object to the discoloration of the base, but it seems to indicate a deterioration of the bronze, which may be disastrous in time, if allowed to continue.” In 1921, Whiting inquired about purchasing more wax from Gorham Company and was reassured by Purdy that applying another coat of wax would cause no harm.
I think that you will be interested to learn that, since receiving the preparation which you sent to us to put on the bronze “Thinker” which is at the front of the building, we have made two applications one in the summer and one in the early fall using up for this purpose all of the preparation which was sent us. Despite these two treatments we do not seem to have entirely arrested the discoloration from the bronze and the artificial stone pedestal on which it stands is becoming more and more discolored as time goes on. Have you any further suggestion to make as to these treatments?
After 1925, there are no records on the routine care of The Thinker in either the archives or the curatorial files. It is not clear why the records suddenly stop at this point. Frederick Whiting remained as director until August 1930 and it is unlikely that problems with The Thinker stopped suddenly or that Whiting's concern was any less. Perhaps Purdy retired from Gorham Company, or more likely the written correspondence was replaced by the telephone. In any case, at some later date the art handlers were sent outside with Gorham Company's AB Mixture—a petroleum-based product—and instructed to coat the sculpture with this material.1 This treatment was certainly being carried out from the 1950s onward. The museum's second director, William Milliken (August 1930–March 1958), may have started this practice, perhaps advised by the Gorham Company, which was marketing a new product. It is not clear how often the oil was applied to the sculpture. By the late 1970s the application of the AB Mixture was somewhat sporadic. The product applied to the sculptures was also changed at this point because AB Mixture was no longer available. Birchwood-Casey's Sheath Rust Preventive was used and is a similar, although more sophisticated, product containing corrosion inhibitiors.2
The results of these past treatments ranged from little to moderate protection for The Thinker. The earliest treatment recommended by Purdy—rubbing the sculpture with the hands and a cloth–seems to have been more aesthetic than truly protective. Purdy did not elaborate on how this rubbing treatment would stop corrosion. It seems that several things—both aesthetic and protective—may have happened with this treatment. The rubbing of the bronze surface may have removed dirt and pollutants as well as any residual patination chemicals not carefully washed from the bronze. The oil from the hands would help saturate the surface, thus making it appear more visually integrated. Oil from the hands may also have imparted some protection from water. However, this treatment would also have introduced salts and acids that, over the long run, could not have been beneficial. One can only speculate that Purdy had observed areas of bronze sculptures that had developed a lustrous patina from constant handling and formed the opinion that rubbing with the hands was good for the bronze.
The composition of Purdy's wax was not given, but it must have provided more protection from the elements than the hand and cloth rubbing. He recommended that it be applied twice a year but did not recommend heating the wax or the sculpture. The protection given by the oil preparations appears to be moderately successful but uneven. The upper surfaces are the most exposed to both the sun and rain, resulting in a loss of oil from these surfaces and their subsequent corrosion. When The Thinker was coated with Incralac, the oil was found to be still in place in the lower and better protected areas but was absent in the upper surfaces. The sun may have volatilized the oil in the upper areas, and the rain also helped to remove the oil by washing it down the sculpture. In general the upper surfaces of The Thinker were most heavily corroded, with some erosion of the metal and much loss of the original patina. The lower and better protected areas had little or no corrosion, retaining the remaining original patina.
It is evident that as long as the oil stayed in place, it did provide a modest amount of protection for the bronze. Unfortunately the various protective coatings do not seem to have been applied in a routine and systematic way. So, the protection of The Thinker from weathering has been uneven. It is clear that The Thinker would have been better preserved if it had been attended to on a more regular schedule.
Purdy's influence on the treatment of outdoor bronze sculptures should not be underestimated. From the references in the correspondence, he was obviously concerned about preservation and was influential at several levels. He described his methods at a Metropolitan Museum of Art conference in the spring of 1917. While little is known about this meeting, it seems likely that representatives from many of the major museums in this country attended. Purdy was also involved in a project with Colonel Harts of the Bureau of Weights and Measures to preserve public monuments. At this time they were promoting the hand-rubbing method. Purdy also seems to have been speaking to artists, specifically to Auguste Rodin. It is not known if he expressed his views on preservation to Rodin, but he had close ties to the sculptor as he essentially acted as a dealer for him.