The Artist's Original Intent: The Re-Gilding and Toning of the Sherman Monument in Central Park

Tuesday, October 28, 2014: 8:00 AM
Presenter: Michael Kramer , The Gilders' Studio, Inc., Olney, MD
Dedicated in 1903, the Sherman Monument is the centerpiece of Grand Army Plaza in New York’s Central Park and is widely regarded as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ finest work. The artist labored over the massive sculpture for more than ten years, working and re-working every detail. When it came to the overall appearance, Saint-Gaudens was no less demanding, experimenting with various gilding and toning treatments until he was satisfied with the final result. Although none of the original finishes remain on his exterior works today, one can surmise Saint-Gaudens strived to achieve the same warm tones and highlights on his exterior gilded work as found on his gilded pieces which have spent their lives indoors, protected from the elements.

Unfortunately, none of the toning methods explored by  Saint-Gaudens lend themselves well to the longevity of any exterior gilding system. The combinations of paints, acids, waxes etc,  which he used, have a deleterious effect on any exterior gilded surface and will cause premature failure of the system due to several different mechanisms, not the least of which was continuing infestation by the urban pigeon population in NY City.

Saint-Gaudens actually had two separate layers of gold (some say three) applied to the Sherman Monument at his expense, hoping to extend the life of the coating. Unfortunately, the finish began to seriously deteriorate within 5 years and was completely re-gilded in 1934. During the 1960’s the sculpture was cleaned down to the bronze and waxed. Two decades later a private donor contributed the funds to repair and gild the sculpture again. This work was completed in 1989. The new gilding was coated with gelatin and subsequently “toned” with an un-tinted layer of paste wax, but most agreed this did not begin to approximate what was thought to have been the original appearance.

Shortly  after completion, the 1989 gilding began to show signs of failure. In the intervening years the finish system decayed to the point of losing it’s physical and visual integrity.

In 2005, the Central Park Conservancy began researching how best to conserve, gild and tone  the Sherman Monument. The overarching principle was to gild and tone the sculpture to reflect the artist’s original intent. At the same time the coating system had to be rigorous enough to stand up to the pigeons roosting all over the piece.

This paper will cover the research, development, testing and application of the new gilding and toning system, which was installed on the Monument in 2013 by five gilders over a period of eight weeks. In addition, the continuing care program will be addressed, with an eye to maintaining Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ masterwork  in the condition and appearance he originally envisioned over 100 years ago.

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