Some time ago, I wrote about my quest to find out what happened to the Indian Pole, which presented the figure of a nine foot tall Native American resting high up on a pole at Fourth and Wood Streets. While I’ve found nothing about what happened to the Indian itself or when it was removed from the pole (for the last time), I did come across some info that the pole itself may have blown down in 1954 as a result of Hurricane Hazel. (Thanks to Bob Skiba for that bit of information.)
A comparable work in Philadelphia has an equally long and tortured story: the statue of Diana at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This masterpiece is the second of two such monumental figures, and the only one of the two still in existence. Crafted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), the sculpture has been guarding the museum’s main entrance from the top of its Great Stair Hall for the past eighty years.
The figure is a nude Diana—Roman goddess of the hunt—with her bow drawn and an arrow on the string, with one foot lifted as if she were on the run. The classical statue once graced the tower of New York City’s second (1890-era) Madison Square Garden, the building at 27th Street and Madison Avenue that was conceived as a sophisticated gathering spot for New York society. Installed there in 1893 as a weathervane, Diana replaced a larger, yet similar, statue situated on the building a few years prior.
The original Diana was commissioned by architect Stanford White, a friend and collaborator of Saint-Gaudens. White talked the sculptor into creating the figure for free and paid for the cost of materials himself. Unveiled on September 29, 1891, this first version of Diana was eighteen feet tall and weighed 1,800 pounds.
At 347 feet above street level, Diana was the highest point in New York City at the time. The figure was actually forty-two feet closer to heaven than its closest rival, the Statue of Liberty. It caught the sun during the day and could be seen from all over the city and as far away as New Jersey. In addition, Diana was the first statue anywhere to be lit by electricity. The work even had a “flying drapery” that billowed out behind to catch the wind—though this was blown away rather quickly.
Unfortunately, Diana did not rotate as planned because of its immense weight. Furthermore, both White and Saint-Gaudens realized that the gilded figure was somewhat awkward looking and was disproportionately large for the Madison Square Garden building. So the figure was removed about a year after its debut and was sent to Chicago to be exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where it wound up on the roof of the fair’s Agricultural building. Afterwards, the bottom half of the original Diana was destroyed by a fire and the top half was discarded.
Saint-Gaudens redesigned the second, smaller version of Diana to have a more elegant pose, besides being thinner and more feminine. Placed atop of Madison Square Garden on November 18, 1893, this Diana was wispy enough to rotate with the wind, as the first figure should have. The work is thirteen feet high, weighs 1,500 pounds, and is made of thin sheets of hollow hammered copper (for lightness).
Like the first Diana, it too had a fabric component that would flutter in the wind, although this cloth is long gone. The fabric may have been added to address concerns of nudity, as the two statues were controversial and created a great deal of public criticism about nudity in art. For instance, the first Diana was supposed to have gone atop the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition, but the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Chicago protested this.
The bodies of both sculptures were modeled by one Julia “Dudie” Baird (1872-1932), New York’s most famous model of the late 19th century. (Actress Evelyn Nesbit—the first “it” girl—did not pose for the statue, despite her lethal romantic relationship with Stanford White, discussed below.) Saint-Gaudens made plaster casts of Dudie’s body to capture her proportions accurately. She also posed for Thomas Dewing, Kenyon Cox, Edwin Abbey, and others who were drawn to her not merely because of her figure, but also her ability to serenely portray characters.
Dudie was seventeen when she posed for Diana. She became somewhat conceited by her late 20s when she claimed/defended her modeling role for the work:
“The statue represents the exact outlines of my own form, reproduced in hammered brass [copper]… perhaps a bit more generously conceived. Diana of Garden fame measures 14 feet in height. Her prototype, which graced the Agricultural building at the World’s fair, was 18 feet high, and for it I was the only model approved. Argument is useless. The question could be settled in a moment by the author of its being. Since he doesn’t choose to speak, I do, and shall continue to claim recognition as the only and original model.”
Sadly (or perhaps not), Dudie died in obscurity at age 60, her looks long faded.
The faces of the two sculptures, meanwhile, were modeled by a Swedish-born model who Saint-Gaudens called Davida; her real was Albertina Clark. The artist had fallen in love with her in his later years and they had a son together. He continued to lead a secret life with this woman until a year or two before his death.
The second Diana—also known as “Diana of the Tower”—was keeping sentry (unsuccessfully) the night of June 25, 1906, when Stanford White was murdered by millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over White’s affair with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. The murder occurred in the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden, so Diana was somewhat near. In another connection to Philadelphia, White was supposed to have come to the city on business that evening, but postponed the trip when his son made an unexpected visit to New York. (Nineteen-year old Lawrence White blamed himself for his father’s death: “If only he had gone [to Philadelphia]!”)
Diana held her high perch over Madison Square Garden for over three decades. In 1925, the statue was removed and stored in a warehouse when the building was demolished to make way for the New York Life Insurance Company Building. A seven year search to find a place to display Diana in New York City proved futile and New York Life presented it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1932.
The Fairmount Park Art Association reported to its members in 1933: “When the opportunity was presented to secure this figure for Philadelphia, [the] Board felt that the Association should do everything in its power to preserve such an important piece of American sculpture.” The Museum of Art immediately installed the work at the crest of its Great Stair Hall, “a location which has been most satisfactory.” Diana remains there today, gracefully watching over the museum’s entrance while balancing on her left tiptoe.
Long since separated, the Big Apple would surely like to have Diana back. But at least the Metropolitan Museum of Art does have a half-size casting. Other castings, small and large, also exist in both plaster and bronze. Additionally, some busts of Diana were made during and after Saint-Gaudens’ life. Whatever the case, the story of Diana at Philadelphia Museum of Art—our Diana—from the top of New York City to the top of the PMA’s Great Stair Hall, is a long and storied one.