Readers of the previous blog now know that the Bok Room’s ceiling murals by Edwin Blashfield—a “gift” from George W. Childs Drexel and his wife to the Curtis Institute of Music—were not commissioned in 1924 when the school was founded, but in 1898. We will now have a closer look at the murals themselves, which from 1926 to 1974 were part of the library’s reading room.
The room was previously thought to be the Drexels’ living room (view a photo of the room before the murals were painted). A list of works, however, found among Blashfield’s papers in the New York Historical Society (right), indicates that the room was turned into a library instead. Maybe the Drexels were inspired by Blashfield’s murals inside the dome of the Library of Congress’s reading room, painted only a few years before. Earlier, they had already commissioned Blashfield to decorate a Steinway piano, an instrument deemed so beautiful, that Scribner’s Magazine published an article about it, complete with color reproductions, in the fall of 1896. The piano, which has been kept at Curtis since 1997, will be the subject of a later blog post.
The ceiling murals comprise a central circular mural and two side panels (one of which presents another mystery). Unlike the Library of Congress murals, which were painted directly unto the surface, the ceiling murals in the Drexel mansion were painted on canvas, then fastened to the ceiling (a process called “marouflage”).
Each of the allegorical figures represents a field of study, an art, or a virtue. On the photo at left, starting clockwise from the bottom left of the chandelier, they are: Art (Raphael), Patriotism (Joan of Arc), Music (Saint Cecilia), Conquest (Harold), Philosophy (Plato), Poetry (Sappho), Law (Portia), and Religion (Saint Francis). According to a note by Blashfield among his photographs and drawings, which are kept in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, these choices were made by Mary Drexel herself.
She also chose the quote circling the eight allegorical figures: “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime. And, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.” The quote, taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “A Psalm of Life,” would prove appropriate for Curtis students some 26 years later.
The side panels were also very fitting for a library. It is easy to see what the west ceiling panel (at right) represents, as the title is included in the painting: Poetry (Poesis). The ceiling panel on the other side of the room (shown below), however, lacks such an explanation. It shows seven figures, representing different historical periods and cultures, who are (apart from a man in Roman armor), either holding or reading a book, or writing.
When it was believed that George and Mary Drexel commissioned the murals as a gift to the school, the figures were thought to represent “Publishing,” which after all was the background of both the Drexel and Curtis families. However, in her book about mural painting in 1902, Pauline King, who must have either visited or corresponded with the Drexels, had already written that the panel represented “Prose” instead.
So why did Blashfield not add the word “Prosa” to the panel, just like he painted “Poesis” on the panel on the other side of the room? An inscription on the right corner of this panel (only readable with magnification), reads “These decorations were designed & executed by Edwin Howland Blashfield, assisted by Arthur Reginald Willett MDCCCLXXXXIX.” This was clearly the last of the three murals to be painted. Could Blashfield or his assistant have finished the panel without having the “Poetry” panel nearby? Could they simply have forgotten? Or were there more aesthetic reasons for not painting the title?
Sources to explain it are lacking. Perhaps this will have to remain a mystery after all.
With thanks to Joe Festa (New York Historical Society), Margaret Zollar (Smithsonian Archives of American Art), and Anne Samuel, contributing author in Edwin Howland Blashfield. Master American Muralist, 2009.