Category Archives: Decorative Arts

Restoring the Urn of Life

George Barnard Grey’s Urn of Life, now on view in the Scaife Galleries.


The Urn of Life (c. 1898–1900)  is the unfinished repository for the ashes of Anton Seidl, the Hungarian composer and conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Upon Seidl’s death, a group of the composer’s friends asked American sculptor George Grey Barnard to design his funerary urn. Barnard agreed to the commission and worked on the urn for two years. However, before Barnard could complete the sculpture, the original patrons decided the urn was too large, accepting instead a smaller model of one of the figures. The unfinished urn remained in Barnard’s studio until 1908 when he included it in an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The original urn as it appeared in 1908, with four large, chiseled feet. Also, the structural support behind the female figure’s head on the left no longer appears on the work. From the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The urn was purchased by Carnegie Institute in 1919, and today it looks markedly different from when it arrived here in Pittsburgh. Still an unfinished work at the time, the smooth, conical section at the bottom was very roughly textured with point chisel marks and had four large, lobular feet that extended outward from the bottom edge. A letter from the Carnegie Institute archives from then director John Beatty to Barnard mentions: “Your man expects to finish the base on the Urn of Life tomorrow….” And thus the urn was given the form that is visible today.

Conservation technician Tasha Mowery begins the long restoration process.


It had been quite a long time since the urn was on view here at the museum, and our curatorial staff decided it would be a nice addition to the newly renovated Scaife Galleries. At the time of the treatment, the white Carrara marble had become dark greenish-gray with embedded dust and soot; it had likely never been cleaned. Cleaning tests were conducted on the surface of the marble, starting with dry cleaning methods such as vacuuming and rubbing with powdered white vinyl eraser crumbs. Most conservators prefer to start with dry cleaning methods, as the use of cleaning liquids are a comparatively much more aggressive method. Vacuuming did remove a small amount of surface particulate and the eraser crumbs were found to reduce the ingrained dust and soot, but the eraser crumbs were difficult to apply and control on vertical surfaces and in tight recesses.

Restoring the marble to its original color.

Through systematic testing we were able to develop a cleaning solution which selectively lifted away the dust and soot and left the marble unharmed. The most effective way to loosen the deposits was by poulticing the marble surface with a cotton pad soaked with the solution for several minutes and then gently scrubbing the area with cotton swabs, cotton pads, and soft brushes. Residues of the cleaning solution and any remaining dust or soot particles were cleared from the surface with a pressurized industrial steam generator which directs a concentrated jet of steam from a nozzle. While much of the sculpture had a smooth surface which could be more easily cleaned, there still remained large areas where the tooth chisel and point chisel texture remained. The layer of dust and soot was extremely tenacious in these areas, and they needed to be poulticed numerous times for extended periods. But after many hours and thanks to the hard work of conservation technician Tasha Mowery, we were able to restore the urn to its original color.

Installing the nearly 1650-pound (!) urn in the newly renovated Scaife Galleries.


Born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1863, Barnard attended the Art Institute of Chicago and from 1883 to 1887 worked in Paris while attending the École des Beaux-Arts. He lived in Paris for twelve years, exhibiting for the first time in the Salon of 1894. After returning to America in 1896, Barnard began to enjoy a successful career as a commissioned sculptor. Greatly influenced by Rodin, his major sculptures appear in cities throughout the eastern United States, including New York, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Among these are the monumental Carrara marble figural groups (completed in 1912) that flank the entrance to the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Barnard once remarked that his work on the Urn of Life guided him in the creation of these much larger works—”I found the seed which, when I planted, grew into the two compositions known as ‘Labor’ and ‘Love’ on either side of the Capitol…” Barnard died in 1938 and was buried in Harrisburg.

Barnard working on The Hewer, one of his best known works, first exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. This photo appeared in World’s Work in 1902, not long after the Urn of Life was completed.


As you walk around the urn, the figures appear as one continuous group, flowing seamlessly into each other around the circumference of the sculpture. But Barnard conceived the figures as seven groupings of mystical beings representing distinct stages in the cycle of birth and death. (Inspired by Gothic sculpture and historiated capitals, Barnard originally intended to fill the surface of the urn by carving a second register of figures below the existing ones, but the work was never completed.)

Read Barnard’s own descriptions of the seven figural groups in the gallery below (the images move around the urn counterclockwise):

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Quotes from “The Urn of Life by George Grey Barnard,” undated handbill, George Grey Barnard Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.


Installing the Modern World

Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 is officially on view at Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition is a massive undertaking, the largest exhibition of decorative arts and design at the museum in nearly a decade. We’ve received a number of queries as to how we actually did it.

While some may say it takes a village to mount an exhibition like Inventing the Modern World, in this case it took more of a sprawling urban center. We owe thanks to a large network of talented individuals—including our colleagues in the Exhibitions, Registrars, Conservation, Publications, and Technology Initiatives departments, our skilled professional art handlers, our generous co-organizers at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and a host of dedicated outside contractors—all of whom were truly invested in creating this knockout exhibition.

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Co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA), the genesis of the exhibition extends back more than a decade. When chief curator Jason Busch and NAMA curator Catherine Futter were researching the topic over the last four years, they traveled across the globe on multiple trips, scouring museum collections for the most stylistically and technologically innovative objects exhibited at the fairs between 1851, the first international exhibition in London, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With such a large number of examples to choose from, each object had to earn its space on the exhibition checklist. (See some of the highlights.) We worked hard to secure loans, negotiating with museums and private collectors on shipping, insurance, and display requirements.

Once the checklist was finalized, comprising nearly 200 objects from 45 lenders across the globe, it was time to start thinking about the layout for our venue. Jason and I worked with NAMA exhibition designer Amanda Ramirez for nearly a year to plan the layout and design of the show. At the same time, we were working with our Publications department to finalize the exhibition catalogue and beginning to compose the 200+ wall labels and text panels for the exhibition.

Sample elevations and floorplan of the exhibition’s entry gallery

For a show that was more than a decade in the making, we had only seven exhilarating weeks to deinstall the previous exhibition, prepare the galleries for construction, build new walls and platforms, paint, and install exhibition furniture as well as 238 objects—all while primping the galleries with final touches for opening weekend. Here’s a peek at what we’ve been up to leading up to the exhibition opening.

Weeks 1–2: Once the previous exhibition was deinstalled, it was time to clean the galleries and prepare for new construction. The space transformed quickly as the fantastic crew from Giffin Interior & Fixture Inc. began building new walls, bringing in custom platforms, and painting the galleries.

Week 3: We continued to build and paint walls and lay out furniture platforms as the custom-built exhibition casework began to arrive. With the assistance of Bob Tolnai, fabrication technician at NAMA, the casework was placed and the galleries started to look more and more like an exhibition space. Decorative features such as fabric treatments to evoke bunting from the 1851 Crystal Palace, vinyl graphics including one modeled after Siegfried Bing’s Art Nouveau at the 1900 Paris fair, and photo blow-ups of fair displays were installed to provide visitors with context. Our 2-D plan was starting to become reality!

Weeks 4–6: This is when the real fun began. Truck shipments full of crates containing artwork arrived. Curatorial staff, art handlers, and registrars worked alongside a special team from NAMA (associate registrar Jill Kohler, conservator Joe Rogers, and registrar Janet Hawkins) to unpack and condition report all objects prior to installation, making sure they arrived in the exact same state in which they left Kansas City. Small objects were installed in vitrines while larger artworks were placed on platforms as the exhibition truly started to develop.

Week 7: The galleries were ready for the finishing touches. Two-dimensional artworks were hung, along with didactic panels. Vinyl quotations were applied to the walls and platform and wall labels were installed. After one last final cleaning of the galleries, the exhibition was ready to open!

I hope you’ve had a chance to visit Inventing the Modern World during its opening week, and if not, we hope to see you in the galleries soon!



Scaife Galleries Renovation

Preparators Matt Cummings and Rob Capaldi hanging the first paintings in the newly renovated galleries.

Rosemary Sprig. Castleton Mist. Stuart Gold. Pomegranate. Tarrytown Green. Mysterious. Venezuelan Sea. Smoke Embers. Yes, the new paint colors for the Scaife Galleries renovation do sound like racehorses. Which makes sense because we’re nearing the final stretch.

Since this past spring, staff members from a range of departments—including the workshop, registrars, conservation, exhibitions, curatorial, publications, and others—have been busy updating five of the galleries, from refinishing floors and painting surfaces to selecting, refurbishing, and reinstalling some artworks that have been off view for a while. We think you’re going to like the changes.

There’s still plenty of work to be done in the next couple of months, but the reinstalled and renovated galleries will reopen September 15. Here’s a list of the popular works that are currently off view or are temporarily on view in Impressionism in a New Light. And here are some photos from the past few weeks:

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Spring is Here!

Despite the surprise smattering of hail and snow seen across Pittsburgh yesterday, today marks the official start of spring here at the museum with the opening of the fourth annual Art in Bloom, a four-day celebration featuring traditional and contemporary flower arrangements paired with paintings, sculpture, furniture, and decorative art objects from CMA’s collection (photos below).

Art in Bloom is open today and will be on view until this Sunday, April 15. Don’t miss these related events:

Preview Gala—“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (Thurs. April 12)

Lecture & Luncheon with Renowned Florist Els Teunissen—“Flowers in Our Lives” (Fri. April 13)

Special thanks to the Women’s Committee for all of their hard work in support of this annual event. And thanks to the garden clubs, florists, and other organizations that have brought the best part of spring into our galleries:

Bidwell Training Center Horticulture Department
Carnegie Museum of Art Docents
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Charleroi Garden Club
Fox Chapel Garden Club
Garden Club of Allegheny County
Garden Club of Forest Hills
Garden Club of McKeesport
The Gentlemen Fans of Window Box Garden Club
Grapevine Garden Club
Hillcrest Garden Club
Ichiyo School Ikebana meeting at Phipps Garden Center, Pittsburgh
Leetsdale Garden Club
Nancy Lewis & MeMe Betters
Ohara School of Ikebana, Pittsburgh Chapter
Perennial Garden Club
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Pucketos Garden Club
Seeders and Weeders Garden Club
Sogetsu School of Ikebana
Trowel and Error Garden Club
Tusca Ridge Garden Club
Valley Garden Club
The Village Garden Club of Sewickley
Window Box Garden Club
Women’s Committee, Carnegie Museum of Art

Why so many photos? Well, there’s a lot to see. Of course, to smell the flowers, you’ll just have to stop by.

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A Presidential Pair

Come celebrate Presidents’ Day at the Carnegie Museum of Art by getting a closer look at a pair of decanters once owned by President James Monroe.

These two water decanters are the only known surviving objects from an immense 340-piece service made for President Monroe in 1818 and 1819. The Monroe service has eluded scholars for almost 200 years—a large portion was damaged during Monroe’s riotous inaugural celebration and the remainder was last documented in 1833 when the White House sold a dozen glass decanters, two of which were almost certainly these decanters. Their whereabouts remained unknown until 2010.

An early interpretation of the Great Seal of the United States, designed by secretary of the Continental Congress Charles Thomson and formally adopted by Congress in 1782, adorns the decanters. An eagle clutches an olive branch and a bundle of arrows in its talons, bearing a shield on its breast while stars encircle its head.

The patriotic decoration and presidential provenance are not the decanters’ only distinguishing qualities. Created by renowned Pittsburgh glass manufacturer Bakewell, Page & Bakewell, these objects are the earliest known fully cut and engraved American water decanters. Benjamin Bakewell is recognized as the “father of the American flint glass business,” having begun his glassmaking career in Pittsburgh in 1808 along the banks of the Monogahela River. Bakewell was renowned in America for its high quality, colorless, lead glass formula, perfected only shortly before the decanters were made. As Pittsburgh-made presidential products, the Monroe decanters are an important marker of our region’s industrial and artistic heritage. Come see them in the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Galleries of Decorative Arts and Design.