Founding Fathers, Large as Life
New York Times, 24 November 2002
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Images provided by Ivan Schwartz of StudioEIS
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The photography, lasting two days, was the first step in the complex, labor-intensive rendering of the 18th-century event into a monumental sculpture of 42 life-size bronze figures depicting the framers of the Constitution: 39 signers and 3 dissenters. The historical study, one of the largest bronze works in the United States, was commissioned by the National Constitution Center, a $185 million, 160,000-square-foot museum on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, scheduled to open on the Fourth of July.
Signers Hall, where the bronzes will be displayed, is a soaring space, 24 feet high and 37 feet square, which approximates the size of the Assembly Room in Independence Hall two blocks away, where the Constitution was written and signed. Visitors will be able to walk among the assembled bronzes, stand nose to nose with the 6-foot-2-inch figure of George Washington and peer over the shoulder of the bespectacled Benjamin Franklin, who will be seated with an elbow on a table.
Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners of New York, the museum is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit institution created by the Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 to honor and explain the Constitution of the United States.
As construction continues on the museum, the casting of the bronzes is now 60 percent complete at Tallix Fine Art Foundry in Beacon, N.Y., the largest such facility in the country. But StudioEIS has many reminders of the sculpture project: the clay figures of Washington and Franklin, reconstituted after casting, and 10 bronzes of delegates, which will be shipped to Philadelphia with the rest of the figures in May.
While the signers sculpture has historical resonance, it is also an excellent example of a trend in modern art. "In the 1970's and 80's, sculpture was mostly abstract fabrication, and very little bronze work of any kind was being done," said Peter Homestead, the president of Tallix. "Today more than half of what we produce is representational." And StudioEIS, which was the only independent producer of such sculpture 25 years ago, now has a half-dozen competitors.
The staging of the Constitution signing was changed several times during the shoot by the photographer, Elliot Schwartz. On hand in the audience were representatives of the museum, including Raymond Smock, the consulting historian, and of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the designer of the museum's exhibitions. Each version was photographed digitally, so that all parties involved could review the images and choose the most suitable pose for each delegate depicted.
"The actors just loved leaping into historical attitudes, which was a critical part of the process," Ivan Schwartz said. "A 20th-century person does not stand with the same bearing as an 18th-century person does."
It was difficult to find out what these men looked like, since many had been painted only long after their deaths. "There wasn't a Houdon bust for everyone, only Franklin," Mr. Schwartz said, referring to the portrait done in Paris by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. As it developed, the scene is to include an aristocratic Washington, an aging, still quizzical Franklin, a brash, handsome Alexander Hamilton and a pensive James Madison. They will appear in the scene "in ways that they had not necessarily been depicted in life," Mr. Schwartz said.
He and Stuart Williamson, the portrait sculptor from London who did the heads of the major figures and oversaw the portraits of the other delegates, reviewed all the painted and drawn studies they could find. They also gleaned details about the delegates' faces from family letters of the time.
"What was most challenging about the Franklin portrait was to achieve the sort of vitality he expressed in everything he did," Mr. Williamson said. He tried to combine the monumental feel of the marble bust by Houdon with the wonderful personality traits expressed by Joseph Siffrede Duplessis in his 1785 portrait of Franklin, which is at the Metropolitan Museum.
"He was a little sick at the time," Mr. Williamson said. "He was nearly 80, but he still retained this incredibly mischievous spirit."
The portrait heads were sculptured in clay by one team of artists, and the bodies were shaped by another. Body models in underwear or bathing suits were covered neck to toe in Vaseline and then plaster. The molds created were filled with urethane foam, which hardened into headless figures. These were sheathed in plaster and resculptured before the heads were joined to the bodies. Finally, the figures were dressed in custom-made costumes, which were fixed in place by epoxy resin and then covered with a layer of clay before they were shipped to Tallix to be cast in bronze.
The best body model for Franklin, it happened, was Mr. Smock, who, as a former historian of the House of Representatives, knew that Franklin's girth could be gauged from a brown silk suit of his that survives at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Mr. Smock photographed the suit and had it measured. "It still has wrinkles where his stomach pushed the pants out," Mr. Smock said. "You'd almost think Ben Franklin could have been in it not too long ago."
The two delegates who proved most puzzling were both from Delaware. Jacob Broom, the only person lacking a likeness or description, "created a conundrum for all of us," Ivan Schwartz said. "Ray Smock decided we should use a generic image of an 18th-century gentleman, a figure that was somewhat nondescript among some of his famous peers."
The other Delaware delegate, John Dickinson, had attended most meetings and approved the document, but he was sick the day of the signing and did not show up. Someone else signed for him, and the museum decided that a figure of Dickinson should be in Signers Hall.
"I would not call this revisionist history," Mr. Schwartz said, "since the essence of the event is portrayed correctly."
© 2002 The New York Times