Connected \\ July 2, 2019

Reclamation of a Goddess

Like the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.” Some things take time. As is the case for an object in our collection, a celestial figurehead (ca. 1805-1809) carved by William Rush. She has battled the sea, withstood the elements, survived the sands of time and has endured both destruction and care by human hands – waiting for her moment to be reclaimed.

William Rush (1756–1833) was the first American-born sculptor to achieve international acclaim. Widely known for his ornate ship carvings and figureheads, he notably carved pieces for four of the original six United States Navy frigates (and possibly designed the two others). Despite this notoriety, Rush pieces remain a rare find. It is estimated that of the 43 figureheads he is thought to have carved, less than 10 are accounted for. While some Rush figureheads perhaps have been destroyed or lost with the passage of time, the survivors have been reportedly used as lawn decoration or disguised by layers of paint.


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Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum.


Whether commissioned by a government, monarch, merchant or shipbuilder, the design of a ship’s figurehead was often a direct reflection of a vessel’s identity. The practice dates back to some of the most ancient seafaring civilizations.


Figureheads were the most prominent promotion for American art,” notes Dan Finamore, PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History. “Colonists were seen as devoid of creativity and lacking spark. However, people began to notice when a ship donning a Rush figurehead sailed into a foreign port. Rush became known, and thus, so too did Americans as artists.


As such, William Rush is integral to art history as a whole – in terms of both early American carving tradition and the international dissemination of figurehead carving as an art form. It is fitting then that our figurehead will be placed in a global context, in the museum’s new gallery for maritime art and history, alongside a statement piece from Britain and a stunning bow ornament off a Maori war canoe.


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Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum.

The story of how the Rush figurehead came to PEM begins with the figurehead absolutely caked in paint, appearing at auction in New York with art experts and possible purchasers alike drumming up conversation about her history. There were speculations that she might indeed be a Rush, but her condition more than likely daunted her potential buyers (and is likely why she was so unidentifiable). To go through the time and cost of conservation for the possibility of uncovering a Rush was a risk. However, Finamore had a hunch.

He then spent two days in Philadelphia, studying works, making calls, consulting with experts and following bits of evidence – such as a brief analysis campaign of the figurehead done in 1994. He came across clues to her identity through a culmination of similarities, like an undeniable connection between the model for his sculptures “Nymph of the Schuylkill River” and “Peace.” And after careful consideration, he was willing to take that risk.

No clearly authentic works of his have been for sale for many years... so I thought to myself the obvious,” said Finamore, “Why not PEM?


After no bids were made, the museum purchased her through a private sale in 2005, and then it was left up to the skilled staff at PEM to help positively identify her.

Our examination began in 2008. Like a case straight from “museum CSI,” she has been described by PEM Conservator of Objects Mimi Leveque as “one of the most complex and interesting projects currently in objects conservation.” This comes from someone who has been working with Egyptian mummies (including the mummy of Tutankhamun) for over 30 years. Not only was she “wildly overpainted,” obscuring any sort of feature definition and hiding her underlying form, she had some deep chips and cracks throughout her white pine.


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Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum.


For conservators, it was imperative to find out what exactly they were working with. So, prior to starting any sort of preservation or treatment, it was necessary to determine what the general sculpture looked like underneath all of that paint and her overall condition.

Analysis began with x-rays and microscopic examinations. The x-rays revealed deep, animated carving, hand-forged nails, as well as a buckshot to her face and to her chest which will remain in place even when her conservation is complete. She clearly had seen some sort of fight at sea – predating the 1820s since her ship would more than likely have been out of commission by then – and also had seen some early attempts at repair.

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Figurehead x-ray scans. Courtesy of Conservator Mimi Leveque. © Peabody Essex Museum.
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Figurehead x-ray scans. Courtesy of Conservator Mimi Leveque. © Peabody Essex Museum.
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Figurehead x-ray scans. Courtesy of Conservator Mimi Leveque. © Peabody Essex Museum.

With her figure clearly in view, the team then took over 20 cross-sections to determine all the layers of paint she has encountered. In some places, as many as 30 layers were discovered. The process also revealed that about halfway through her life, the paint on her dress was torched off using flame. The scorched wood was still visibly present. This combination of scans and paint stratigraphy not only illuminated the state she was in, how she was made and what happened to her over time, but also how best to proceed with her conservation.


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Paint cross-section and palate history. Photography by Walter Silver. © Peabody Essex Museum


The decision was carefully made to see how far back in her history she could be taken. Almost a decade has come and gone since the process began and she has seen extensive dedication, precision, care and application. Especially when it came to the painstaking (not to mention time-consuming) task of stripping the paint off layer by layer... by layer… by layer.

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Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum


Given that this may be the only Rush carving with traces of original paint, it was incredibly important to not lose that history, but also to see just how much was left hidden. A manual separation of the paint layers using a low-toxicity chemical stripper was the chosen approach. Though it is a slow and tedious process, it allows for complete control over the number of layers removed at a given time. And so, the team began peeling away much of the disfiguring overpaint – including somewhere near nine layers of the off-white color.

What they discovered with each layer removed was that her appearance changed as the years progressed, evidently following historical trends.


These layers of paint, in actuality, have frozen her in time,” says Leveque.  “The most difficult aspect for both the conservation crew and the curator was deciding which time to take her back to. We want to do what is going to make her look best, and tell her story best.


It was through this process though, that her original colors were uncovered. Her dress was a pastel peach, her shawl a robin egg blue, her skin pink, her hair a light brown and her eyes pale blue. The team even discovered a rosette and ribbon fastening the sash to her left sleeve, beneath a small piece of wood, where the original blush color has been preserved.


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Photography by Walter Silver. © Peabody Essex Museum.


Though, revealing those light blue eyes was the real “ah-ha” moment for both curator and conservator – the distinctive inset pupils and the full, dynamic detailing expected from a Rush carving. Her face, leading into the wind and the salt spray, should (in theory) have caused the eyes to lose all coloration. Despite that, her eyes and an eyebrow completely retained their original color. 

Photography by Bob Packert. © Peabody Essex Museum.


Records kept by Rush indicate that he colored some of his figureheads “to life,” however, this is the first to be identified – as of yet – and could be one of the last remaining figural pieces by Rush that holds its complete paint-scheme history.


It is quite miraculous… You can never tell what you might discover,” says  Leveque. “It is totally unpredictable. It is utterly extraordinary when you have the opportunity to reveal original colors, especially on a William Rush piece since there are so few examples. Seeing her actual colors is something astounding. Most are stripped away down to the wood or simply painted white.


Leveque, alongside an incredibly talented team of analysts, conservation technicians, pre-program conservators, volunteers and interns, have seen all of their efforts truly pay off. But this project has been more than just reconstructing her appearance; “We have really come to understand her,” she adds.

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Our figurehead with conservator Mimi Leveque, now and then. Photography by Bob Packert and Walter Silver. © Peabody Essex Museum.
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Our figurehead with conservator Mimi Leveque, now and then. Photography by Bob Packert and Walter Silver. © Peabody Essex Museum.
Curator Dan Finamore noted back in 2008 that when conservation was complete, we would find “a prominent place for her,” and we finally have.


You will have the opportunity to see the figurehead in all of her glory when our new 40,000-square-foot wing – anchored by three galleries that showcase selections of the museum’s core collection – opens this coming September. She will be prominently displayed on the first floor, with our Maritime Art collection, the finest of its kind in the country. The gallery frames the sea as an enduring source of opportunity as well as peril; a force that inspires creativity and innovation. It’s a fitting spot for an object that has truly weathered the storm.


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Follow along and share your excitement with us on social media using #newpem and #peabodyessex | Rendering by Ennead Architects. © Peabody Essex Museum.


A new PEM is launching this September -- a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

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