Statue of Hygeia, conserved 2008

August 2, 2013

The statue of Hygeia, commissioned in 1870 by Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt for her grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, is the only known work of funerary art by Edmonia Lewis in a cemetery. As such, the statue of Hygeia is identified as one of the Cemetery’s most significant fine arts monuments. It is featured on the Cemetery’s public maps and is highlighted on the popular African American Heritage Trail Guide to Mount Auburn.

One of the first female physicians in Boston, an early feminist reformer and an abolitionist, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt helped design the statue of Hygeia, Greek Goddess of Health and Hygiene, for her lot at Mount Auburn. She devoted her life to healing. In 1853 Hunt received an honorary degree of doctor of medicine from the Female Medical College of Philadelphia after twice being refused admission to Harvard Medical School. She practiced in Boston for forty years and was particularly concerned with promoting women’s health.

Edmonia Lewis was the first nonwhite man or woman to receive international recognition as a sculptor.  Her father was African American and her mother was of Chippewa (Ojibwa) descent. At the time of the Hunt commission, she was the only black professional artist living and working in Rome, Italy. Lewis moved from New York to Boston in the 1860s where she was encouraged by the sculptor Edward Brackett (who carved the portrait statue of Hosea Ballou at Mount Auburn Cemetery).  In 1865 she opened a studio on via Canova in Rome, Italy and was received by the sculptor Thomas Ball (who carved the monument to Jonas Chickering at Mount Auburn). Settling in Europe, she had an international career, and was part of the art scene in Italy, France and England.  Recognized for bringing a naturalistic approach to the neoclassical tradition of sculpture, very few examples of her work survive.

As with many fragile 19th-century marbles placed in outdoor environments, the statue of Hygeia had weathered dramatically over time. Damage was evident early on: Historical records show that the statue had broken by 1902, and that as early as 1877 two bas-reliefs on the statue were falling off the marble pedestal. By 2006, the condition was alarming. The statue had changed significantly, surface deterioration was pervasive, and surface loss had dramatically disfigured the appearance of the statue.

hygeia by  elise ciregna

Hygeia prior to restoration. Photo by Elise Ciregna.

In 2006 Curator of Historical Collections Meg L. Winslow wrote a newsletter article entitled “Fine Art at Risk” and funds to conserve the statue were raised from a private foundation and private individual in 2007. In the summer of 2007 Conservator Barbara Mangum was hired to protect, conserve and minimally restore the statue of Hygeia.  The conservation project is notable because 1) it is the first time an on-site gamma radiograph (like an x-ray) has been performed in order to see the interior of the stone; and 2) it is the first time laser cleaning of a marble monument has been performed on site. Mount Auburn’s preservation staff, in collaboration with Mangum, designed and built a temporary cover to protect the statue from the elements. Historical research was conducted. The statue was documented with black and white and color photography, before, during and after treatment. Conservator Mangum tested solvents and applied consolidant to the most fragile parts of the statue. The statue was washed, biological growth was removed, cracks and open joints were filled, and losses in some locations were replaced. Objects Conservators from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston used an innovative, non-abrasive technique to help clean the face of Hygeia. Using a portable laser, they worked on site to remove disfiguring dark spots

 

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