In 2013, PAFA launched the Sculpture Plinth Exhibition Program, an annual series of temporary sculptures mounted on the plinth (a base for a sculpture) of the Historic Landmark Building, amid the ornate decorative scheme devised by architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt.
However, the story of the plinth is a fascinating tale comprising two centuries of cultural change.
In 1827, Commodore Daniel F. Patterson commanded the U.S.S. Constitution on an anti-pirating mission in the Mediterranean Sea, while quietly supporting the Greeks in their war against the Turks. Upon rescuing four near-starved Greek refugee soldiers, Patterson learned the location of a valuable marble sculpture. Indeed, the grateful soldiers offered to sell the sculpture, an 8-foot, 3rd-century BCE, full-length figure depicting Ceres, the goddess of the harvest.
Almost as an act of charity, the Commodore agreed to the purchase, and brought the headless sculpture home to Boston. Upon arrival in 1828, he wrote PAFA and offered the statue as a gift: “I regret its mutilated state and that I was unable to procure the Head ‘tho I offered a high price.” PAFA had no qualms about accepting a headless sculpture, nor did the fact that the sculpture was effectively looted from a war zone seem to have been an issue.
While we might not expect 19th-century PAFA to adhere to 21st-century museum standards, what happened in 1937 is perhaps slightly more jarring.
In 1876, PAFA opened its new Furness and Hewitt-designed building. So highly thought of was the Ceres sculpture that the plinth, immediately above the front entrance, was designed specifically to house the sculpture. By 1937, the ravages of industrial air pollution and cold winters had rendered Ceres into a damaged menace to pedestrians.
City officials urged that it be removed and PAFA secured bids. To remove the piece intact would have cost “well on $1,000,” and restoration was deemed impossible. Instead, $150 was spent erecting scaffolding and $250 was given to a local sculptor, whose contract stated that “the marble will be removed in small pieces by competent workmen.”
Thus Ceres was chipped into oblivion, although her remains were given to PAFA faculty members for use in creating their own sculpture. Charles Rudy’s Pekin Drake, carved from Ceres’ marble, is on view in PAFA’s Sculpture Study Center in the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building.
Ceres’ sad end did not escape unnoticed. TIME magazine published a brief illustrated article, and William B. Dinsmoor of Columbia University’s School of Art and Archeology was able to use the accompanying photograph to identify Ceres and the last resting place for a marble head “which Commodore Patterson fortunately did not bring back from Greece, but left at Megara, where it still exists today.”