Author Professor Al Gury is Chair of the Painting Department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
In 1805, a group of gentlemen in Philadelphia founded what is now America’s first and oldest art museum and art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Their first action, even before having a beautiful neoclassic building constructed to house the new institution, was to purchase fine plaster casts of famous Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance statues from France. Many were commissioned from the plaster caster for the new Louvre Museum. Sadly, most of these early cast purchases were destroyed in a fire in 1845, but were replaced throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Drawing from the Antique, one of the first courses established in America’s new Academy of Art, remains a core foundation course in PAFA’s undergraduate BFA college curriculum today.
Today, PAFA is a leader in exhibiting and collecting contemporary and historic American art and in the education of 21st century fine arts students. PAFA contains one of the largest collections of American art in the world and provides top BFA and MFA degree and related programs to students.
Over one hundred and twenty fine and rare plaster casts grace the Cast Hall of PAFA.
The current Cast Hall is a component of the Historic Landmark Building at PAFA, the third building to house the institution, built by the firm of Furness-Hewitt and opened in 1876 for the American Centennial. Additional state of the art studio, classroom, digital, gallery and other educational and research facilities adjoin the historic Academy building via the Samuel M.V. Hamilton high rise building, to form a unique, urban art school/museum campus.
Carefully restored, cared for and added to, the cast collection at PAFA is one of the few great collections in the United States. The objects in the collection are superior in craftsmanship, often being first castings from the original sculptures, and are now very rare.
Sister institutions in the United States such as the Slater Museum and Yale University, both in Connecticut, also own fine cast collections. The cast collection at PAFA has been the subject of much research and information sharing between scholars, curators and institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Royal Academy in London. PAFA’s cast of the Laocoon was recently on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the exhibition entitled The Wrath of the Gods: Masterpieces by Michelangelo, Rubens and Titian. As part of PAFA’s ongoing contemporary museum exhibition program, the cast of the David presided over the ground breaking performance in the cast hall by the contemporary multi media artist Cassils, entitled Becoming an Image, during their exhibition Melt/Carve/Forge: Embodied Sculptures by Cassils, in 2016-2017.
A centerpiece of the collection, and very popular with students and visitors, is Michelangelo’s David. The approximately 17 foot tall exact replica of the original, unveiled in Florence in 1504, was a gift to PAFA in 1988. Originally commissioned by the John Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia, the cast was intended to be the focal point of an Italian products exposition at the store. Never used because of its immense weight, over 3000 lbs., the statue was too heavy for the store’s floor. The source of the cast is unknown at this time, but it most likely originated in Italy. The beautiful cast was stored in pieces in the department store’s basement until it was offered to PAFA. Today, David towers over the other casts in the collection at PAFA such as the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, the Belvedere Torso, Ghiberti’s Doors, the Laocoon and dozens of others.
The David cast at PAFA was recently evaluated and conserved, as was the whole collection, by the Giust Gallery in Boston. Originally named Caproni, the firm has been providing fine casts and cast restoration since the end of the 19th century. Many of the casts in the PAFA collection bear the Caproni cartouche.
PAFA’s cast of the David is assembled in several sections, lower body, upper body and arms, all held in place by roman pins, an interlocking system of plaster keys and iron rods. Internal, embedded iron rods support the large masses of plaster and provide additional stability. Never having been moved since its installation, little damage has occurred.
The cast’s surface color is a pale off white created by an original pale and thin, painted patina of shellac and pigment. Many antique casts were coated with shellac or paint, and restoration often involves removing layers of dirt and modern paints inappropriately applied to casts. Age has given pleasing warmth to the David’s patina. Expert structural and surface evaluation deemed the cast and it’s patina stable and in excellent condition.
Notably, excellent casts of the giant figure grace the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Belgian Royal Museums of Art and Art History in Brussels, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. Apart from the V&A David, which was created by Clemente Papi in Italy, the source of the other two casts is unknown, but they were probably made in Italy, like PAFA’s David.
Not surprisingly, items in the collection are sources of inspiration for contemporary US art students and artists. The Filmmaker David Lynch, an alumnus of PAFA in the 1960’s, recently posed next to PAFA’s David for photographers, though his studies at the school predate the arrival of the David cast. Contemporary PAFA undergraduate and graduate art students and guests from other institutions draw from the casts, learning both traditional drawing techniques as well as how to conceptualize and organize the complex visual language and architecture of these intricate objects.
An American artist, educator, curator and author, Al received his BA in fine arts and humanities from Saint Louis University, a four-year Certificate in Painting from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and an MFA from the University of Delaware. He is a recipient of numerous grants and awards for painting and arts education, and was designated a master teacher by both The University of the Arts in Philadelphia as well as American Artist Magazine.
A painter of the figure, landscapes, still lifes and portraits, Al’s work is regularly shown by F.A.N. Gallery in Philadelphia, where he has been interviewed several times. His paintings have also been exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Capitol in Washington D.C., Washington and Lee University, the University of Pennsylvania, and galleries across the country.
Al is a contributing editor for Per Contra, an international journal of arts, literature and ideas, a contributor to a variety of publications in the US and UK, and the author of three books on painting and drawing published by Penguin/Random House.
Since 1972 Al has resided in Philadelphia, where he works to promote the arts and is a long-time volunteer and contributor to PAWS, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society.