Dear Call Box: I read in a recent column by Charlie Patton that people can now visit the sculpture “Diana of the Hunt” at the Cummer Gallery of Art & Gardens in the wake of Hurricane Irma. What can you tell me about this sculpture?
Dear T.P.: In her 56 years, Diana has gone through hurricanes, restorations and an investigation to see whether she had Bette Davis eyes.
The bronze sculpture depicts the Roman goddess of the hunt, the moon, wild animals and nature, perched atop a globe while shooting an arrow toward the moon. Her hunting dog jumps in excitement beside her. The statue is an eye catcher on the terrace overlooking the gardens.
“She’s certainly a very popular and impactful piece in our collection,” said Amber Sesnick, marketing and communications coordinator for the Cummer. “Historically, she’s important as well.”
Diana has been there since the Cummer opened in 1961. While the museum was still under construction in 1960, New York sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington offered to have her 1922 sculpture of “Diana of the Hunt” recast so that it could be placed in its gardens. This version was cast by the Modern Art Foundry of New York and is not signed or dated. Huntington had a long history of installing her sculptures in gardens, and there are various recastings.
There may be more to Diana than meets the public eye. And this is where Bette Davis comes into play. We can tell you that it is not Davis’ eyes that you see gazing across the Cummer’s verdant gardens at 829 Riverside Ave. At most, the tip of the statue’s head or a slight movement of the hips or calf may have been inspired by the acclaimed actress, one art scholar said.
The issue arose in 1982 when Davis disclosed in a Playboy interview that she posed at age 18 for an in-the-buff statue that she thought had been placed in a Boston park. The only clues Davis could give was that she was studying acting during the 1920s, the sculptress was a woman with a male assistant and the statue was to be called “Spring.” Moreover, she was terribly embarrassed, and it took her years to get over it.
“I took all sorts of jobs to earn money,” she said in the interview. “We needed the money. I was asked to pose for a statue of ‘Spring’ for a fountain.”
That led Boston art scholars and trivia buffs to invade its parks and museums to search for the (blush) nude Davis. Among them was Cornelius Vermeule, who was then curator of classical art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The prolific and successful Huntington, who died in 1973, was his great step-aunt.
Vermeule concluded that Huntington had done the statue, though he couldn’t find one called “Spring” among her work, he told the Jacksonville Journal in 1982. But he found two versions of Diana that Huntington did.
So the question for Jacksonville art buffs was whether Davis had posed for the statue known as “Young Diana” or the more mature “Diana of the Hunt.” While “Diana of the Hunt” is the more famous of the statues, it is not the one Davis posed for, Vermeule said.
At the time, “Young Diana” was on display at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. It showed a young woman, nude except for a draped sash. She holds a bow aloft as if drawing a bowstring and is looking upward. Huntington created the statue in 1924.
“Unlike classical statues, it has a very personal face, and that face does look like Bette Davis,” Jonathan Fairbanks, then curator of the Fogg Museum, said in a Journal story.
Huntington usually made a model when creating a sculpture. The bronze factory would then cast a number of “original copies” from this model, the story said. Occasionally the artist would do a second version of the same subject, changing the sculpture substantially. Both Dianas, however, have a similar pose.
Another copy of Huntington’s Diana is at Brookgreen Gardens near Myrtle Beach, S.C., a large outdoor sculpture established by Huntington and her husband, Archer.
Davis’ eyes, by the way, were deep blue. They were made popular by singer Kim Carnes in a 1981 song called “Bette Davis Eyes.” It was the top-selling song of 1981 and won Grammy Awards for Song and Record of the Year. While Davis may have been mortified at posing for the statue, she loved the song and became friends with Carnes.
Over the years, the Cummer’s Diana has undergone several restorations, Sesnick said.
A few years ago one involved removing multiple layers of wax and scrubbing the surface to remove about 70 percent of the “crust” that had formed after half a century at her post, said registrar Kristen Zimmerman. A beautiful, pristine metal was underneath this layer of biological and fungal grime, she said. The conservators returned later to patinate the metal and apply hot paste wax, pigmented black wax and clear paste wax, Zimmerman said.
As a result of Irma, there will be another in the next few months, as well as to the other sculptures. But because Diana was in the gardens’ upper tier, her conservation work will only involve rinsing, cleaning and waxing, she said.
Viewers can decide for themselves if they see anything of Davis.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128