Gilding turn-of-the-century monumental sculptures: D.C. French’s quest to preserve or to beautify?

Linda Merk-Gould


Of the hundreds of outdoor sculptures set in city parks and around government buildings during the city beautification period in the United States, less than twenty of them are recorded as having been gilded. This outdoor environment grew to be the “museum” setting for monumental American sculpture. Although Augustus Saint Gaudens has been credited with installing the earliest gilded public sculpture, D.C. French appears to have been the most prolific – having undertaken nine during his artistic career.

The question arises as to why these sculptures were gilded and the artist’s intended appearance of the gilded surface – important issues for conservators to answer when undertaking a conservation treatment. With the gilding requiring periodic reapplication and the structural materials used at the tum of the century now reaching the end of their serviceable life span, unique opportunities to research, treat and preserve these monuments have been created.

In developing the conservation program for D.C. French’s gilded, copper Quadriga exposed on the roof of the Minnesota State Capitol Building since 1906, the need was recognized to restore and preserve both the structural components and the surface of this four stallion statuary group which pulls a chariot with three attendants. In this presentation, the focus will be the artist’s decisions on the appearance of the gilded Quadriga. the 1994 conservation research to uncover that intent and the decisions on how to best achieve the artist’s intended appearance.

D.C. French’s correspondence with both St. Gaudens and Cass Gilbert, the architect for the building, document his desire to avoid the commonly occurring black “smoke stack” appearance of outdoor sculptures. The intellectual exchange between them helped formulate his opinion on the sculptural tonality for gilded sculptures as well as the public’s dislike of brilliant gold surfaces. In their correspondence, the results of 10-20 years of experimentation with gilding monuments are discussed. With these sculptors preference for darker and darker toning, it becomes evident that the choice of gold was not for its brilliance.

Documentation of the actual 1907 gilding of the Quadriga and its subsequent visual changes through the ensuing 85 years was undertaken with archival research of historic correspondence compiled from letters in three archives, client files on previous repair campaigns, cross-sectional analysis of the existing layers and detailed documentation during the conservation treatment.

The selection of materials for the 1994-95 conservation program was influenced by the original gilding process, the artist’s intent as expressed in correspondence, federal and state environmental regulations and by the recent experiences of other re-gilding outdoor sculpture projects in the United States. Sample panels of various primers and toning colors were prepared for evaluation by the client advisory group in both cloudy and sunny conditions. Acknowledging that the same treatment on a gilded rectangular panel and on a sculpture can appear quite different, larger samples were carried out on a section of one of the sculptures as initial steps in the project.

In summary, the gilding methodology for the Quadriga was to use zinc chromate primer – slow size – 23.5 karat gold leaf with dark toning of the recesses using oil paint in wax. The materials used to achieve the dark toning followed those directed in the artist’s correspondence. The choice of zinc chromate primer was based on the regulations prohibiting red lead primer, the original primer, and recent experiences with gold leaf delaminating from epoxy and synthetic resin intermediary layers in northern climates with freeze-thaw cycles. The deviation from the original primer was an acknowledged decision to avoid lead exposure. Although the selected undertone color would be different than the original, it would be less visible should legislative funding cycles not enable regilding as soon as the gold leaf wears thin. With the planned annual maintenance of replenishing weathered wax, it is anticipated that the appearance of the Quadriga will continue, close to the artist’s intent, for several decades before regilding is needed.

1995 | St. Paul | Volume 3