Tuesday, October 26, 2010
From the videotaped interview, it was on to the New-York Historical Society, repository of so many amazing and fascinating objects and works of art that it made me gasp, just walking through a back hallway. Familiar paintings—a Childe Hassam streetscape of NYC—just hanging there, not behind glass or anything…ga-aaw-lee! Great big cases of heads! Oh!
I stopped, riveted as I always am by death masks. Far left, Houdon’s idealized sculpture of a handsome George Washington. Next, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s death mask. Agggh! It was like having him right there in front of me, with his crooked nose and scraggly beard and weary eyes. Well, I’m assuming it’s a death mask, since it was done the year he died, and he doesn’t look particularly alert.
Sherman served as General under Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, and was notorious for his "scorched earth" approach to conquering Confederate strongholds.
Two over from that, the death mask of Seminole leader Osceola who, but for his high cheekbones, didn’t look much like a Native American to me. (His is the death mask on the left in the photo below). So I did a little reading. Osceola, who claimed to be a full-blooded Muscogee, was born Billy Powell in Alabama to a mixed Muscogee and Scottish mother and an English trader. Nevertheless, he rose in the Seminole ranks, leading a small band of warriors during the Second Seminole War when the US Army tried to kick the Seminoles off their lands. He was captured by being tricked into thinking he was arriving for treaty negotiations, and died of malaria shortly thereafter. So even though he had scant Native American blood, Osceola still got the dubious benefit of being treated like one.
And next to that, to the right of Osceola, the extremely creepy death mask of a dentureless Aaron Burr, vice president with Thomas Jefferson, war hero, brilliant lawyer; killer in a duel of his arch-rival Alexander Hamilton. Burr wanted to establish his own duchy in northern Mexico, the “Burr Conspiracy,” which was funded in part by Harman Blennerhassett, an expat Irish aristocrat who lived on an island in the Ohio River now named for him. My favorite Burr quote: "In the past even I was afraid of my own greatness, therefore I could not stand in front of mirrors." (Oh, yeah, me too, only I don't like mirrors because they make me look fat.)
Poor Burr had been immobilized by a stroke for two years before this mask was made. What a life he led! And somehow it is all written on that weary face.
I peeked around a corner and saw the sculptor’s maquette for Lincoln’s head in the Lincoln Memorial. Did not have my camera. The head alone was taller than me. My jaw simply dropped. They have a little of everything at the New-York Historical Society. A lot of everything. Just turn me loose there for a month. I could have so much fun! Oh, there’s Napoleon’s writing desk. Of course.
I felt like a three-year-old in a candy store. But there were Audubons awaiting!