Pegasus Medallion, 1929

Medallion bas relief for Harvard Advocate building by Frederick Warren Allen, cast in plaster in 1929

“Pegasus, the medallion which has been modeled for the new Harvard Advocate building by Frederick W. Allen, head of the department of sculpture at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The winged horse of ancient mythology has been the symbol of the collegiate society ever since its foundation in 1886.”

The Harvard Advocate is the undergraduate literary monthly at Harvard and, according to its own statement, “the oldest continuously published collegiate literary magazine in the country.” “A quarterly magazine, its mission is to publish the best art, fiction, poetry, and prose that the Harvard undergraduate community offers.”

Note that FWA’s cousin, Frederick Lewis Allen, graduated from Harvard in 1912 and was the editor of the Advocate during his time there. A social historian, he published three books about life in America in the early 1900’s.

The first copy had been painted, the background a dark solid aqua. The second copy appears to have been made from the first, judging by the replication of some damage on the edges.

The second cast was colored subtly with pigments.

Frederick Warren Allen was well known by 1929 for the excellence of his bas-relief work. He had done other work for Harvard very early in his career and had cast the hand of Professor Agassiz. Later he was given the honor of being chosen to take the death masque and to sculpt the marble bust of Dean LeBaron Russell Briggs and later to make a copy in bronze for Radcliffe .

The artist Kenyon Cox wrote that, “Low-relief does not deal with actual form, but with the appearance of form.[…] [It] is a kind of drawing by means of light and shade, the difference between it and any other kind of drawing being that the lights and shadows are produced not by white paper and crayon strokes, but by the falling of the light upon the elevations and depressions of the surface of the relief.” [Old Masters and New: Essays in Art Criticism (New York: Fox, Duffield, 1905) pp272-274]

Allen’s Pegasus Medallion is a good example of bas-relief technique, showing how much dimension can be created with such shallow depth of carving. In this piece he added color, accenting the sculptural details with pigments: aqua in the circular concentric grooves of the background representing the sky, dark olive on the horse’s mane and hooves and shading the incised Greek lettering that rings the border. The color gives the medallion added interest by walking the line between painting and sculpture.

Polychromy, or applying color to sculpture, architecture or pottery is a practice that has existed off and on from the time of the ancient Greeks. Glazes, pigments and combinations incorporating wax and other materials such as wood, jewels and metals, has met with mixed reactions and much discussion from critics. It offends the purist who wants to keep the two media (painting and sculpture) separate and wants to keep sculpture as a fine art rather than a decorative art. At the turn of the century, American sculptors were beginning to experiment again with color, Herbert Adams chief among them along with his friend Daniel Chester French. Augustus St. Gaudens also played with it, encouraged by the painter LeFarge.  (Perspectives on American Sculpture before 1925, Essay on Polychrome Portraits, Thayer Tolles, pp 64-81, for The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia, 2003)

Allen used color in three of his reliefs, this medallion of Pegasus for The Harvard Advocate building, the lunette for the St. Frances Chapel doorway in Marlborough, NH, and the Benson Medallion owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. All use natural pigments that sink into the plaster surface rather than glazes that sit on the surface, thus producing a more subtle coloration. The relief is accentuated in a way that renders it more realistic and painterly, a preference of The Boston School teachings.

The composition of the Pegasus Medallion is refined. The circular format is accentuated by the concentric grooves of the background. The figure is set off by the background texture and aqua color, representing the sky in which this powerful horse flies. The circle is bordered by a thick flat frame on which the Greek letters are carved. The simple border holds the whole together solidly. The mass of the wings above balances the open space of the sky below. The powerful upper body with the chin tucked and ears pointing up and out bring the weight forward to balance the backward sweep of the wings. Movement is created with the churning legs alternately reaching and tucking tightly into the body. You can almost see the head leading the forward motion as the horse reaches out and pulls in its chin to aid his propulsion through the sky. The extended front and hind legs touch the frame and create diagonal lines from the hind hoof through the body to the ears and from the left foreleg through the muscular shoulder up into the bone of the left wing. Another line is formed from the bent right front leg across the body and through the tail. Details in the carving of the feathers of the wing, the clipped mane and the beautiful face, contrast with the smooth surfaces of the body mass and back wing. Color is provided both by the textures of the masterful carving and the pigmentation of the details and background. Depth is created both by the lights and shadows of the modeling and the trompe l’oeil effect of the forward wing that spills over the frame, creating a 3-D impression. In spite of the fact that the large medallion is 25 inches in diameter, the relief is carved ¼” deep in places and down to 1/8” with additional depth provided by subtle gray shading. Allen shows his mastery of technique as well as artistry in this magnificent medallion.

It is either bronze or discolored by the smoke
Size: 25 inches in diameter, 1 inch thick, carving depth 1/8” to ¼”
Made for Harvard Advocate Building, Cambridge, MA
A copy hung above the fireplace in Allen’s Tavern Road Studio for years. It is either bronze or discolored by the smoke.
Provenance: Currently two original broken copies owned by Christina Abbott who has had them for decades and doesn’t remember where she acquired them.
Purchase information from Harvard Advocate in their archives.
Two original copies, both broken. A posthumous copy was cast in October 2012 at New England Sculpture Service in Chelsea from the second copy which NESS restored enough to make a flexible mold suitable for casting the third copy in plaster.
Published information: News clipping from Boston Herald 6/23/29

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