George Mason University

             History & Art History Department

Monument of Johan Circero and Joachim I of Brandenburg, designed by Peter Vischer, finished by Hans Vischer.  Berlin Cathedral. (sarcophagus)

The History of Plaster Casts

Department of  History & Art History

Robinson B 359

4400 University Drive

MSN 3G1

Fairfax, VA 22030

 

Telephone: 703-993-1250

Fax: 703-993-1251

 

Plaster Casts are the reproductions of original sculptural artwork.  For centuries, artists and students have copied original masterpieces for their sense of beauty and inspiring workmanship.  During the neoclassical craze of Western Europe, private individuals and museums began to collect them in large quantities.  North America followed suit in the mid- nineteenth century.  But the museum collections began to dwindle when they chose to stock their precious space with original sculpture works.  The museum casts were either put into storage, or destroyed.  Today, there is a renewed interest in antiquities, as well as an appreciation for the design quality of the casts.  As a result, many plaster casts are emerging from the dusty storage spaces, and are being displayed again throughout museums and teaching institutions.

In the mid-third millennium B.C., the Egyptians first pioneered the casting method, by plastering the heads of mummies for portraits of the deceased.  The Greeks, followed by the Romans, adopted the plaster techniques, as a means of reproducing copies of famous Greek marble and bronze statues.  The first known location of a plaster cast collection was Imperial Rome. The collapse of the Roman Empire ended the popularity of collecting art in the Mediterranean World.  In addition, the rise of Christianity largely influenced the destruction of sculptures and plaster casts, in order to conceal references to previously held pagan beliefs.

A tremendous rediscovery of antiquities occurred in 15th century Renaissance Europe.  Art schools made use of plaster casts from recently unearthed antiquities because they felt the works of the ancients were incomparable.  The effects of the sculptural rebirth began to reverberate throughout Europe in the art academies and universities. Authenticity was not a concern for most collectors, as reproductions and casts became largely desirable.

 During the 19th century in London, England, an increased interest developed in publicly displaying plaster casts.  Collecting them was not only an attempt to improve art and architecture in England, but also to educate the nation and “silently, but surely raise the standard of taste in the community.”  In 1881, George Gilbert Scott desired to establish an educational museum in London, the Royal Architectural Museum.  By 1903, the museum had to close its doors and the collection was divided.  The majority of the works went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  That museum became an important leader in the collecting and displaying of plaster casts.

Also becoming prominent in the art of collecting and displaying plaster casts was Paris, France.  During his travels in Europe, Napoleon had plaster casts made when he was unable to acquire the original sculpture work.  The locations for France’s grand collection became the Ecote des Beaux-Arts and the Musee de Sculpture Comparee.

France was also responsible for the first shipment of plaster casts to the United States that arrived in February, 1806.  Napoleon authorized the first shipment, which aided students in their drawing classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Between the mid-19th century—to the early 20th century, New York, Chicago, and Pennsylvania became the leading states to collection the plaster casts in the United States.

                 Upon his death in 1883, Levi Hale Willard bequeathed a large sum of money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.  The money was intended to start a collection of “models, casts, photographs, and other illustrative of the arts.”  As a consequence, in 1886, donor Henry G. Marquand requested that sculptural casts were added to this collection.  The collection at the Metropolitan grew rapidly and they were exhibited in the large hall—presently known as the front hall.

                 By the mid-20th century, plaster casts were beginning to fall out of favor in museums.  The largest reason for the change in attitude was because museums began to focus their acquisition upon works by the original hand of the sculptor.  In 1949, the Art Institute of Chicago destroyed some of their plaster cast collection; maintaining that the casts were too expensive to restore, and created a fire hazard in storage.  Other institutions and museums followed suit.  Presently, the works that are housed in the storage spaces for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are largely being donated to universities across the United States.

The trend in the history of collecting and displaying plaster casts both rises and falls, as many trends do.  Over the course of thousands of years, the authenticity of ancient sculptural works both rose, and fell in popularity.  Presently, the perception regarding ancient works—whether they are replicas or not—is changing again.  Appreciation for the antique is again on the upswing!

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“The History of Plaster Casts” was written by Lisa Hargrove,
Lucy Miller, and Helen Watson Obiechina.