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Domenica Bongiovanni, firstname.lastname@example.org
For 40 years, an artwork that would eventually sell for $7,553,600 was displayed in a historic house museum in Elkhart. Some visitors stopped to ponder it. Many just passed by.
Ruthmere knew what it possessed was special. But it didn’t expect a number like that to be within reach. Neither did Sotheby’s, the auction house that has been finding new owners for fine artworks since 1744. In November, Sotheby’s estimated a bidding between $4 and $6 million. In just more than four minutes of fierce bidding, it exceeded even the estimate’s higher end.
The sculpture grabbed the heart of a 21st-century buyer in the same way it captured a 19th-century art collector who fervently wrote to the artist asking when her commission would be done.
From 1893 to 1894, Auguste Rodin, who created “The Thinker” and “The Kiss,” painstakingly coaxed a block of limestone into a sculpture that people would not only see but feel. A woman is crouched down, her body contorted by a massive stone that bears down into her back but that she doesn’t allow to crush her. It has been called the counterpart to Atlas holding up the sky.
The sculpture has been one of Indiana’s gems, a crown jewel at Ruthmere that was acquired by a man related to Elkhart’s founding family. Now, after much discussion and a difficult decision to sell, it will allow a museum to keep itself and the history of a town alive for decades to come.
The sculpture was emotional from the beginning
Around 1893, Berthe Dumon was walking through Rodin’s studio when she spotted a plaster form of the burdened woman. So arrested was she that she commissioned a larger one in stone and then eagerly inquired after it in letters to the artist.
Dumon, of Tournai, Belgium, wrote that she felt a connection with what she called a “valiant woman with great pain.”
“It will be a great comfort for me, like a confirmation of the necessity of the struggle. Will it be a long, long time before you give it to me? Please tell me, I beg you, roughly when the time will come so that I can limit my impatience,” the collector wrote, according to the Sotheby’s catalogue.
Before the sculpture had a title, Dumon called it “Destiny.” Rodin eventually named it “The Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone.”
The caryatid, which first came about in ancient Greece, is a carving of a standing woman used as a column to support an architectural structure. As the centuries went on, caryatids took on different postures and expressions in religious buildings and other facades.
Rodin’s “Fallen Caryatid” first appeared in the upper left-hand corner of his “The Gates of Hell,” a masterpiece that was inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” according to Sotheby’s. “The Gates” was a plaster model — originally meant to become bronze doors for a museum — of figures that ended up as a rich reservoir from which the artist pulled to create single sculptures for the rest of his career. “The Thinker” and “The Kiss” are probably the best known of these.
“The Gates of Hell combines all of this creative energy,” said Julian Dawes, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale. “There’s so many moments in it and you have all these figures in different poses.”
Rodin finished Dumon’s commission, behind schedule because of its difficulty, in 1894. The result was a limestone sculpture that is about 200 pounds, two feet high and tailored to the desires of its first owner, Dawes said.
“The essential concept for Rodin that’s important is the idea of giving this sort of personality to the character … so that it becomes much more this Romantic, Symbolist, psychological, emotional portrait rather than just an architectural detail,” he said.
Why Ruthmere decided to sell
When Walter Beardsley donated “The Fallen Caryatid” in 1978, he gave it with a generous footnote: The museum could sell it in the future if it chose.
As an art collector, Beardsley knew how much the sculpture was worth and that it would appreciate in value. Executive Director Bill Firstenberger said Beardsley had purchased it in 1969 from Charles Feingarten of Feingarten Gallery in Los Angeles for $50,000 — about $350,000 in today’s money. As a member of the family that founded Elkhart and laid the foundation for the museum, Beardsley valued its longevity even more than the exquisite artwork.
Havilah Beardsley bought land near the St. Joseph and Elkhart rivers that would become the city of Elkhart. He and his wife, Rachel Beardsley, built the first brick house in town in 1848. It is now one of two historic house museums on the Ruthmere campus. The other is Ruthmere Mansion, built by Havilah’s nephew Albert and his wife, Elizabeth Beardsley, just after the turn of the century. The Beaux-Arts home boasts stunning architecture, gardens with a greenhouse that housed exotic plans and an arts reference library where the chauffeur’s quarters once where.
Albert helped run Miles Laboratories — the company later known for making Alka-Seltzer — from its early stages, and Walter Beardsley, his grandnephew, played a leading role in the company as well. Before Walter Beardsley gifted “The Fallen Caryatid” to Ruthmere, he kept it on his desk at Miles, Ed Beardsley, president of The Ruthmere Foundation Inc., wrote in an email to IndyStar.
The sculpture resided in a star position in the center of the Ruthmere home at the top of a grand staircase. Over the next 40 years, Ruthmere embraced the endearing woman. Firstenberger called it “our girl.” The caryatid was showcased at an exhibition at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art from 1981 to 1982.
But in a complex with two historic house museums, the caryatid could be overlooked, even in its beautiful surroundings. Some visitors come to see the impressive fine art collection, which includes five bronze Rodin sculptures, Tiffany glass, early American paintings, Hoosier Impressionist painters and decorative arts ceramics. But many focused on local history passed by the multi-million-dollar artwork with barely a glance, Firstenberger said.
“Those two topics don’t always dovetail and mesh perfectly. And so, to a certain extent, a piece like ‘The Fallen Caryatid’ was underappreciated by being displayed and exhibited at Ruthmere,” he said.
In the summer of 2018, as Ruthmere began to raise $10 million to sustain its future and make much-needed repairs to the historic buildings, Walter Beardsley’s footnote echoed in the minds of the board members, including his son Robert Beardsley, and Firstenberger. Keeping the fragile “Fallen Caryatid” was costly; its insurance replacement value was $5 million, according to Ruthmere.
“When the insurance premium on a piece that’s valued in that rarefied air is a constant drain on your resources every year, you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I have the donor base to justify the support for that?”https://www.indystar.com/” Firstenberger said.
The decision wasn’t quick. The museum spoke with donors, stakeholders and the community to gather their input.
“This process took a full year from the (kernel) of an idea of how this piece might play a role in the Ruthmere Champions campaign for sustainability, through the review of stakeholder feedback and selling options before the Board was ready to accept the concept,” Ed Beardsley wrote.
Firstenberger said this is the last time they’ll sell a piece of art like this.
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Why ‘The Fallen Caryatid’ is so rare
As an expert, Dawes thought he knew what he would see when he traveled to Elkhart to look at “The Fallen Caryatid” for the first time. But standing in front of it floored him, just as it did Dumon more than a century before.
“Being in this … quaint house museum in a very sort of out-of-the-way place is just one of those amazing circumstances that’s so exciting and surprising and heartwarming and exhilarating,” Dawes said. “It doesn’t always happen that way for us.”
Rodin’s “Fallen Caryatid” exists in other forms, but his stone sculptures of it are rare. Dawes and Sotheby’s counted three that they know about. The first has long been lost — and perhaps destroyed — and the second resides in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
The works are not facsimiles, however, Dawes said. Rodin’s letters shows that he struggled with Dumon’s “Fallen Caryatid,” and it showed Dawes that every detail was intentional. The smooth parts of the woman’s body — her back, the left side of her face, the sole of her foot — contrast the roughness of the stone.
“I have left the figure more unfinished for the effect of the stone, and it has become much more expressive,” Rodin wrote.
While “The Fallen Caryatid” stayed in Dumon’s family until the mid-20th century, it ended up changing the way people interacted with sculptures.
“It encourages this contemplation and this sort of psychological interaction, which itself was essentially unprecedented in many ways,” Dawes said.
Along with the details and correspondence between Dumon and the artist, this increases the value. So does the origin of the limestone, which an expert was able to match up with Rodin’s ordering records from a well-known limestone quarry in France. While precious, the limestone is porous and easy to crack beyond repair.
“The Fallen Caryatid’s” new home is in a private collection. As is the case with most fine art sales at Sotheby’s, Dawes said, the name of the buyer has not been released.
What Ruthmere’s future looks like
Firstenberger didn’t stipulate exactly how much money Ruthmere will receive from the sale. But the museum knows exactly what it will do with the infusion.
In 2018, the Ruthmere launched a $10 million campaign for longterm sustainability. Firstenberger said $5 million would come from public support, and the organization would look for another $5 million internally from legacy-type gifts. After years of building an audience — the executive director said the number of engaged people rose from about 3,000 to more than 298,000 over the past decade — the timing to secure the future was finally right.
The campaign funding, along with what Firstenberger calls the sacrifice of “The Fallen Caryatid,” will go toward preservation projects, stronger touring exhibits and more musical performances. What’s needed are a restoration of the perimeter wall, attention to limestone and brickwork and a new roof for Ruthmere, among other repairs.
A centerpiece of the plan is to build an endowment. The new caryatid funds will add to what the institution already has: endowed funds with the Community Foundation of Elkhart County and its own investment accounts, Firstenberger said.
It’s going to make a big impact “not only for our organization but for the community and our ability now to do some things that were only sort of pipe dreams before,” Firstenberger said.
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