“Evolution of a Masterpiece”: San Antonio Express – March 1904

Art Reviewer – San Antonio Express from March 1904


I thought you would enjoy this rare item from a March 1904 San Antonio Express series wherein an art reviewer is bringing the “Victims of the Galveston Flood” to life in three articles entitled “Evolution of a Masterpiece”.  As much as the three surviving photos of the Victims heroic this narrative paints an elegant and detailed description of the statue in the “voice” of an art critic who  has the communication skills to talk about great sculpture art.  The statue was about to be shipped, via rail, to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.


Best wishes. John



John Bernardoni, Project Manager 

The Lost Coppini Statue Project









How Artist Pompeo Coppini Wrought the Statuary Group, “Victims of the Galveston Flood” – Search for Models and Material



In the finished state of the group of statuary such as the magnificent work which Pompeo Coppini of this city has just completed, all traces of method are lost and there is nothing to indicate the successive stages of the growth of the statue or the various fields of knowledge which were invaded in its production.


Sculptor as an Anatomist


It is not readily appreciated how good an anatomist a sculptor must be.  Yet, with a little more taste for bones and some skill of scalpel and anesthetic, Mr. Coppini’s fame would be that of one of the great surgeons of Texas, rather than her foremost artist; Just as Paderewski, with his marvelous power to register as quickly as he thinks, would make an invincible prize fighter if his bump of pugnacity were highly developed.


This group of statuary is such a faithful representation of life, that if the drapery were peeled off the nude figures would be exposed, and if the skin were removed, layers of co-coordinating muscles would be revealed, each sustaining the proper tension required by the pose of the figure; and beneath these the skeletons for this is the order in which a sculptor builds a clay model.


In starting the work the artist builds a frame work of iron, called the armature, which roughly corresponds to the desired attitude of the figures and which is designed to support them as the skeleton does the human body.  To the iron skeleton are bound numbers of burrs to engage and hold the clay when it is applied.


The Selection of Material


The clay itself is a matter involving careful discrimination, and before Mr. Coppini discovered the excellent modeling clay in the neighborhood of Elmendorf, he had all this material shipped from New York.  It is the Elmendorf clay which he has used in making the present group, and he has found it to be equal to the article he formerly imported.


The next consideration is the model, San Antonio being a small art center.  Mr. Coppini appeared at the beginning to have encountered a serious proposition in the absence of professionals, in getting models to pass for figures of the woman, the little girl and the baby which make up the group called “Victims of the Galveston Flood”.  A number of models, however, volunteered for art’s sake and being unable to obtain from any one woman all the features desired for the mother in the group, the artist has had poses from as many as fifty different models, taking an arm from one, a hand from another, and a foot from still another.  The woman is thus a composite figure, whose features have been contributed by women who live as far apart as Chicago and San Antonio.


The Artist’s Mode of Work


After the skeleton has been completed, the artist lays on the muscles.  Here is where the sculptor needs a personal knowledge of anatomy. By observing the post of his model, he must determine just what muscles are called into action and what degree of tension is sustained by each. Clay ligaments and muscles, the counterpart of those of the living model, are then deftly made and properly attached.


Thus it will be seen that art is in one sense a deep study in anatomy for the secret of catching the expression of some indefinite emotion of the soul that fits over the face is just the secret of knowing what this or that set of muscles can do. The layer of clay flesh is put on and whether one sees arrested the mysterious movement of the woman’s soul, as depicted in the face of Mona Lisa, or the mingled look of horror, grief, despair and hope which Mr. Coppini has wrought in the mother’s face in the Galveston group, depends upon what disposition has been made of the facial muscles.


Mr. Coppini does this work with great rapidity. It is marvelous to see him shape the skull as that of the living model, mould a muscle out of a handful of clay, slat it in place, then through chunks of mud on the figure and smooth them out in the semblance of flesh.


To Show Character


But even though all muscles and ligaments are properly in place, the hardest and most delicate part of the work remains to be done.  It is in clothing the statue with flesh that it may be endowed with character. To portray the texture of the skin, the lines of character in the nude human form demand the highest power of the artist. Hundreds of experiments are made in face, body, hands and feet before the artist feels that the statue is an approach to the expression of his ideal.


While Mr. Coppini’s group stood in the nude there was nothing to characterize it as modern except perhaps the representation of a steal building beam in the debris upon which the mother stands. It might have represented some classic storm or even the deluge. It was necessary to drape the figures in appropriate garments. Mr. Coppini probably could have made his mark as a surgeon. He might also have shown to advantage as a ladies tailor, such technique of tuck and stitch and button hole does he show in clay.


Infinite Care Required


This preservation of the clay model is beset with difficulties. A hundred times during the day, while the work is going on, it has to be sprinkled with water to keep the clay moist to prevent cracking and crumbling.  For the same reason if must be swathed in damp cloths at night.  The latter operation frequently spoils some of the work, entailing constant retouching.


When the model is completed, it must be cast.  This is an ordeal to the artist, for good casters are few and the sublimest idea of the sculptor man comes to naught.


It is this difficulty which now faces Mr. Coppini.  All the figures heretofore executed by him in San Antonio, with the exception of the Burleson statue, were sent to New York for casting few sculptors in this day casting their own works.  At present, all the expert workers in plaster in St. Louis are already overworked.  Mr. Coppini, however, is familiar with the art of casting, since he began life as a poor boy and studied art, beginning at the bottom. He will therefore undertake to cast his own group, and for this purpose will make use of the old blacksmith shop at Engine House No. 2 on Avenue C.


The main lines along which the process is carried out are as follows.  In order to obtain a mould in which the work must be cast, the clay model is washed with a plaster composition of almost watering consistency.  This percolates into every crevice and envelopes the model in a crust.  The washing is continued until the coating is of the proper thickness.  The next step is to take off a convenient section of the plaster so that the clay within may be dug out with a chisel, leaving a hollow plaster mould.  The lifting of sections of the plaster is facilitated by sticking lines of little copper disks into the clay model before the washing process is begun, thus dividing the statue into convenient sections.


When the plaster coating has reached the proper thickness, the copper discs are extracted and wooden wedges inserted.  This operation is extremely hazardous and the artist frequently loses both his mould and his model.

Coppini-Victims SharperCropped - Baylor