“Victims Of The Galveston Storm” – Heroic Statue By Pompeo Coppini
10 Feet Tall Plaster-Paris 1904. Vanished from UT Campus 1920’s
(Photo courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe History Center, The University of Texas at Austin)
A one year effort is now underway to re-create the powerful “Victims of the Galveston Flood” heroic statue by Italian sculptor, Pompeo Coppini. The original design was intended to commemorate the thousands who drowned in the Storm of 1900 in Galveston, Texas. The full scale statue is envisioned to be cast in bronze at 10 feet tall. Conversations with a potential benefactor are ongoing. The statue will be placed in Galveston at a site to be determined. The Victims heroic has had a troubled history from conception.
The hurricane that devastated Galveston on Saturday, September 8, 1900, reduced the island to a sea of blown out timbers from the thousands of homes that were destroyed by fast rising surf, wind and a tidal wave. It is estimated that 8661 souls perished. Tens of thousands of families and friends lost loved ones. My great grandfather, Giovanni Carlo Bernardoni of Bientina, Italy, died trying to save another family. His two children including my grandfather, John Steven Bernardoni, survived along with my great grandmother. The event forever changed our family’s arc.
In late October of 1900, William Randolph Hearst set about to organize an event via his New York Journal newspaper at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The event was called the Galveston Orphans Bazaar. New York artists and sculptors were invited to submit art work to raise money for the families of the victims. Coppini donated a small maquette of an earlier iteration of the Victims design which brought him to the attention of Texas socialites.
Soon thereafter, he was called by Galveston leaders to submit a design for a statue to honor the dead and their families. Upon seeing his creation, probably in sketch form, they said, “It’s too painful”. Thus, he was not given the commission to create and cast the statue in bronze.
Later, in 1903, Coppini decided to cast the statue in plaster-paris for the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. The statue was on exhibit at his studio before being shipped to St. Louis. Numerous people in attendance had lost family in the Storm. The outpouring of emotion was staggering, so lifelike was the statue of a mother, her daughter and her dead infant.
Upon the arrival of the Victims heroic in St. Louis in 1904, it was summarily lost from the dock. Coppini was frantic. He had entered an international competition for his creation to be exhibited in the Fine Arts Pavilion at the fair. After two weeks it was finally located in cold storage. Someone had mislabeled the crate as “fruit”. Unfortunately, Coppini missed the deadline for the competition. The statue was ultimately exhibited in the Texas Building along with a few pieces by rival sculptor, Elisabet Ney.
For the next 10 years, between 1904-1914, the Victims heroic resided at Coppini’s mansion and studio in San Antonio, Texas. By 1913, he had decided to move his operation to Chicago in search of more profitable commissions. By this time, he had been doing work for Texas notables including Major George Littlefield, a passionate supporter of the University of Texas in Austin. Coppini offered to donate 24 of his works to UT, including “Victims of the Galveston Storm”, instead of moving them to Chicago. UT said they would take them but that they had no building in which to exhibit the statuary. They promised to find a way to put them on display. UT took delivery in May of 1914 in Austin.
For the next 5 years, between 1914-1919, the statuary was moved on campus from building to building. Eventually, the 24 crates were stored in the basement of the venerable Old Main building now the site of the UT Tower. Students from the Daily Texan stumbled on to a sea of crates in the dark. When they asked what they were, someone said “statues”. Aghast at this art treasure trove being relegated to a basement, they lobbied UT officials to hold an exhibition. For five days, over the Christmas holidays in 1919, some of the statuary was available for public inspection. We do not have a list of which pieces were exhibited. We do have, however, the UT Cactus yearbook publication of 1920, which chronicles this “exhibition”.
Between 1920 and 1928, the statuary vanished from the minds of UT with the exception of 10 portrait busts which were found in 1928. The Austin American Statesman article did not say where they were found nor who found them. Beyond 1928, there is no paper trail of any kind that documents what happened to the statuary and the Victims heroic. It is possible the Victims piece was exhibited in Dallas in 1936 for the Texas Centennial. All we have is a photo and a one sentence description from some publication.
Coppini was enraged over the fact that his statuary was “lost”. In a couple of speeches, he even says “destroyed” as though someone might have committed an act of violence against his works. Between 1920 and his death in 1957, he repeatedly pressed UT for answers. They did not respond in any way that we can find. The proverbial “smoking gun” was not unearthed in this mystery. In 1943, Waldine Tauch, who was mentored by Coppini, wrote a letter to then UT President asking if he “found them”. She received a response saying he had not had time to search for the missing statuary but that he would do so, soon. And that was the last letter of any consequence we found. Conversely, Baylor University was given 44 pieces around 1909. They were all eventually placed at museums and other art institutions in tact.
Now, it is April 27, 2016. John Bernardoni is having pizza with James Powell, a lifelong antique and art dealer, and Lucy Hibberd, Roberta Reed Crenshaw’s daughter, in Austin. Turning the conversation on its ear, James said, “Do you know anything about the missing ‘Victims of the Galveston Flood’ statue by Pompeo Coppini that went missing on the UT campus back in the 1920’s? My aunt posed for the woman”!! All my bells went off. My family, from Palermo, Sicily and Bientina, Italy were a presence on the island for 100 years. To this day, I have no idea why he asked that question in my presence. To my knowledge, he knew nothing of my connection to Galveston. I said I’d make a few calls when I was back in the office. That was over a year ago. A few calls turned in to over 4500 emails and 500 phone calls to 70 individuals and institutions in the art world in Texas, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
We have wrapped up a nationwide search to identify the top sculpting studios in the world capable of literally channeling Coppini’s brilliant masterpiece as we continue the quest to re-create the “Victims of the Galveston Flood” heroic statue at 10 feet tall in bronze. It is our hope to find an enthusiastic benefactor or benefactors who will help us to breathe life back in to the monumental sculptor commemorating the over 8000 souls who perished in the Storm of !900 in Galveston, Texas. Ultimately, it is our desire to dedicate the Victims heroic to the citizens of Galveston and Texas.
The number of coincidences that have come to light since that lunch are astonishing. Hopefully, we are on the threshold of breathing life back in to “Victims of the Galveston Flood” heroic statue after a 117 year wait. Stay tuned for more information.
POMPEO COPPINI WITH “VICTORY” – LITTLEFIELD FOUNTAIN. UT
The Lost Coppini Statue Project