Art Museum Buildings

From the Collection–Marble Through the Ages

Gaetano Trentanove, The Last of the Spartans (Detail), ca. 1892. Marble. Layton Art Collection, Gift of William E. Cramer. Photo by the author.
Gaetano Trentanove, The Last of the Spartans (Detail), ca. 1892. Marble. Layton Art Collection, Gift of William E. Cramer. Photo by the author.

The Museum Collection contains endless stories. Our paintings hold narratives of mythological legends; decorative art objects tell us of life way-back-when; contemporary art puts our finger on the pulse of what is going on now. But have you ever traced a story through the Collection? There are many ways to do this: you could follow an artist’s work through his or her lifetime, a collector’s vision (Mrs. Bradley, Mr. Layton, the list goes on…), or you could really veer off the beaten track and follow the story of a material–you know, what an art object is made out of. One of our super-star materials? Marble!

Above: Roman, after Greek late 4th-century BC original, Torso of a Male Athlete (The Oil Pourer), 1st-2nd century AD. Marble. Gift of Suzanne and Richard Pieper. Photos by the author.

Let’s start with the old: You’ll see this young man immediately upon entering the galleries. He’s an oil pourer, a Roman copy of a bronze Greek statue (the Romans had a love-hate relationship with Greeks and their culture); you can see what a more complete original might have looked like here. If you look closely at the images in the gallery above, you’ll see how eaten away the marble is now. This sculpture spent some time outside, being eaten away by the elements, which gives it a rough surface. But that roughness also shows the glittering quality of marble, too–when you see this piece in person, in Gallery 1 on the Main Level, you can see the light catch the stone as you walk around the work.

Above: Gaetano Trentanove, The Last of the Spartans (Detail), ca. 1892. Marble. Layton Art Collection, Gift of William E. Cramer. Photos by the author.

Jumping forward in time to the 18th century and walking a bit further into the Museum, to Gallery 10, we see Gaetano Trentanove’s life-size dying Spartan, a member of the Greek city-state famous for its soldiers. The drama of this sculpture is accentuated by the incredibly varied textures Trentanove creates out of stone: from the flesh of the Spartan’s knuckles, to the perfectly smooth surface of his shield, down to the deliberately rocky edges of his tomb-like perch.

Above: Details of the Santiago Calatrava designed Quadracci Pavillion, Milwaukee Art Museum. Photos by the author.

What would a post about marble at the Museum be without showcasing the building itself? The floors of our Calatrava addition are, of course, marble–they’re even miraculously heated in the winter (yes, our heat comes through the floor!). Here, the highly polished Carrara marble becomes a shimmering, nearly watery reflection of Lake Michigan or a smooth, gliding vista into the Museum galleries. Last summer, a friend of mine who studies architecture pointed out those details only an architect might notice right away–how each block of marble connects perfectly to its neighbor, how they are spaced evenly and deliberately throughout the floor, in harmony and balance. The building might be, well, a building–but I think we’d all agree it’s still a work of art, just like the two sculptures highlighted above.

Chelsea Kelly, the School and Teacher Programs Manager, oversees school tours, special K-12 programming, and events for teachers at the Museum, and also creates resources for educators about the artworks in the Museum’s Collection.

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