It was Galveston’s Pietà.
A young woman cradling a dead infant in her arms. A frightened young girl clinging to her waist, the child’s face buried in the folds of her mother’s skirt as if to shut out some horrible sight. Most poignant of all, a masculine arm rising from the flood waters below, vainly grasping at the rubble on which the mother and child are perilously perched.
The scene depicted in this classically beautiful and deeply moving sculpture is the terrifying night of September 8, 1900, a nightmare of death and destruction that was Galveston’s legendary Great Storm. Yet even now, 119 years on, the human tragedy symbolized in this elegaic tableau is both immediate and palpable, a masterpiece wrought by a masterful hand.
And then, it vanished. The serpentine story of how this historic and breathtaking work of art was lost reads like something out of a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. But this time Dr. Jones couldn’t find it.
The tale begins in the tender weeks following Galveston’s cataclysmic hurricane of September 8, 1900, now known as the Great Storm of 1900, in which an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people perished, more than 3,600 homes and buildings were destroyed, and the proud city was brought to her knees. To this day, the 1900 Storm is unrivaled as the deadliest natural disaster in our nation’s history.
In the raw aftermath of this unprecedented disaster, the world stepped up to offer help to the stricken city. To assist in the relief effort, wealthy newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst organized a charity bazaar, or auction, to raise money for the children of Galveston who had been orphaned by that horrific storm. Held in the luxurious ballroom of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York, the bazaar opened on the evening of Monday, October 15, 1900, with an address of gratitude by Texas Governor Joseph B. Sayers. The auction would continue, afternoons and evenings, for the next two days.
As it happened, in attendance at the event was a recent transplant from Florence, Italy, a young and gifted sculptor named Pompeo Luigi Coppini. Although accomplished and recognized in his native country, Coppini had arrived in New York in 1896 as a complete unknown, with $40.00 in his pocket and no command of English. Still, through his persistence and hard work, often for no pay, within a few years he had managed to edge his way into the New York art community and, through various contacts, had come to the attention of some of its wealthiest patrons.
During this period, Coppini had also met his future wife, Miss Elizabeth Di Barbieri of New Haven, Connecticut, a lovely, reserved young woman born in America of Italian parents. Needing a model “with a beautiful queenly head” for a piece he was modeling in the employ of sculptor Alexander Doyle, he had asked Elizabeth to pose for him. The two had fallen in love, become engaged in the winter of 1897, and married on February 27, 1898.
Coppini was invited to the Galveston benefit in October of 1900 as the guest of Mrs. Edith Brackett Stuart, widow of a well-known painter, who was called the “beautiful Waldorf widow” by those in her upper-crust social circle. Coppini would later gain fame as a supremely talented and prolific artist who worked very rapidly, and in the short space of time since the devastation in Galveston, he had modeled a small group, a maquette, to honor the victims of the storm. He titled his piece “Victims of Galveston” and donated it to the auction to help in the fundraising effort. The maquette fetched $500, a handsome price in 1900.
Galveston city leaders took notice of Coppini’s talent and skill evidenced in the maquette and approached him about creating a full-scale monument as a tribute to the thousands of souls lost in the Great Storm. But when he presented his proposed bronze to them, they suddenly had a change of heart. His very genius at capturing the essence of that heart-rending tragedy proved its own undoing for the city fathers, who found his powerfully moving design too “gut-wrenching” and declined to proceed with the commission. While this might seem an odd about-face since the idea for the monument was theirs to begin with, upon further reflection, perhaps not. The timing was wrong. The event the sculpture was meant to memorialize was too recent, the depth of the agony in its wake too great. What Galveston needed at that moment was not a monument to its dead. What Galveston needed was its life back.
It is curious and disappointing that in Coppini’s own autobiography, From Dawn to Sunset, published toward the end of his life in 1949, he made no mention whatsoever of this encounter with the Galveston city leaders. This omission is surprising in light of the fact that he wrote at great length of his many other projects and commissions, even those that ultimately didn’t pan out, as with this one. His silence on the subject is more surprising still since the final sculpture that he produced on his own in 1903, pictured at top, was singularly significant to him, so much so that after its disappearance, he spent the rest of his life trying to find it. But we get ahead of our story.
In November of 1901, on a tip about a possible job opportunity in San Antonio, Coppini seized the moment and boarded a train the very next morning for the four-day journey to Texas. Upon his arrival in the still rough-hewn town, he was immediately struck by San Antonio’s similarity to the villages of southern Italy, with its tropical plants, mild climate, and friendly, easygoing people. Two weeks after his arrival, Pep (his nickname) wrote to his wife Lizzie (her nickname) to immediately dispose of their home in New Jersey, close his New York studio, and pack up their summer clothes, they were moving to Texas. And with that, he enthusiastically embraced San Antonio has his new adopted hometown.
Pep wasted no time in immersing himself in his new community, quickly gaining recognition for his superb talent, making contacts with leading townspeople and local artists, and eventually winning commissions from various civic groups for important works, both in San Antonio and around the state. He even ran a small art school for a time.
But Pep never forgot the “Victims” monument he had once hoped to create for Galveston. In 1903, reflecting on the success of his maquette at the New York bazaar, he decided to restudy his original composition. While the subject would be the same, the new sculpture would be “quite different” from the New York sketch, and this time he would create the piece at its full heroic height of nine feet (in sculpture, “heroic” simply means “carved larger than life size”). On his own time and at his own expense, he built the armature, then modeled the new group in clay.
Once the clay model was completed, Pep decided to host a public exhibition of it in his small studio in the Duerler Building on West Commerce Street. Over the course of the three-day event, almost a thousand people came to view it, many of whom were from Galveston, both families of those lost in the Great Storm and some fortunate enough to have survived it. The exhibition proved to be an emotionally wringing experience, not only for his Galveston guests but also for Pep himself. His own words express it best:
They wept as if the group was too real. In general, the people hardly spoke in front of it, or they would congratulate me in a solemn manner….
One evening, I shall never forget, I got home after that extraordinarily large review of the group depressed and broken down by emotion, caused by too many eulogies from a crowd that I suspected of knowing nothing about art, but who were moved only by the sadness of the subject and caused by my touching their hearts. Was my work too gruesome? Too realistic? Too morbid? I sat alone on the steps outside the entrance of my home so choked up that I had to cry, and I sobbed like a child.
At the conclusion of the studio exhibition, Pep proceeded with a plaster of Paris casting of the clay model, now titled “Victims of the Galveston Flood.” A casting in bronze, of course, would have been the ideal, but limited as he was to his own personal funds, a plaster version was all he could manage.
Once completed, Pep began preparing his new sculpture for shipment to St. Louis where it was slated for exhibition in the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, more commonly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair.
But the Palace of Fine Arts display of the “Victims” heroic was not to be because St. Louis is where the first twist in its serpentine story would happen.
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Part 2: The Vanishing