Archive for October, 2013
In August of 1929, Hermon Atkins MacNeil sent a painting to my mother, Ollie Francis McNeil, as a wedding present. Mother always referred to him as her “Uncle Hermon.” Painted on an thin (acid-based) cardboard, the piece has aged badly in the eighty-eight years since MacNeil sketched and painted it in 1925. Here is how it looked in 2010 before continual flaking and deterioration stressed it even further.
In August 2013, I received an enquiry on this website from an art restorer, Leslie Goodwin, in Colorado. She had been asked by a client to evaluate another painting by MacNeil. I offered her what information I knew about Uncle Hermon’s occasional ‘dabbling in oils.’
Later, I sent the photo (at right) of the painting to Leslie. She thought she could help to preserve this piece. I began making arrangements to mail it to her. After receiving her address, I determined that I had travel plans that would take me within 20 miles of her studio. Coincidence?
Several weeks later, I delivered the painting, personally, to Leslie Goodwin in Colorado. She was able to carefully examine the fragile conditions of our MacNeil heirloom, firsthand.
Leslie explained the risks and uncertainties of working with old art. She saw the necessity of stopping the rapid deterioration that recent years were adding to the ageing piece. She suggested that cleaning, stabilization, and repainting of broken areas could refresh the piece. We both agreed that without professional TLC this MacNeil oil painting would not see a 2nd century of life.
So, carefully, she began the preservation process. Two days later she called to say she was finished. She was also pleased with the results. Pictured BELOW is the resurrected look of Ollie Francis MacNeil Leininger’s wedding present from her “Uncle Hermon.”
As I saw the results of Leslie’s work, I felt that I was seeing Mother’ s wedding present as she first saw it in 1929. The repairs to lost portions of the sky brought the scene back together. The cleaning of the landscape brought out hidden colors that I did not see before. A vibrant freshness came out of the strokes of paint. It looked as though Uncle Hermon ‘sculpted’ in paints with a sculptor’s knife rather than an artist’s brush. And of course, that familiar signature, “H. A. MacNeil,” now jumped out of the corner with new boldness. ” I think even Ollie would be proud!
While the painting has some limited value, the real heirloom significance resides in the pencilled message on the back. Hermon MacNeil’s handwritten note on the back of his landscape painting says, “Landscape sketch by H. A. MacNeil presented to Ollie Francis MacNeil as a wedding present by her uncle. H. A. MacNeil ~~ 1929″
That note confirmed several things for me!
- Not only did mother address Hermon as “Uncle,” he considered himself to be just that to his cousin’s, (Tom McNeil’s) daughters.
- Hermon was aware of mother’s wedding, and wanted to send a gift.
- Hermon sent a gift made by his own hands.
- Hermon personalized that gift with a handwritten note that included his signature – twice!
- In addition, the timing of Hermon’s gift and note to Ollie McNeil was about 17 months after the prolonged death of Hermon’s and Carol’s only daughter, Joie Katherine MacNeil, in March 1928. Joie, age seventeen, died in Flushing Hospital of an infection which had been slowly draining her health since an attack of scarlet fever several years previously. She convalesced in the MacNeil home on Fifth Avenue (North boulevard), College Point. My mother, Ollie McNeil, would have been about 2 years older than Joie MacNeil.
- It also came 3 months after the marriage of their son Alden B. MacNeil to Irene E. Hollo on May 25, 1929. Those nuptials were held while Hermon and Carol MacNeil were abroad in Italy and Paris from November 1928 to September 1929.
In 1917 when Hermon MacNeil made the standing sculpture of Ezra Cornell, he placed a “machine” behind The man who made Cornell University. While MacNeil never knew Ezra Cornell, he did know Robert Thurston. Both Thurston and Cornell were men of machines. This third and final segment of the MacNeil ~ Thurston Story offers more on the brilliant engineer’s influence on the brilliant sculptor. Their individual creativity became a meeting ground of mechanical vision and artistic vision, foundational to Sibley College, and eventually, Cornell University College of Engineering.
Francis C. Moon in his 2007 volume on The Machines of Leonardo Da Vinci and Franz Reuleaux tells his story this way, combining three elements:
“Thurston – MacNeil – and Machines”
For Hermon MacNeil to come to Cornell as a young 20 year old artist was a serendipitous opportunity. For him to work directly with this mechanical engineer and seasoned educator, Robert Thurston, and to teach Thurston’s engineering students drawing and design was a melding of “The Two Cultures” ** of science and humanities. Thurston wanted to educate engineers who could draw, who could solve problems, and had an artist’s eye for detail and design.
** [The Two Cultures is the title of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow. Its thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. ]
In MacNeil, Thurston found the artist/sculptor that he wanted. His encouragement of the ‘sculptor’ in MacNeil led Hermon on to Paris, Chicago, Rome and eventually, New York City. but he kept returning to Cornell. In 1893 he make the bust of Justice Douglas Boardman. After Thurston’s death, he made the bronze bas-relief honoring the Dean. In 1917-18 MacNeil returned to make to the statue of Ezra Cornell. And after MacNeil’s own death in 1947, his personal papers were placed in the Cornell Universiry Library at his bequest. Robert Thurston appears to be the encourager and instigator of that loyalty. It seems that MacNeil never forgot Cornell.
Thurston achieved his mastery of steam engine technology early in life by working in the machine shop at his father’s steam engine manufacturing company in Providence, Rhode Island. He later volunteered to serve in the Navy Engineering Corps during the Civil War and afterwards taught at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Writing 21 books and 574 scientific articles, he spanned a prolific career first as President of Stevens Institute of Technology for 14 years, and later as director of Sibley College, Cornell University for 18 more years.
Professor Robert Thurston became a recognized expert on the “steam engine,” the primary ‘work horse’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote dozens of monographs on the subject. His visionary approach to engineering education brought Cornell to the forefront of the field. The choice of young Hermon Atkins MacNeil, a trained artist and ‘soon-to-be’ sculptor, brought an artist’s eye to Thurston’s vision for Cornell’s scientifically trained engineering graduates. That vision has now shaped the “growth” of Cornell, engineering education, and the A.S.M.E. for 125 years. Steam engines, telegraphs, and even engineering schools, can all be coinsidered “great inventions.” Here is what Thurston had to say about the “growth” of such great discoveries:
“Great inventions are never, and great discoveries are seldom, the work of any one mind. Every great invention is really an aggregation of minor inventions, or the final step of a progression. It is not usually a creation, but a growth, as truly so as is the growth of the trees in the forest.” — Robert H. Thurston[In ‘The Growth of the Steam-Engine’, The Popular Science Monthly (Nov 1877), 17 ]