We’ve asked FWMoA staff the hardest question you can ask art museum people: so, what is your favorite artwork currently on display? As “art museum people”, we often get asked about our favorite artists, artworks, and the art we choose to hang on our own walls. Since not all of our staff are front-end, and not all of them write for the blog, this series gives everyone a chance to get to know them, too. Taking advantage of our rotating exhibitions of artworks, from painted portraits to sculpted bronzes, FWMoA staff from all departments are choosing artworks that enthrall and enchant them; or, in other words, playing favorites.
Amanda Shepard, FWMoA Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, has made the art museum her place of work for 13 years. Her current favorite? A bronze sculpture by Émile Louis Picault, on display in Bronze: The Artistic Interest.
Q: What is the first thing you noticed about this artwork? What drew you to this particular piece?
A: I noticed the beauty of the sculpting, the rich golden undertones of the bronze, and the complex symbolism and iconography of the subject.
Q: Would you hang this artwork in your home? Why or why not?
A: Yes, I would put this in my humble home! First, it is graceful and full of symbolic interest. Second, as it depicts the Roman god Mercury, my son would enjoy learning from it as he is interested in ancient mythology.
Q: What does this artwork mean to you?
A: Ancient figures, and what marks their essence, fascinate me. Today’s world is oversaturated with instantaneous information about our most visible figures, much of it supposition that fits a convenient narrative that can change overnight. But what remains of those most illustrious figures in a culture? What are the lasting stories, symbols, and iconic images that best describe a person—actual or mythical? What is authentically descriptive, and what evolves over centuries of cultural custom?
In this bronze by the French sculptor Émile Louis Picault, the Roman god Mercury is shown among objects that illustrate his significance in the religions of the ancient world. Mercury was the god of commerce, financial gain, and travelers—but also the god of trickery, thieves, and divination. His name is possibly related to the Latin word merx for “merchants.” He also served as a guide to souls entering the underworld.
Depicting these gods in art necessitates the creative use of iconic imagery to illustrate their mythological significance. There are some objects in this sculpture that have me scratching my head—a crude set of pliers and what looks like dinnerware at his feet—but others illuminate the symbolism widely associated with Mercury. He holds a shield imprinted with a ship and points with his left hand to an anchor under his feet, possibly alluding to his role in assisting travelers. The title of the work, Commercium Industria, which from Latin to English translates to “The Industry Trade”, references Mercury’s patronage of merchants and Picault’s apparent linkage of travel with industry and progress. However, on the shield is a peculiar insertion, the Latin word pax, which means “peace.”
The gods of ancient religions were not known for their peacekeeping missions. Their mythology is full of aggressive competition among each other and with mortals. And yet the adoption of Mercury as Picault’s main subject points to a supernatural influence over the symbolic meaning of the other sculpted objects. Is Picault asserting that a path to peace is in globalization, suggested by the seafaring ship, and the advancements of the Industrial Revolution, which saw major progress in the 19th century? Were these great advancements in human history divinely ordained, and would they really lead to the vision of peace and enlightenment that the coming 20th century promised?
Q: Why did you choose to work in an art museum?
A: I have had a primordial love of museums for as long as I can remember. My grandparents took us to major cities around the world, and I had the chance to visit great museums. They’ve always been houses of wonder and awe for me.
Q: What has been your favorite exhibition at FWMoA during your employment? What exhibition are you most looking forward to in the next year or two?
A: I wish I would have worked here when we curated the Alma Thomas retrospective in 1998. It won support from the Henry Luce Foundation to travel nationally, which is a big deal. In 2013, Johnny Coleman took over a gallery for his installation “Variation Upon a Theme: Song of the Underground Railroad” which immersed visitors into the story of a young boy who fell ill and died on his family’s journey to Canada in their escape of slavery. This small boy, only 4 when he died, could have been so easily forgotten by history; but Coleman remembered him in his installation, bringing his story to the thousands of people who walked through that gallery. I’m looking forward to an exhibition by photographer Martina Lopez later this year. Lopez was a professor of mine at the University of Notre Dame, and she is the one who encouraged me to stick with the art program (I was considering becoming an English major). It’s a really cool thing to be able to curate a show of the work of someone who was an important part of me getting to curate shows in the first place!
Q: What kid of art (if any) do you have in your home?
A: I have all sorts of things. I have some Indiana landscapes that remind me why I’m fond of my home state. I have some of my own work that I painted in college. Charles and I have also been fortunate to have been gifted work by artists over the years that are very meaningful to us. One of the great thing about working with artists is that they often show their gratitude with gifts of art!
Come visit FWMoA to see Amanda Shepard’s favorite artwork, Commercium Industria (The Industry Trade), on view through May 30th, 2021!