WITH discretion and a little money almost any house may be made interesting with plaster casts. This discretion, it goes without saying, must be displayed in the choice which the buyer makes. The streets of large cities are full of image-venders; large and important stores on principal avenues are now devoted to reproductions in plaster, so that one is no longer obliged to search, except for purposes of economy, in narrow side streets or tenement-house districts, as one was obliged to do not so many years since.
These large stores, of course, have carefully selected examples, and one pays for the knowledge and judgment of the shopkeeper. But if one has money enough, these stores are always to be recommended, more particularly when one does not know what to buy. The grotesque and the ephemeral are avoided in them, and when the grotesque is indulged in, as when the gargoyles of Notre Dame are shown, it is because a special genius has stamped it, or because some historical association has made it famous.
The image-venders, on the other hand, carry everything in their heavily laden baskets, displaying on the steps of some empty house worthless casts of diving women together with the head of the Venus de Milo or the marvellous "Winged Victory," pipe-rests, and busts of French dancers. They have among all their trash some good examples, and they come from out of the way shops in which any number of other good models may be found. Every example, for instance, shown in the illustrations has been purchased from a street vender with the exception of the beautiful Andromeda, by Bauer, on which there is a copyright, so that it is only sold in certain places, and the lovely Tanagra figurine reproduced for museums.
The image-vender carries all of these in his baskets, none of them more than seventy-five cents, in many cases only fifty or twenty-five, and, if desired, he will tone the casts with yellow without extra charge. One must remember that the pure white cast, while agreeable in certain places, is often too strongly accentuated in others, so that toning becomes a necessity.
One wants, of course, to avoid making a "spot" of a plaster cast. For instance, one small cast on a dark wall with nothing about it in the way of pictures or books is apt to prove the only visible thing in a room. On the other hand, when a cast is large and important, it may be treated with the dignity that one observes in hanging pictures, as that famous group of "Singing Boys," by Luca della Robbia, in bas-relief, from the Duomo at Florence. This deserves a place to itself over a mantelpiece, or a panel at one side of the room may be given to it. So, too, many of the Madonnas, always in bas-relief, may be treated.
The "Saint Cecilia" is well known, and is to be found in almost every group of plaster casts. It is in bas-relief. It has been toned to a yellow, although it is even more lovely in pure white. This, too, deserves a panel to itself, and should be treated with dignity. It is shown in one illustration beside a church banner, and with hanging lamps from churches about it. It should always be placed where it can be looked at, and never hung to fill in.
Many names have been given to "The Diver," by Thorwaldsen: like the "Narcissus," he costs but fifty cents from a vender. In stores he sometimes costs many dollars. He is the very embodiment of strength, vigilance, and manly courage, and becomes a companion in almost any room.
All of the large stores and most of the better-known image-venders publish catalogues of casts, with their names and prices. These catalogues are sometimes of great service, although I have never chanced to find in any of them the name of a little bas-relief I have known for years. It is a very beautiful Madonna, with exquisite face, and her hands folded across her breast, looking down at the infant Jesus and St. John. The young Italian image-vender who gave it to me one Christmas years ago told me that it came from the altar of an Italian church, where it was considered so precious that the doors of a small shrine were always kept closed before it. He added that a priest had allowed a young sculptor to take a cast of it at night, the man stealing in through a window to do so. At any rate, some ten or eleven years ago not many had been seen in this country. And yet it now costs but twenty-five cents, its staining not being counted extra. It is too small to be treated by itself unless a special panel is prepared for it.
Barye, the famous French sculptor, who died in 1875, made the four groups of animals shown outside the Louvre in Paris. These belong to the history of art, and almost every image-vender has one of his casts, some good models having been put on the market. His "Tiger Devouring a Crocodile," and a beautiful lioness are also sold. None of these is expensive, - the lion costing but fifty cents. The cost of it in bronze is enormous, and well out of the reach of most of us. But the fifty and seventy-five cent casts of it give us the form and the movement and wonderful detail. I do not know where the mould was secured, nor whether it is made from one used for the bronzes, but everything in all these casts depends on the mould. The image-vender endeavors to get the best, and goes to Europe to find new ones. Occasionally he is permitted to take a cast of some original statue, just as the young Italian sculptor did in the church at night. Or he is fortunate enough to get a mould from some cast in a museum. Then his fortune is made. Very few of the small casts of the Venus of Milo, however, are made from beautiful models, and I have never seen a small one that did not disappoint me. I never buy one. The casts of the "Winged Victory" are better, especially when made from a large model, but then they cost some six or eight dollars, and must be given a place by themselves.
"The Narcissus," on the other hand, is beautiful wherever placed, although the smaller models show a bad forefinger. The original is in the Museum at Naples among the group of masterpieces. Its beauty all the world has recognized.
Casts should never be draped with silk. Silk may be hung as a background; and when this is done a great value is often lent. But the fashion of draping bits of modern silk about a cast is always bad. The two do not belong together, and when so placed merely indicate that one is striving for an effect without knowledge of how it should be attained. At the same time a bas-relief may be hung above a mantel over a piece of silk falling straight.
Any number of other models might be named. But enough has been said to prove how easily a plaster cast lends itself to decorative purposes, and to the pleasure of the householder as well. That it involves no serious outlay has been shown. Fifty cents is about the average price, a good cast being always possible for that sum. An interesting use of a large bas-relief has been referred to as forming the headpiece of a carved four-poster hung with fine apple-green velveteen. They are especially interesting over doors and over mantelpieces.