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Study for the Allegorical Figure, "Coral"

Not on view

Study for the Allegorical Figure, "Coral"

Artist: Walter Shirlaw (Scottish, 1838-1909)

Date: c. 1892
Medium: Graphite and orange and green wax crayon on (handmade?), tan-colored, medium-weight wove paper
Overall: 17 1/4 × 10 7/8in. (43.8 × 27.6cm)
Markings: Watermark: Lower left (block letters): "...M" / "...ANO"
Inscribed: Recto, lower left (graphite): "W. Shirlaw" Lower right (graphite): "18"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 82.2
Text Entries

Shirlaw was one of the artists invited in the summer of 1892 to decorate the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In a twenty—foot dome at the north entrance of the building he painted the mural The Abundance of Land and Sea, featuring four allegorical figures in the pendentives representing Silver, Gold, Pearl, and Coral.(1) A description noted that two of the figures were poised “on great nuggets of precious metal. They were clad appropriately in yellow and silver grey, while in the opposite corners Pearl standing on an oyster shell was adorned with glistening strings of pearls, and Coral was decking her hair with a red ornament.”(2)

Erika Ketelhohn has suggested that the MWPI drawing is a preliminary study for the allegorical figure of Coral.(3) Shirlaw began this work by having his model assume a conventional studio pose, and after he was satisfied with the basic design of his drawing he retraced the contours several times to strengthen the figure’s profile. He used several rapidly drawn lines to suggest drapery and the coral she is holding in her right hand. The figure was accented with colors that are in keeping with the subject of the picture; the left arm and the left side of the figure’s face are highlighted in coral-colored wax crayon, and the shaded side was touched with dark green.

In a subsequent full—scale cartoon Shirlaw made the figure more Michelangelesque in stature. He omitted the mirror or dish that can be seen in the MWPI sheet in the figure’s left hand and repositioned this arm over her head, thereby reducing the amount of foreshortening that would be required in the mural and, at the same time, creating a gesture that was easier to read from a distance.(4)

The critic Samuel Isham lamented that the efforts of all eight artists who decorated the entrance domes of this exposition building were “as a whole rather bad. The men were inexperienced but the spaces were peculiarly difficult to decorate; and no skill could have solved the problem satisfactorily. . . . Apart from this, however, the four colossal figures, which each artist placed within his dome, rarely came together in a decorative harmony of line and color.”(5)


1. For a discussion of Shirlaw’s mural see Erika Ketelhohn, “Walter Shirlaw: American Artist (1838-1909), With a Catalogue Listing of His Known Work" (M.A. thesis, Tufts University, 1986), 84-89, and figs. CM7-11. The Chicago mural is illustrated in Royal Cortissoz, “Color in the Court of Honor at the Fair,” The Century Magazine 46, July 1893, 333. See also Daniel H. Burnham, The Final Official Report of the Director of Works of the World’s Columbian Exposition (New York: Garland Publishing), 1989, pt. 2, vol. 4, 59, 62, 68, 72.

2. Pauline King, American Mural Painting (Boston, Mass.: Noyes, Platt and Co., 1902), 75.

3. Erika Ketelhohn to author, February 17, 1983.

4. The cartoons Shirlaw made for this project are briefly mentioned in King, American Mural Painting, 70. Coral is in the collection of Stuart Pivar, New York. It is illustrated in Ketelhohn, “Shirlaw,” fig. CM8. D. Roger Howlett of Childs Gallery, Boston, in a telephone conversation with the author, September 9, 1993, noted that it was partially drawn in coral-colored pastel.

5. Samuel Isham, The History of American Painting (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910), 544, 547.


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