Peepshow from the Past

Lorado Taft had bigger plans. His studio, near the south edge of the Midway, became a gathering place, studio space, and living quarters for the many artists under his tutelage, creating a modern Renaissance workshop with Taft at the head, initiating oftentimes grandiose projects in which everyone was expected to take part. One of this project was the Dream Museum, a collection of Ancient and Renaissance casts arranged by culture and era and complemented by related photographs and prints.

Lorado Taft (April 29, 1860 – October 30, 1936) was a very famous American sculptor and educator who lived in Chicago, taught sculpture for a long time and worked extensively on critical and educational publications. In 1934 published a booklet titled Casts of Great Sculpture in which he extolled the pedagogical value of well-lit casts arranged in a coherent chronological installation. This booklet summarized his ideas in pocket format to accompany visitors to the few remaining cast collections in the country and, Taft must have hoped, eventually to his own Dream Museum. But soon he found that a cast gallery like this required funding and space, neither of which was readily available, even in a newly constructed school. And many students lived in areas with no access to public or private museums, so their opportunities to experience art were limited. Taft was able to think at an alternative. In 1936 He published his Little Museum, a catalogue of ninety-one Ancient Greek statues and reliefs with an accompanying booklet of scale reproductions; as Taft’s instructions indicate, these reproductions, were meant to be cut out, glued to plywood, and attached to pedestals, then arranged chronologically on a tabletop for students to manipulate and enjoy.

Taft with the Little Museum (photo of 1934-35)

By the late 1920s, Taft had designed the prototypes for eight peepshows representing some of the most classicizing sculptors from the Ancient and Renaissance worlds, the makers of iconic works that filled cast collections everywhere, from Phidias and Praxiteles to Nicola Pisano, Jacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, and Michelangelo (whom Taft deemed important enough to be the subject of two peepshows). Mary H. Webster, a Parisian-trained sculptor who worked as Taft’s assistant and secretary during his lifetime and after his death, supervised the production of these peepshows. The figures, together with reproductions of recognizable works of art, were scaled two inches to a foot; some objects in each peepshow could be manipulated by viewers to act out events, while others were fixed inside their respective boxes. Not surprisingly, Taft wanted his peepshows installed in darkened rooms to make their lighted interiors as dramatic as possible.

Taft in front of the Donatello’s Peepshow

Taft planned to have two studios of Classical sculptors and six of Renaissance sculptors in the whole series. The sculptor proposed selling the series of dioramas for many museums and art schools for 150 and 250 dollars, but he was disappointed in this. The project was not successful as he expected although the children showed interest in the small painted scenes. The Taft’s Peep shows are highly romanticized and aim very much at an aesthetic and emotional effect. He knew well that those sculptors did not use to fill the studio with the casts of their work, but this solution allowed to identify at a glance the artist and was also of great effect, although often with really trivial errors.

Anyway every detail was taken care of so that the effect was very suggestive. The colors and details of the characters were accurate and each peepshow had a lighting system.

Taft was as enthusiastic about his peepshows as he was about his other projects. In fact, as evidence of the importance he granted them, he kept one of each in the same room of his Midway studio with his Dream Museum model, as well as other treasured objects like his plaster cast of Jacopo della Quercia’s Ilaria del Caretto tomb monument and his own group of The Blind. Four months before his death, he visited the Dayton Art Institute in part to see the preparations being made for the installation of a set of peepshows there.

The first diorama was that of Phidias, an Athenian sculptor of the fifth century before Christ who sculpted the statue of Athena in ivory and gold of the Parthenon. In the diorama Fidia stands in front of the statue of Athena Parthenos while receiving the visit of Pericles, his wife Aspasia and three other people. On one side there is a cast of Athena Lemnia with a bronze patina, at the bottom a pair of Attic vases and on the walls some casts of the Parthenon Metopes. In a corner the cast of the Niobide.

It is very funny to see that the casts are faithful to the original marbles as they were found in the modern age, with the lost parts, and the damage of time. A realistic representation would have required the use of the whole statues as they were made in their time. For example the original bronze of Athena Lemnia held the helmet in his right hand and the lance in the left, here we see her armless as the reconstruction exhibited at the Staatliche Museum, Albertinum of Dresden. Also the Niobide is headless and without arms. But Taft’s goal was not to make a scientific reconstruction, but to keep the scenes simple and effective. The statues, in this way, would have been more easily recognizable.

Following is the Studio of Praxiteles represented in a high room with Doric columns of the mid-fourth century BC. In the middle there is the statue of Venus Cnidia, the first classical female figure represented naked while on the left we see the Satyr Resting on the right the statue of Hermes with Dionysus Child and in the background the Winged Genie (then called Eros of Centocelle) without wings and arms damaged as it was founded in 1772. In the background a man is modeling and Praxiteles embraces the courtesan Phyrne who was the legendary model for the statue of Venus.

The next scene was called by Taft: Morning in Florence 1400. A group of about ten people are in admiration of the very detailed miniature copy of the door of the Baptistery of Florence by Andrea Pisano of 1336. Taft loved this scene that abundantly represents the history of Renaissance art. We can recognize Jacopo della Quercia, a young Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello is a young apprentice. Fra Angelico is the fat monk, then there is a sacristan, two sellers who laugh, a dog that smells the baggage of Jacopo and finally a beggar.

Nicola Pisano’s studio is a courtyard, Nicola is located in. Top of a ladder with a large sheet in his hand while one of his helpers is resumed while working on a hexagonal model of the pulpit of the cathedral of Pisa. Next to him another sculpt one of the lions that support the plinths of the pulpit.

In the study of Jacopo della Quercia the central work is the sepulchral monument of Ilaria del Carretto, the diorama shows the sculptor at work in the manufacture of his last masterpiece or the bas-relief that surrounds the door of the church of San Petronio in Bologna. Jacopo is portrayed in front of a sketch of the portal.

Scketches for the Donatello Studio and Morning in Florence Peep Show. Lorado Taft, pencil on paper, 1927.

Donatello’s studio is so full of masterpieces that he is considered the most influential sculptor of fifteenth-century art. There are the so-called Zuccone, the San Giorgio, the tomb of the antipope John XXIII and many others. Among the various master sculptors and architects, Taft identifies Masaccio here, Michelozzo Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico.

To represent the study of Michelangelo Buonarroti Taft refers to a composition by the French painter Alexandre Cabanel. The scene, certainly very improbable and full of imagination, represent Michelangelo who tired for sculpting the marble rests in contemplation of the Vatican Pietà, and the Rebellious Slave imprisoned in the background while an attendant bows to Pope Julius II who is crossing the door for a visit to the artist. Why unlikely? Because the visits of the Popes were official events of extreme importance, because Moses was sculpted after the death of Julius II in 1513 and ended in 1515. The Rebellious Slave was also sculpted in 1513, but as we said, understanding had to be easy and for everyone.

Lorado Taft was working on the Peep Shows serie when his death came in October 1936, in the middle of his Studio remained unfinished the diorama of the Claus Sluter’s Atelier.

An unknown number of peepshows were made; they were gifted to or purchased by various institutions, but few can be located today. At least three complete sets were made during Taft’s lifetime or shortly after. The University of Illinois deaccessioned its set in 2005. In 1985, the Dayton Art Institute deaccessioned its set (including a ninth peepshow, representing Claus Sluter’s studio, which was planned but not completed during Taft’s lifetime; no copies of it are cited elsewhere) and donated it to the birthplace of Lorado Taft in Elmwood, Illinois, where it is currently in storage. Only the Kenosha Public Museum in Wisconsin has displayed a complete set since 1938; it was set up by Florence Gray, one of Taft’s assistants, who billed the museum for her time and transportation costs from Chicago.Taft himself gave two, a Ghiberti and a Donatello, to what was then the Children’s Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927 and 1929; though they were described as the most popular possessions of that collection at his death in 1936, they were deaccessioned in 1950.  Ghiberti, Donatello, and Nicolo Pisano peepshows were purchased by the Superior Public Library in Wisconsin in 1937, and two are now in storage. The Oregon Public Library in Illinois purchased Ghiberti and Donatello peepshows, which are now on display at the town high school.


UoIA, Allen Weller Papers, Record Series 12/1/20, Box 3, Folder: Peep Shows 1927–1936.

UoIA, Lorado Taft Papers, Record Series 26/20/16, Box 21, Folder: Other Special Projects, 1908–1937.

Donald Mokelke, The Lorado Z. Taft ‘Peepshow’ Dioramas Depicting Early Sculptors as Exhibited in the Kenosha Public Museum. 1971.

Lorado Taft’s Peep Shows. Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 1928, B1.

Peep Shows Give Glimpse of Artists’ Lives. Popular Mechanics 49 (April 1928): 551–52.

Plaster Casts, Peepshows, and aPlay: Lorado taft’s Humanized Art History for America’s Schoolchildren, J. M. Musacchio, 2014.