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The Morgan Library and Museum

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

NOTES FOR A DOCUMENTARY FILM - The attribution of the lionesses guarding The Morgan Library and Museum's entrance has long been a speculation topic. Despite suggestions on the museum's website that point towards John Grignola as the carver of the Edward Potter designs, a closer examination of historical connections and subsequent collaborations hints at a different hypothesis that implicates the Piccirilli rather than Grignola as the skilled craftsmen behind these figures.

The Morgan Library and Museum
The lioness by Eduardo Montes-Bradley

Edward Potter had a close relationship with Daniel Chester French who worked exclusively with the Piccirilli, and French was involved in the project. This connection raises questions about the likelihood of Grignola's involvement. Notably, almost a decade after the completion of The Morgan Library and Museum, Potter worked with the Piccirilli on the lions at the New York Public Library. This subsequent collaboration supports the notion that the Piccirilli brothers, and not Grignola, were the likely artisans behind the lionesses at The Morgan Library and Museum. Yet, there is more.

The Italian Factor
Morgan Library and Museum

The central argument in favor of Grignola's involvement is the cost difference between his bid and that of the Piccirilli. Grignola offered to complete the work for a thousand dollars less than the Piccirillis' proposal of $3,500. However, this financial aegument seems irrelevant considering the overarching commitment to excellence in constructing The Morgan Library and Museum and J.P. Morgan's unwavering dedication to excellence.

From the gallery in the museum: Potter had sculpted a lioness in clay, he created plaster models for the stonecutters, who in turn worked from blocks of Tennessee marble that measured nine feet long, three-and-a-half feet wide, and six feet high. Because Potter was responsible for the subcontract, it was in his interest to find someone who would produce quality work at a good price. The Piccirilli brothers, Italian American masters who would later carve Potter's New York Public Library lions, wanted $3,500. John Grignola, another Italian-born carver, would do it for a thousand dollars less.

How Much did $1,000 represent in 1903?

It has been argued that $1,000 in 1903 was a considerable amount. However, that year’s Winton Touring Car, driven by J.P. Morgan, was considerably more expensive. Looking at the library's interior provides a sufficient argument to conclude that saving $1,000 on the lionesses guarding his legacy would not have been an actual consideration.  

J.P. Morgan spared no expense in creating a masterpiece that would stand the test of time. Given this commitment to perfection, it is challenging to believe that a 30% discount would have swayed the decision in favor of a lesser-known carver over the one recommended by Daniel Chester French—a sculptor with whom Potter maintained a longstanding and fruitful professional relationship.

It is important to note that few details about the library construction were share during construction, as Morgan prohibited the workers from talking to the press and that in June 1906, the Wall Street Journal reported that Morgan had "wanted the most perfect structure that human hands could erect and was willing to pay whatever it cost". Then why would the argument of saving just $1,000 on the main sculptures garding the front of the building make any sense?

Concluding, in the absence of compelling evidence supporting Grignola's involvement, it is reasonable to conclude, at least until further evidence is revealed, that the lionesses, just as the bass reliefs and medallions in the facade of The Morgan Library, were carved by the Piccirilli brothers.

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