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Cincinnati Art Museum - Ghost Hunt

By John B. Kachuba · October 15th, 2009 · Ghost Hunt
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Just as the Cincinnati Art Museum contains treasures from antiquiety to modern times gathered from all around the world, the ghosts that roam its cavernous halls after the lights are out are equally international and timeless. The Egyptian mummy. The medieval Spanish monk. The Victorian-era artist. Security guards and maintenance workers at the museum have seen these three, along with other unidentifiable entities, haunting the museum.

The beautiful neoclassic edifice stands on a hill in Cincinnati’s Eden Park, and houses the Cincinnati Art Academy as well as the museum. Since its founding in 1881, museum curators have collected an eclectic mix of artwork, more than eighty thousand pieces displayed in eighty-eight galleries, providing the residents of Cincinnati with a broad overview of art history.

One of the most popular attractions at the museum, especially among school-age children, is the Egyptian mummy lying in a glass case located in the first-floor antiquities section. An x-ray examination has revealed that the mummy is that of a man, approximately thirty-five years old. Still tightly wrapped in linen, the mummy wears a painted mask, breastplate, and leg coverings. Despite the children pressing fingerprints onto the glass case as they crowd around him, the mummy rests serenely as the long years roll by.

Or does he?

At least one guard has admitted seeing a strange mist resembling the figure of a person rise up above the case holding the mummy, linger in the air for a few moments, then disappear as suddenly as it appeared.

As I stood there in the brightly lit gallery, looking down at the beautifully painted red, black, and gold mask of the mummy, I was drawn to its enigmatic smile and wondered what secrets it concealed. After all, few cultures had as strong an interest in death and the afterlife as did the ancient Egyptians. Perhaps this particular mummy has learned how to cross over between this world and the next at will.

A different sort of apparition has been seen in the second-floor medieval Spanish section. In a small alcove off one of the larger rooms in the gallery is a reproduction of the twelfth-century chapel from Ermita de San Baudelio in north central Spain. As I entered the alcove, the first thing I noticed was the thirteenth-century wooden tomb effgy of Don Sancho Saiz Carillo lying in a glass case directly before me. Beneath a fresco of a knight on horseback, a hunting falcon perched on his hand, Don Sancho lay peacefully, wearing his crown, his sword ready at his side. To the left of the effgy was a tiny room containing an ornate gilt and paint retablo of Saint Peter created by Lorenzo de Zaragoza in 1400. The chapel was to my right.

A Moorish arch lined with faded frescoes of ibises separated the chapel from the alcove. The chapel itself was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from a narrow slit of a window in the wall above where the altar would have been and from one weak electric light set high up in the masonry of the barrelvaulted roof. On the wall below the window was painted a grotesque creature. It appeared that its ribs were exposed, revealing long, almost dagger-like bones. The beast had a long neck with no head, but a large round eye mounted at the end of the neck had a wicked beak protruding from it. It looked like some creature from a nightmare, although the interpretive sign beside it noted that the fresco artist had actually painted an ibis. In a strange connection to the mummy in the antiquities gallery, the ibis symbolizes the Egyptian god Thoth, who is himself closely associated with the Book of the Dead, a guide to the afterlife buried with ancient Egyptians. Other frescoes of saints and mounted knights decorated the otherwise barren masonry walls of the chapel.

The temperature in the chapel was much cooler than the rest of the alcove or the larger gallery outside, and the thick masonry walls and floor dampened any sound.

It was as quiet as any chapel should be, as quiet as a tomb. I stood beneath the arch, the coldest spot in the room, with the gloom of the chapel swirling up behind me as palpable as wind. It was precisely in that spot that the monk had been seen. A seven-foot-tall monk. One night, as a security guard was making his final rounds of the medieval gallery, he glanced down the gallery toward the alcove and there, standing beneath the Moorish arch, was a robed and hooded figure all in black. The guard froze. He could not make out a face, if indeed the figure had a face. For what seemed like hours, but was in reality only a few moments, the guard stood there unable to move, unable to speak, mesmerized by the towering figure beneath the arch. Then, as he watched in amazement, the hooded apparition slowly began to rise straight up into the air until it disappeared through the ceiling.

The guard never saw the monk again, but Rachel*, another guard, said she is not at all surprised by what her co-worker had seen. “I hear footsteps all the time when I’m closing up for the night,” Rachel said, “and I’m always alone. There’s never anyone else around. I’ve heard a lot of stories about the museum’s ghosts, and I don’t go into the chapel anymore.”

Who is the monk? One can only guess. Since he haunts the chapel, perhaps he is some sort of guardian spirit that came with the sacred frescoes from Spain to protect them. Or perhaps he is simply a lost soul, confusing the chapel reproduction with the real thing, the Spanish chapel in which his funeral service was held so many centuries ago.

There is yet another ghost story from the Cincinnati Art Museum, one that appropriately speaks both of the ghost’s love of art and of her love for her artist husband, Frank Duveneck. In the Cincinnati Wing of the museum, a small gallery contains a funerary memorial to Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, or “Lizzie,” as family and friends knew her. The black plaster effgy is a copy of the original bronze that lies atop her sarcophagus in Allori Cemetery in Florence, Italy. Lizzie rests peacefully, her head lying on a pillow, flowing drapery covering her body as though she were sleeping in bed. She wears a high-collared blouse typical of the 1880s and her hair is plaited in a thick braid coiled upon her head. Her youthful face is serene and at peace with her premature demise. Her hands are folded upon her chest and a large palm frond, symbolizing triumph over death, lies across her body.

The writer Henry James, who was a family friend to Lizzie, traveled to Florence to visit her grave. In a letter to her father he wrote, “One sees, in its place and its ambience, what a meaning and eloquence the whole thing has—and one is touched to tears by this particular example which comes home to one so—of the jolly great truth that it is art alone that triumphs over fate.”

If James is right, then it is art alone that keeps Lizzie forever attached to the museum and the Cincinnati Art Academy, which her husband directed from 1909–1915.

Lizzie first met Frank Duveneck at an exhibition of his paintings in Boston. He was everything she was not. While she was the educated, wealthy daughter of a proper Bostonian family, Frank Duveneck was born in Covington, Kentucky, in 1848 to Catholic German immigrants who operated a beer garden. A true starving artist, Duveneck had a natural talent for painting and, at twenty-one, was able to study at a prestigious art academy in Munich, Germany.

By the time Duveneck was teaching his own students in Munich, Lizzie and her widowed father were living in Florence, Italy, at Villa Castellani. They decided to join Duveneck’s students in Munich. While Lizzie’s father could appreciate Duveneck’s artistry and teaching abilities, these qualities alone were not enough to recommend the artist as a match for his daughter. Still, even though the German-accented Duveneck was two years younger than Lizzie and of a lower social class, she was taken in by his charm, his jokes, and his good nature.

To one of her friends Lizzie wrote, “We found him and were pleased. He is a remarkable looking young man, and a gentleman, which I did not expect. He has a fine head and a keen eye and the perceptions strongly developed.”

In 1880 they decided to marry but soon broke off the engagement as Lizzie’s desire to be a professional painter clashed with her feelings for her teacher. She was ambitious; he was lazy. Her life with her father was one of sophisticated solitude. With Duveneck it was crude, loud, yet generous. Issues of money
and class surfaced in their relationship, which became the inspiration for James’s novel, Portrait of a Lady.

Love won out in the end. In 1886, just a few months shy of her fortieth birthday, Lizzie and Frank Duveneck were married—but not before Lizzie’s father made his new son-in-law sign an agreement that would deny him any inheritance in the event of his wife’s death. In 1887, a son was born to the couple, and Lizzie’s father reinstated his son-in-law’s inheritance rights.

By 1888, the Duveneck family was living in Paris, where Frank reconnected with some of his Munich artist colleagues. Now burdened with a child, husband, and elderly father, Lizzie did not find Paris life exactly what she had expected. Her artistic ambitions suffered. Still, she managed to submit her watercolors side-by-side with her husband’s paintings to the jury for the 1888 Paris Salon.

On the day that the jury voted, Lizzie went to bed, sick with a chill. Four days later she died of pneumonia.

Frank Duveneck returned to the United States the following year, left his son in the care of his in-laws in Boston, and settled in Cincinnati. There he began the memorial to the love of his life, a woman to whom he had been married only two years. Lizzie’s effgy was the first sculptural piece Duveneck had ever attempted, so he enlisted the aid of Clement J. Barnhorn, a local sculptor. The simple but elegant e;gy was awarded an honorable mention by the Paris Salon of 1895, and a copy was exhibited in the Boston Museum of Fine Art where Frank and Lizzie’s son could view it.

Frank Duveneck lived out his life in Cincinnati, where he was named to the faculty of the Cincinnati Academy of Art and eventually served as its director. He died in 1919 and was buried across the Ohio River in his hometown of Covington, Kentucky.

And Lizzie still “resides” nearby.

A wispy dark mist has been seen rising up from the effgy, coalescing into a human-like shape as it hovers over the recumbent figure of Lizzie. It floats there only seconds before vanishing into the air. Perhaps Lizzie is searching for Frank, waiting for him to rejoin her, surrounded by the art they both so loved.

“Why not?” said Don, the guard on duty the day I visited the Cincinnati Wing of the museum. “They had a real love story going, just like in the movies. Maybe it never ends.”


This Ghost Hunt is from the book Ghosthunting Ohio by John B. Karchuba. To learn more about the book or order it online visit www.americashauntedroadtrip.com

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