The Chariot of Aurora:

A Myth for Modern Times

 The Chariot of Aurora, the dazzling Art Deco wall relief recently installed in the Museum of Artís Scaife galleries, was designed for the Grand Salon of the French oceanliner Normandie, launched in 1935. Standing on the end wall of the most important room in the finest passenger ship ever built, it was part of a palatial decorative scheme intended to symbolize the French nationís preeminent status in navigation, engineering, design, and cultural sophistication.
The idea for a decorative scheme combining the gods and goddesses of antiquity with the history of modern navigation originated with the roomís architect, Roger-Henri Expert (1882Ė?). A photograph of Expertís first idea for the end wall (with doors) included the sun-like compass rose in the center, the Greek gods Aphrodite and Poseidon in chariots drawn by hippocampi (mythological sea-horses), shorelines of the continents of North America, South America, Europe, and Africa, spouting whales and sea monsters, and the Normandie itself sailing majestically from east to west.

Jean Dupas (1882Ė1964), artist and designer of the Chariot of Aurora and the four enormous verre eglomise (painted and gilded glass) murals in the roomís four corners, elaborated on Expertís idea and transformed it into a full-blown modern mythology. Dupas moved Poseidon (god of the sea) and Aphrodite (goddess of love born on a shell rising from the sea) to the corner murals and filled out the remaining corners with The Chariot of Thetis (a nereid, or sea goddess) and The Rape of Europa (a mortal abducted across the sea by Zeus in guise of a bull). Astonishingly, the backgrounds of these very traditional sea subjects are filled with a strange mixture of untraditional ships. Behind the Rape of Europa, Dupas depicted Roman war galleys; surrounding Aphrodite are 16th-century European merchant vessels bobbing on the water; 18th-century men of war fire their cannons without disturbing the langorous Thetis; and Poseidon reigns over an oceanful of steamships, Chinese junks, and paddleboats.

At the very center of the room, and the first design to be seen from the entrance, the massive Chariot of Aurora served as a myth of the origin of navigation. Dupasí final idea is represented by his cartoon, an enormous charcoal drawing he prepared as a guide for the reliefís maker, Jean Dunand. At the center of the design is a compass rose designating north, south, east and west, taken from Expertís original plan. Its rays also suggest the sun. Everything else has changed. Aurora (daughter of the Greek sun god Hyperion) appears as Dawn rising with her torch and chariot at the lower left, and again as Evening illuminated by stars as she sinks at lower right. She suggests the passage of the sun from east to west across the sky. In Greek mythology, Aurora is also the mother of the four winds and the stars. Her sons appear in the clouds above her. Boreas, the north wind, blows an icy blast on his conch shell (upper left), Notos the south wind dumps his water jar, and Zephyrus the west wind and Eurus the east wind soar just below their brothers. (The male figure bearing flowers on the lower right may be Zephyrus, traditionally associated with the coming of spring.) Quite possibly, these figures may have secondary identities as the four seasons: winter (icy howling winds), summer (rain showers), spring (flowers), and fall (harvest fruits and vegetables), since the seasons also appear in classical art as associates of the dawn goddess. A fifth son of Aurora, Hesperus the evening star, may be represented by the large gold star floating just above the evening Auroraís uplifted hands. These figures symbolize the essential elements of navigation: the movement of the sun, the points of the compass, the winds, and the night stars.

Jean Dunand (1877Ė1942), the artist who carved, lacquered, and gilded the relief, followed Dupasís design very closely. His great contribution comes principally from his choice of techniques and materials for its execution. Visitors to the Grand Salon, impressed by its huge proportions and mirrored corners, were struck by its resemblance to the Hall of Mirrors in the royal palace of Versailles constructed by ďThe Sun KingĒ Louis XIV. Dunandís relief alludes to other ancient and exotic masterpieces of decoration: the golden bas reliefs ornamenting Egyptian temples and tombs, notably those discovered in Tutankhamonís burial chambers in the 1920s; the famous carved marble reliefs from the 5th-century BC Greek temple, the Parthenon; and the great gilded and lacquered screens of imperial Japan. These allusions to the greatest cultural productions of past empires, juxtaposed with a reminiscence of the great French king Louis XIV, place France firmly at the apex of great civilizations, and align the Normandie with the finest creations of human minds and hands.

Refitting The Chariot of Aurora for the Ile de France

The Normandie was taken out of commission in 1941, and all the lacquer decorations were removed to storage. In 1949, The Chariot of Aurora was re-hung on another French liner, the Ile de France (launched in 1927). Jean Dunandís workshop oversaw this reinstallation, which required replacing the two gilded and red lacquer doors with eight additional relief panels. The overall height of the relief sculpture was reduced by eighteen inches in order to accommodate the difference in deck heights between the Normandie and the Ile de France. Thus, the installation of the panels as we see them today are as they appeared on the Ile de France. The original doors on display in the gallery were a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Chow.

The decorative treatment of The Chariot of Aurora involved both traditional and innovative techniques. Jean Dunand used a material called urushi, or Japanese lacquer. A resin derived from trees native to Asia, it produces luminous, pearl-like surfaces unobtainable with synthetic lacquers. For The Chariot of Aurora, Dunand used layers of variously colored urushi, ranging from black to buff to orange brown. Decorative gilding was applied, both uniformly and in flecks, which produced a dazzling surface when combined with the luminous urushi.


The Chariot of Aurora sustained repeated damages during its many transatlantic crossings aboard the Normandie and the Ile de France. Heavy-handed repairs eventually obscured much of the original surface and left the panels even more disfigured. To disguise the repairs, past restorers sprayed the entire surface with bronze paint. In many areas, the urushi began to separate from the underlying plaster, protruding in jagged flakes.

Carnegie Museum of Art conservators reattached the flaking urushi and removed the heavy overpaint and putty. They filled the cracks and areas of lost lacquer with a compound similar to spackling paste, which was then smoothed to replicate the glass-like texture of the lacquer and painted to mimic the original color of the urushi. Tarnish was removed from the silver component of the white gold leaf, and new leaf was applied where necessary to reintegrate the appearance of the panels. Finally, conservators applied a protective varnish.

Only stable materials that could easily be distinguished from original materials and, if necessary, removed in the future, were used in the conservation process. These recent conservation efforts thus assure and respect the structural, aesthetic, and historical integrity of
The Chariot of Aurora.

Louise Lippincott is Curator of Fine Arts, and William Real is Chief Conservator, Carnegie Museum of Art.

For more information about the history of the Normandie and the panels now on display see the November/December 1996 Carnegie Magazine: ďA Race Among Nations: the Making of the Normandie Panels,Ē by Ellen T. White.

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