Greenwood, Wisconsin's Peace Memorial

Transcribed by Stan & Janet Schwarze.


Who Was The Real Ernest Durig?


The magnificent fifteen foot high monument to peace predominates the village park in Greenwood, Wisconsin.  It stands before a wall of time worn fieldstones which were gathered from the life sustaining Black River by the sturdy pioneers who fashioned them into a fine municipal center.  It was erected during the "Great Depression" and generously given to the struggling farm community by a sculptor who did not become famous until he died as a pauper in 1962.  At the time of its unveiling, Oct. 3, 1937 when dollars were short supply, it was valued at $50,000.  In 1965, Life Magazine ran a multi-page article which declared Ernest Durig as a "Fake who sold forged drawings and paintings."  No mention was made of his incredible gift to the city of Greenwood, Wisconsin.  We would like to know what you think about him.  Was he a Robin hood or a thief?  If you have an opinion, please share it with us.




Source: Marshfield News Herald 6/10/1965


To Greenwood in the summer of 1937, came Prof. Ernest Durig, a sculptor of Swiss ancestry, his wife Mme. Durig, and their 17-year-old daughter, Rosemarie, to visit Mme.’s brother-in-law and sister, Mr. and Mrs. Louis Arbs.


The Durig family, according to contemporary newspaper articles liked Greenwood and enjoyed meeting and knowing its people.  They wanted to do something for the city, and so a contemplated visit of one week stretched into more than three months, while a “peace memorial” designed and executed by Prof. Durig, was crystallized into a 15-foot high block of stone cast from white cement and white sand.


The memorial faces the main street of this central Clark County community in a small square next to the City Hall.  It is dedicated to Gold Star Mothers in memory of the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Constitution of the United States, and depicts the sacrifice of human life that war always demands, and the noble sacrifice of human life that war always demands, and the noble sacrifice of a mother whose son has fallen in the service of his country.


There never had been a larger gathering in Greenwood than the thousands who assembled there for the dedication ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 3, 1937, F. Ryan Duffy, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, delivered the unveiling address and paid tribute to the artist.


This week, 28 years after dedication of the memorial, Greenwood has set about getting itself disentangled from a situation highlighted by a Life magazine article of June 4, which depicts the career of Durig as a “flagrant faker who made a career of art forgery.”


Durig died in 1962 at the age of 68 in Washington, D.C., where he and his family had resided since coming to the United States in 1928.  A career which had led him into chambers of popes, premiers, poets and presidents, had been dogged by poverty and tragedy before his death.


For 40 years, according to the Life article, Durig had billed himself as “the last pupil” of the French artist Auguste Rodin, who in the final decades before his death in 1917 was considered the most admired living sculptor.


Fake “Rodin” drawings abound in the United States and Europe as the prized possessions of unwitting museums and private  collectors, and a large percentage are Durig’s, says the Life article.  With his flair for forgery, the article claims Durig also made a bust of President James Monroe, which he claimed was by an 18th century French sculptor, Houdon.


How did Durig get away with it?  The answer, says Life, lies in a paradox: the tremendous popularity of Rodin’s drawings and the tremendous ignorance about what they really should look like.


When Durig died, he reportedly left unsold “Rodins.”  A British auction house said it would sell these drawings which were valued at $60,000, but two months later it withdrew the offer because the drawings “had been found to be of doubtful authenticity.”


The Life article is illustrated with photos, one showing Rodin posed with Durig in Rome in 1915 while the French master was at work on a bust of Pope Benedict XV.  Other photos show Durig doing a bust of Pope Pius XI in 1924, and one of Italy’s Mussolini around 1926.


The legend under the familiar he-man pose of Mussolini includes a statement that Durig had invited the premier “to the unveiling of a peace monument he made for Greenwood.”  Il Duce politely declined.  It is the only reference in the article to Durig’s association with Greenwood.


What is the reaction in this community to the alleged Durig forgeries and the man who is accused of perpetrating them?


Exceptions may exist, but the general pattern of opinion appears balanced between doubt about the accusations from inference, and an outward attitude of charity.


“Done is done.  He’s dead and not here to defend himself,” was the reveling comment from a local woman who recalled the Durig family visit here in 1937.


Dr. R.L. Barnes, a former Greenwood Postmaster, and president of the Greenwood Commercial Club in 1937, said “anyone knowing the man as I got to know him couldn’t believe that he was trying to fake anything.”


Barnes recalled that while Durig was visiting Greenwood, he widened his acquaintance among the town’s businessmen, clergy and officials, and made plaster busts of many of the citizens.


Some of those whose likenesses he produced were the late John Wuethrich, founder of the Wuethrich creamery; the late Palmer Vinger; the late C.C. Hoehne, a hardware merchant; the Rev. E.G. Pfeiffer, last pastor of the Greenwood German Reformed Church; Harvey Flatz, a businessman, now deceased; the late Ed Buker, mayor of Greenwood in 1937; A.L. Devos, city attorney in 1937; Louis Arbs, Durig’s brother-in-law, who moved to Rockford, Ill., and Marion and Joan Barnes, young daughters of R.L. Barnes and the late Mrs. Barnes.  Marion is now Mrs. Marion Hoesley, Brookfield, Wis., and her sister, Mrs. John O’Neill, is a nurse at Truax Field in Madison.


Barnes also recalls that the sand and cement purchased by the commercial club to erect the peace monument cost about $500.  After the dedication of the monument, at which Barnes served as master of ceremonies, the businessmen of the community raised a purse of money which they presented to the Durig daughter.


The daughter was an accomplished harpist and had played for Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt and other notables.  During the summer of 1937 she presented several concerts in Greenwood and surrounding communities, including Marshfield.


Another who has a sharply focused recollection of Durig is Greenwood’s Mayor John A. Snedic.  In 1937, Snedic searched for blue clay 12 miles northwest of Greenwood for preparation of the three foot model from which Durig patterned the “peace memorial.”


The mayor also made the stencil for the inscription which is sandblasted into the base of the memorial.  He recalls how Durig worked under a canvas-covered scaffold, first drilling holes in the sand block with a power tool, then ripping away surplus stone, and proceeding with chisels and hammer, kept in workable condition by the brother-in-law, Louis Arbs.


Like many artists, Snedic remembers, Durig did not hesitate at times to rub his acquaintances with displays of temper, but “there were never any bad words.”  While peevishness sometimes heated the man’s remarks, he never for a moment let up in his drive and energy to produce work that would be art, Snedic said.


The mayor, himself and amateur artist and sculptor, summarized his opinion of Durig as “just a nice fellow.”  He debarred himself from debate of the Life article, except to note that Durig’s failings, whatever they may have been, now should be brought within the dimensions of charity.


Other Greenwood residents who knew Durig during his sojourn here (there are not too many of them around today), generally hold to the opinion that the man was temperamental with some of the classic characteristics of many artists, but they felt no distrust in him.  Although lacking technical knowledge of sculpture, they felt that hard training and craftsmanship were obvious in his work as it appeared to the average layman.


The Durigs are remembered as a charming and interesting family, Mrs. Durig, in addition to giving her husband many ideas for his sculpturing, wrote poetry and had a considerable amount of her work published.  Some of her poetry was composed for children, but the motivation for all of her work was her philosophy for peace.


So far as can be determined, the Greenwood memorial produced by Durig is the only monument in the nation carved from a mixture of cement and fine white sand, although Durig is said to have done many pieces of sculpture from stone of that type in Italy.


The memorial claimed to be valued at $50,000, cost the city only the price of the material, and labor involved in preparing the site, casting the stone and erecting the scaffold.


During his years in European countries and the United States, Durig produced busts of Mrs. Hoover, Vice President Garner, the Indian poet Tagore, Oscar of the Waldorf, Will Rogers, Cardinal Spellman, Knute Rockne, President Truman and numerous others.


After the deaths of his daughter (killed in an accident) and his wife, he dropped out of sight.  Later he was found in a cluttered room in Washington, D.C., collapsed from malnutrition.  The final years of his life were spent in a hospital.


Despite the charges against him, Greenwood people do not seem to feel that they have been deceived, nor is there any trace of bitterness in their recollections of the man and his family.


“Do you think if he was alive and asked to come back her he would be welcomed?” a citizen was asked.


The answer was “yes.”



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