Winged Victory of Samothrace


1910; Plaster; Sculpture
Gone; Alumni Memorial Hall (Museum of Art); later in the School of Education Building

In 1910, the noted Detroit art collector Charles Lang Freer offered to loan a large group of his art, primarily Oriental and American art, for an exhibit to celebrate the opening of the new Alumni Memorial Hall. Among the paintings loaned was “A Virgin” by Abbott Handerson Thayer, whose central figure’s pose Freer felt reflected the Victory of Samothrace, a sculpture Freer greatly admired. In fact, the artist Thayer intentionally posed his daughter as the Greek figure Victory, striding forward in a flowing gown, with clouds billowing behind her like wings. (The painting is now in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution.) Freer ordered a plaster cast made from the original Victory, an ancient statue in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Then Freer had the cast of Victory exhibited next to Thayer’s painting, so that the poses of the two figures could be compared. Freer subsequently gave the plaster cast of Victory to the university. The original Victory, or “Nike” (Greek for “victory”), dates to the early 2nd century BCE, and was from the Greek isle of Samothrace. Victory was very early in ancient times depicted as a winged female figure, and the one from Samothrace is generally considered the most beautiful, powerful, and majestic; it was made of marble and set on a large stone pedestal in the shape of a ship’s prow. The statue stood on a cliff overlooking the sea, placed to commemorate a naval victory. It was acquired by the Louvre in the late 19th century. The plaster cast obtained by Freer was exhibited in the apsidal east end of Alumni Memorial Hall through the 1920s. The photograph on the top shows the statue so exhibited and standing watch over university president Marion LeRoy Burton, as he lay in state following his death in February 1925. In June 1928, the regents accepted the Winged Victory as a gift to the University High School from the high school’s class of 1928. How the class of 1928 came to be in a position to give the university a statue it seemingly already owned is unknown. Probably the curator of the art collection was de-accessioning the piece and the high school class felt they’d like to have it for their building. The statue was subsequently moved into the high school where it stood for many years (now the School of Education building). The photo on the bottom is from the high school’s 1967 yearbook “Nunc Dimittis,” the caption for which reads: “For the students and faculty of University High School, the Winged Victory of Samothrace for many years radiated peace and beauty as she serenely stood guardian of the third floor corridor. Now she is gone.” When and how the statue disappeared remains unknown. The Class of 1967 was supposed to be the final one for University High School, and perhaps Victory was removed as part of the anticipated closing of the high school function (which did not actually occur until 1969).