Rock Creek Cemetery
Sculpture Augustus St. Gaudens Plot design Stanford White
When tourists, or your visiting relatives, or pretty much everyone else comes to Washington for the first time, they most often want to see the museums and monuments on the Mall. By contrast, my own rarefied tribe of art historians frequently have at the top of their list this relatively small and distant memorial. Looking at it closely brings up another aspect of monuments and memorials that we know is there but hardly ever really address, namely art. Monuments are physical, designed things, after all, and central to the way they communicate and persuade is how artfully they use their physical elements. Yet we often get so lost in what monuments are saying that we lose our hold on how the monument says it. It seems to me there are two reasons for this (beside the fact that plenty of monuments are dreadful as artistic objects). First, monuments like it this way. Most monuments are talky, even tendentious things determined to persuade us something about a person, event, culture etc. Any good rhetorician knows that concealing the artfulness of his/her message can make it more persuasive. But beyond the artfulness of seeming artless, we simply pay less attention in everyday life to the style on the surface of a monument (and perhaps have less common vocabulary for it) than the message we want to find within. For instance, even the overbearing, hard-to-stylistically-ignore World War II Monument mostly functions as a way for military veterans to address the subject of the war itself, not to promote awareness of the vast piles of stone and metal arrayed in front of one’s eyes.
The Adams memorial, by contrast, is almost the polar opposite of such monuments. But this is not so much because it is a memorial rather than a monument, but rather because it mainly consists of style, of art itself, its subject evanesced into near-invisibility.
This memorial was erected by Henry Adams to his wife Marian Hooper Adams, called “Clover” after her suicide in 1885. The descendant of two presidents, Henry Adams was a true American Mandarin, with all the privilege, breeding, travel experience and social connections that most of us can just read about in Henry James novels. Adams’s own memoir of 1918, The Education of Henry Adams, is a classic statement of a Bostonian aristocratic worldview just then on the brink of disappearing. But while the book details much of Adams’ life and times, it skips over the late 19thcentury in a strange, abstract tone with little mention of Clover at all. Adams refers to himself throughout in third person. There is virtually nothing in the book to connect with the actual visual imagery or design of the memorial. But if there is little in the way of subject material we can use to read the monument, there is much in the memorial’s own material history to look at it with. Adams employed two of the grandest and most celebrated figures of the time in its construction. His pal the architect Stanford White laid out the plot design. White was partner in what was just possibly the grandest and most influential architectural firm America has ever produced, fundamental to whatever “American Renaissance” we ever had in architecture. The bronze figure itself is the work of Augustus St. Gaudens, likely the most prolific, honored, influential public sculptor and designer of the selfsame “American Renaissance” then at its height.
St. Gaudens produced a large-scale bronze of a seated figure, with a face—serene, eyes-closed—just peeking out from an ample gown and shrouded head. Oblivious, at peace, asleep the figure sits before a stone panel topped by a classical molding, across from a red granite bench offering the viewer a place to likewise sit and contemplate the scene. Further, White surrounded the entire space by trees, creating a sort of natural chapel which sets it off from the rest of the cemetery. The space is unidentified by the usual words and markers of memorials. There is no statement of the name of the decedent. In fact, Adams himself was also laid to rest there. But what might seem anonymous in our conventional terms is a reflection of the Eastern-influenced emphasis of Adams on a universal experience, untied to any particular individual and bringing all together. Not only are there no name markers, but the sculpture itself is unsigned. Even more, St. Gaudens used both male and female models in designing the sculptural figure, whose identity is this also not confined to gender, or relegated to traditional Western “allegorical” uses of female figures. Adams himself stated “The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is its universality and anonymity.” Adams also lamented that the work had become a minor tourist attraction, whose title was sometimes given as “Grief.” But this reflects a (rather snobbish) diffidence about other social classes as much as the nature of representation. Even St. Gaudens had a title for his work, “The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God That Passeth Understanding.” What could it mean to say that nothing specific is being represented? And that if you see anything else you are wrong?
At stake here is who gives a work its meaning, and how a monument interacts with its audience. In some contemporary art about monuments this very question is put on display. But here already, at the end of the 19thcentury, this moving and lyrical work brings up in its own way a fundamental question.