Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2016
Cynthia Mills Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age Cemetery Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2014. 238 pp.; 8 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9781935623373)

Cynthia Mills’s Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age Cemetery is a highly readable, engaging, and authoritative book on American memorial sculpture in the late nineteenth century. She focuses her attention on four famous monuments: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Adams Memorial (1891), Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC; Daniel Chester French’s The Angel of Death and the Sculptor (1893), Forest Hills Cemetery, Roxbury, Massachusetts; Frank Duveneck’s (with Clement J. Barnhorn) Memorial to Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1891), Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori (Evangelical Cemetery of the Laurels), Florence, Italy; and William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief (1894), Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy. However, the book is much more than a study of these individual works. It addresses a wide range of issues in Gilded Age America, including the rituals surrounding death and dying, the history of American cemeteries, elite family patronage of the memorial arts, American and French sculptural history, and piracy and copyright of unique high-art statuary. In addition, Mills exposes the popular interest in such monuments by providing, for example, aesthetic advice from the Sears Roebuck and Co.’s Department of Memorial Arts and relating tales about the spooky “Black Aggie,” a knock-off of the Adams Memorial in Pikesville, Maryland.

The book is organized thematically, but with a careful eye to historical chronology. Divided into four parts, with introduction and epilogue, it comprises fourteen short chapters that tell the story of four monuments, from the moment of their inception to their secure positioning in art history and public memory. Mills begins her book by introducing readers to the artists and their patrons in a section called “Lost Souls.” Next, in “The Contexts of Mourning,” she elucidates the history of grieving rituals, especially among the elite classes. In the following section, “The Artist and the Cemetery,” she studies each monument in depth, placing it within its own unique social and cultural context. Finally, she traces the afterlives of these memorials in “Grief and Commerce,” as they enjoy increasing renown and familiarity with the general public.

Mills argues that high-art memorials—distinct from the mundane markers that over-populated older graveyards—actively revised the look and function of the beautiful park-like cemeteries of Gilded Age America. Moreover, when engaging with newer, more modern social rituals, they aided the bereaved in coping with the death of a loved one. She asks, “Why did new [sculptural] forms—many of them now produced in bronze rather than stone and placed in architectural settings—arise just at this time, and how did they mesh or clash with the sensibilities of their era?” (3) In response, Mills introduces the secular concept of “wonder” as a replacement for the traditional religious belief in resurrection and afterlife. For Gilded Age elites, she posits, death was understood as an event beyond human comprehension, a “mournful riddle” that stimulated the imagination and the heart. At the same time, she concedes, “Death is above all about absence and emptiness. It is often met with public silence, and this makes difficult going for historians” (2). In her book, Mills breaks the silence, and discusses Gilded Age funerary statuary with subtlety and eloquence by articulating changing attitudes toward death and dying, particularly in the wake of the traumatic loss of life in the American Civil War.

Beyond Grief opens with a discussion of the Adams Memorial, certainly one of the shining stars of American art history, and to this day a pilgrimage site for many visitors to Washington, DC. Mills provides a thorough study of the monument and its patrons. Readers learn about Clover Adams and her suicide by drinking toxic chemicals used in her photographic practice. Remaining silent about his wife’s death throughout his life, Henry Adams let the quietly seated, hooded figure speak for him, and “claim a grace and nobility for his wife’s life through the visual,” Mills explains, “while attempting to repress . . . the unwanted emotions that kept resurfacing” (80). His silence exemplified the modern grieving process, one that eschewed sentimentality and the outpouring of mournfulness typical of the antebellum period. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was both discourteous and shameful to demonstrate unrestrained sorrow, particularly in the polite circles that Adams inhabited. Such self-control, in fact, equated with moral character and good breeding.

Seeking psychic serenity, Adams traveled to Asia with his friend, the painter John La Farge, visiting Buddhist temples and studying ancient sculptures. Upon his return, he decided upon a monument to Clover that would visualize “nirvana,” a state of mind freed from the terrors of life and death, desire and pain. Together with the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White, he imagined an aesthetic melding of East and West, blending Michelangelo with images of the bodhisattva, in a design he called “My Buddha” and “the Peace of God.” The acclaim the monument received is best summed up in the words of his close friend John Hay, writing in 1891: “The work is indescribably noble and imposing. . . . It is full of poetry and suggestion. Infinite wisdom; a past without a beginning and a future without an end; a repose, after limitless experience; a peace, to which nothing matters—all embodied in this austere and beautiful face and form” (96). It was not until 1908, after Saint-Gaudens’s death, that the sculpture was shown publically in a museum setting, becoming as much a monument to the sculptor himself as to Clover Adams. Posthumously cast in bronze, it was displayed in the Saint-Gaudens retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was curated by his friend and colleague Daniel Chester French, who later in his career became an “ambassador for contemporary American sculpture” in his role as trustee and chairman of the museum’s Committee on Sculpture (127). Such intermingling of the lives of artists and patrons is central to the structure of Mills’s book.

In 1893, French completed The Angel of Death and the Sculptor, a memorial to the American artists Martin and Joseph Milmore. Death and the Sculptor, as French often referred to it, has much in common with the Adams Memorial. The stately and noble angel whose cloak sweeps across her head casting her face in shadow inspires a similar type of wonder as Saint-Gaudens’s mysterious figure. Both gently guide the viewer to a deeper meditation on the passing of life, rather than personify the violence of the grim reaper as harbinger of death. Gilded Age patrons imagined “a dream of death that was not terrifying and grim for their lost one,” Mills explains, “but that was transformational, performed with a mystic experience, a profound sense of beauty, love, and understanding, and a connection with the larger universe in some form, somewhere, somehow” (58).

In French’s sculpture, the magnificent angel stays the hand of the youthful sculptor, hard at work chiseling the famous Bigelow Sphinx of 1871, a Civil War Memorial located in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Civil War was a huge catalyst in the changing attitudes about death. In the aftermath of the war, national cemeteries were erected across the country and the funerary industry became professionalized, taking care of responsibilities once in family hands. As an ancient image of wonder, the Sphinx masterfully communicated the riddle of death to the aggrieved Milmore family while also serving as a symbol of remembrance and consolation to families who lost loved ones in the war.

Both the Adams Memorial and Death and the Sculptor were reproduced on numerous occasions. Objects of “art piracy” as Henry Adams called them, they appeared illegally in cemeteries across the country (163). Unlike the privacy that shrouded the Adams Memorial, however, plaster casts of Death and the Sculptor found homes in public museums in Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, significantly revising the original memorial function of the work. In fact, the sculpture’s fame rested upon its visibility in different venues—from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which owns a marble replica of the sculpture) to advertisements for the monument-making industry which used the figure of the sculptor as an icon of its trade. As the actual memorial languished in disrepair for many years in Forest Hills Cemetery, its imagery conveyed a broad range of ideas about Christian love, creative labor, and the memory of war to diverse audiences.

Because the monument to Lizzie Boott Duveneck was located in a distant Florentine cemetery, its renown was also based upon its reproduction in replicas and photographs, and its placement in public museum collections across the country. Mills argues, “The fine arts displays . . . of the Duveneck Memorial in addition to the growing critical knowledge of the Adams and Milmore memorials ultimately helped to shift negative art-world attitudes toward funerary sculpture” (122). On both sides of the Atlantic, the recumbent effigy of Lizzie Duveneck was heralded as a beautiful example of the international aesthetic movement. With her body barely visible below the flowing drapery and large palm frond, she radiated a peace and serenity in keeping with Gilded Age memorial imagery, while the sculpture demonstrated a subtle play of material and immaterial, of body and spirit.

Raised by her father in Florence, Boott trained as a painter, married the American artist Frank Duveneck in 1886, and died tragically two years later at the age of forty-one of pneumonia. She knew the sculptors Horatio Greenough, Hiram Powers, and Thomas Ball, whose studios were located in Florence; her family was close to both Henry and William James—their villa inspiring the Florentine setting of A Portrait of a Lady. Moreover, spending winters in Rome, she met the American sculptor William Wetmore Story, who would lose his wife Emelyn in 1894. As part of an older generation of artists—Story’s career as a neoclassical sculptor began in 1850—he mourned openly for his wife, producing a grief-stricken angel to mark her grave site in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. Unlike French’s stately and sedate angel, Story’s figure is prostrate with grief—head buried in her arm, delicate, vulnerable, and tragically human in her expression of sadness. One of the most replicated memorials in American cemeteries (there are at least twenty unapproved copies in existence), the sculpture continues to be reproduced on gravesites into the twenty-first century.

Mills opens her book with the stoic aestheticism of the Adams Memorial and closes with the sorrowful grieving of Story’s angel, guiding readers through a thoughtful meditation on death, while addressing the variety of human responses to the transience of life. These memorials “transform, address, or mask the unspeakable,” she explains. They hoped “to turn a tragedy into poetry, to counterbalance the horrific and convert a sense of grief to one of awe and wonder, something positive that awaited in a realm beyond grief.” They were meant to form a “bridge between pain and beauty” (79). Compelling reading, this book sheds light on previously unexamined scholarly territory in American art. Clearly argued, beautifully written, and concisely organized, it is a welcome addition to the recent spate of books on American sculptural history.

Mills completed her book in the last year of her life. From her hospital bed, she was delighted to see the galleys—the product of her intrepid labor and graceful determination. As Sarah Burns wrote in the fall 2014 issue of American Art, “Beyond Grief serves as an eloquent memorial to its author” (Sarah Burns, “Cynthia J. Mills [1947–2014)],” American Art 28, no. 3 [Fall 2014]: 126–29). Now as I write this review, I am struck with wonder and admiration for Mills and her book. I, for one, am grateful for the important knowledge that she bequeathed to us. Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age Cemetery is a significant and much-needed contribution to the scholarship on American art history.

Melissa Dabakis
Professor and Chair, Art History Department, Kenyon College