The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

9. American Memorial Sculpture and the Protestant Cemetery in Rome

WILLIAM H. GERDTS, The Graduate School of The City University of New York

Although a good deal of scholarly attention has been devoted of late to the study of the American Neoclassic sculptors and their work, little consideration has been given to the subject of the monumental memorial sculpture created by these professional artists, despite its long and remarkable history in Europe and such brilliant surveys as Nicholas Penny Church Monuments in Romantic England of 1977, In America, greater recognition has been awarded to gravestone carving, while the work of professional sculptors in this field has been either overlooked or dealt with only in passing.

Yet there was a demand for such monuments in America also, as early as the eighteenth century. At first such memorials had to be supplied from abroad, since the new nation did not have professional carvers. One thinks of Jean Jacques Caffieri's cenotaph to Major General Richard Montgomery commissioned in Paris by Benjamin Franklin, which was completed in 1778 and installed in St. Paul's Chapel in New York the following year. European artists continued to supply sculpture for American churches throughout the nineteenth century, such as the 1841 Monument to William Mason Smith by England's Sir Francis Chantrey, installed in St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or even the group of sculptures by Philadelphia's favorite mid-century European sculptor from Berlin, Carl Johann Steinhauser, the Burd Family Memorial of the Angel of the Resurrection, commissioned in 1849, and the reclining tomb figure of Edward Shippen Burd, as well as a baptismal font, all installed in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

By the 1820s, however, a number of native professional sculptors had appeared on the scene who, despite the lack of the benefits of European study and training, quickly recognized the traditional, sometimes lucrative possibilities of memorial sculpture, and had already begun producing church memorials, often more modest than those by their European counterparts. Even before the installation of Chantrey Smith Monument, Charleston's part-time professional, John Cogdell, had installed in St. Philip's Church the memorial to his mother, Mrs. Mary Ann Elizabeth Cogdell, who had died in 1827, a slightly naïve but moving tribute in which her three sons in loose-fitting Roman costume weep around her memorial urn. Even earlier, in 1818, the stone- cutter John Frazee had moved to New York City from New Jersey and opened a shop specializing in funerary monuments, the earliest located one being that of Sarah Haynes in Trinity Church of 1821 and, more ambitious, that to John Wells in St. Paul's Chapel in 1824. Frazee's New Haven counterpart, Hezekiah Augur, produced the Mary Wooster Ogden Monument for Trinity Church there, his last-known sculptural commission, which was given to him in 1839. 1

With the rural cemetery movement, which began with the development of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, another field for the contemporary sculptor opened up; the landscapes of the dead enriched the lives of a number of American sculptors. Again, much was, and has continued to be, written about the development of the rural cemetery in America but little concerted study has been applied to the monuments produced for Mount Auburn, Greenwood in Brooklyn, Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Spring Grove in Cincinnati, and Greenmount in Baltimore, among the best-known. Not surprisingly, local sculptors were the first choice of many of the patrons, so that Horatio Greenough

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