Robert Berks: Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial

Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial

Robert Berks, Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial. 1974. Bronze. Lincoln Park at East Capitol Street & 12th Street, NE, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

I have walked past this particular memorial several times through my dad’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as we cut through the park to walk down to Eastern Market many weekend mornings. It was not until I decided I wanted to research the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial that I understood why she was honored in bronze sculpture form.

Mary McLeod Bethune is depicted with two children, which is significant in that she began her career as a teacher and built a school for African Americans that still stands today as Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. The school started as the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with only 5 students and grew from there.  She worked closely with youth throughout her lifetime and fought for both women and African American rights. Not only did she found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, but she was the first African American woman to be involved in the White House and worked closely with FDR as the “race leader at large” in a more informal position as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs. This position benefitted her immensely as she developed a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who enthusiastically supported her with the National Youth Administration work. The two remained friends throughout their lives, and this connection with the President and First Lady certainly gave Ms. Bethune opportunities she would not have had otherwise to make a difference in the civil rights movement.

The sculpture is a three person tableau, and she is handing a copy of her legacy to the two children standing there with her. The cane that she has in hand is supposed to be from FDR himself; however, she did not use this for support but rather for what she liked to call “swank.” This is the first monument to honor an African American woman in a public park in D.C. The piece was erected on July 10th, 1974, which would have been her 99th birthday. The sculptor, Robert Berks, has 13 works throughout the center of the city going from the Potomac to the Anacostia River. The texture of his work is distinct and follows suit in this memorial. It is rough and has an appeal to the viewer for the touch and feel of the work, similar to Einstein’s pose in DC, also sculpted by Berks. Robert Berks certainly has a reputation for depicting pivotal figures in United States history, and Mary McLeod Bethune’s existence was certainly worth commemorating. She was crucial to the Civil Rights Movement and to improving African American women’s rights, and her belief and determination to the causes she believed in stemmed from a lifetime of personal prayer and faith.

“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.” –Mary McLeod Bethune


Daniele da Voterra: Michelangelo Buonarroti

Last week at this time I was in New York City with 48 students.  In the afternoon we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my very favorite places in the world.  After visiting the fascinating Silla exhibit (Korea’s Golden Kingdom), I made my annual pilgrimage to gallery 609.  There by the exit door hangs a portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti by Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli).


Daniele da Volterra. Michelangelo Buonarroti. ca. 1545. Oil on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gallery 609.

The portrait looks unfinished –  but is it?  Michelangelo’s left hand and head are fully painted and the rest of the painting has tints of brown with only small hints of form showing through the layers of paint.  The painting draws me in as Michelangelo looks at me no matter where I am in the room.  I feel I am connecting with him on some level.  The detailed painting technique that depicts his eyes, head and hand reflect the clarity and focus of his mind.  His hand reaches out as if he is extending his hand into my space.   The realism of his head, eyes, and hand together evoke a creative intensity that I feel he must have had for his own work.  I think that deep commitment to the creative process that I sense is why I admire this work of art.  I only wish that I can achieve that intensity in my own artwork.

Augustus St. Gaudens: Grief (Adams Memorial)


Augustus St. Gaudens. Grief (Adams Memorial). 1891. Bronze. Lafayette Square, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger:  Mari

Since Halloween was last month, I thought it would be fun to research a piece of public sculpture that has a haunting legend behind it. Black Aggie, a sculpture shrouded in myth is hidden behind the Dolly Madison House in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C. When I searched for the piece back in August with a friend who was determined to see her, it took us nearly thirty minutes just to find Black Aggie.

In December of 1885, the wife of a prominent Washington resident, Marian Adams, was found dead in her home in Lafayette Square. She had committed suicide by drinking chemicals commonly used in photography. Her husband, Henry Adams, the great grandson of President John Adams, was so distraught by her death that he commissioned a sculpture of mourning. He requested that Augustus Saint-Gaudens create a piece melding Christianity with Buddhist ideas surrounding nirvana. The result was a solemn bronze figure. Quiet and covered in a shroud, its face is barely visible. Calm, vigilant, and ambiguous, the figure seems to greet visitors with a cold gaze. It was placed at the head of Marian Adam’s grave in Washington, DC and called Grief by famed author, Mark Twain. The piece was so popular that an illegal copy was made and quickly bought by Felix Agnus, a French adventurer who had been a sailor and jeweler, fought in three different wars, and, at the time, ran both the Baltimore American and Baltimore Sun newspapers.

Agnus placed the illegal copy in a lot at Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Maryland that was purchased for his family. Though the widow of Augustus Saint-Gaudens tried to sue him for the copied piece, Agnus kept the statue. The copy didn’t arouse too much attention until after Agnus’ death in 1925. Soon, stories began to emerge surrounding the piece which was then dubbed Black Aggie due to the Agnus family name and the sculpture’s dark stone. According to lore, the statue’s eyes glow red at midnight and it will sometimes change position in the dark. No grass grows in the statue’s shadow and it is said that if you spend the night on Black Aggie’s lap, you will be dead within two weeks. Pregnant women supposedly suffer a miscarriage if they meet her eyes.

While Black Aggie resided in Druid Ridge Cemetery, it became customary for local college fraternities to incorporate the piece into their hazing. Supposedly, one night as a pledge was in her lap, Black Aggie came to life with glowing red eyes. The pledge screamed and moments later a cemetery guard found him dead; killed from shock. Another story tells of how Black Aggies’s arm was sawed off, only to be found in a tin workers car days later. The man claimed she had done it herself and forced him to take it. Eventually, the activity around the statue became so disruptive that the Agnus family donated Black Aggie to the Smithsonian. Today, it resides in the Lafayette Square where Marian Adams killed herself in 1885. If you have trouble finding this illegal copy of Black Aggie, as I did back in August, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has a legal copy of the statue on display, therefore, there are three statues (original in Rock Creek Cemetery, one copy each in Lafayette Square and Smithsonian American Art Museum).

Whatever you believe, Black Aggie is an enduring legend that has not lost popularity in the years since 1925. The legends surrounding her have sparked the minds of countless visitors and her haunting gaze makes it easy to imagine how the fearsome stories began. 

Mermaids in Art History

Guest Blogger:  Emily

Dustin Brown.  Damaged Goods. 2004.  White Ash Tree.  Arlington, VA.

Dustin Brown. Damaged Goods. 2004. White Ash Tree. Arlington, VA.

My most recent sculpture-hunt took me to Arlington, VA, in search of a mermaid statue that I’d heard about. The statue, located in front of a home on Lee Highway, has gained controversy for its giant, curvaceous wooden form that seems to jump out of the middle of the empty yard which it inhabits. Created out of a dead white-ash tree by local tree sculptor Dustin Brown in 2004, the work, titled Damaged Goods, is often derided as trashy and inappropriate. But have mermaids always been viewed this way?
Though I’d never particularly noticed mermaids when I took my art history survey course, I found out later that they have played a fairly significant role since the Classical period. In Greek and Roman mythology, mermaids weren’t often distinguished from water spirits and nymph- instead, they all morphed together.

One major painting I found illustrating mermaids was The Mermaid (1901) by John Williams Waterhouse. Waterhouse, who worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, depicted mermaids in countless numbers of his paintings. In The Mermaid, he paints a figure topless, long-haired figure with a single, silver tail wrapped around her body. His mermaid appears vulnerable and innocent, a far cry from the brazen attitude of Damaged Goods. Edvard Eriksen carves a similar image of the beautiful sea creature in his famous work The Little Mermaid, a public sculpture planted in the sea just beyond the shore of Copenhagen, Denmark, which has proudly adopted the work as a symbol of its national pride. This young mermaid with a bare chest and two fins gazes out at the wide ocean, contemplating something unknown to the viewer. No one would call either of these mermaids sexually inappropriate; instead, the viewer sympathizes with their sad and lonely outlook. These mermaids’ nudity supports the idea of their young vulnerability instead of the obvious eroticism of Damaged Goods.

Finally, in 1989, another little mermaid swam out of the sea and into the hearts of many Disney fans. Ariel, the main heroine of the film, The Little Mermaid, was designed as a blend of mermaids from prior works. Her long, flowing red hair was modeled after that of the mermaid depicted in Waterhouse’s painting, while her famous pose at the end of the movie, in which she sings while sitting on a rock in the ocean, is reminiscent of the pose and look of Eriksen’s lonely mermaid. As creators of a G-rated, beloved children’s movie, the artists who constructed Ariel wisely chose to have her wear a clamshell bandeau, contrasting with the former topless precedent of mermaids in art. However, Ariel’s attitude matches those mermaids of Waterhouse and Eriksen; a lost, insecure mermaid, she is just trying to find her way in the world, not seduce it.

So, with all of this knowledge of mermaids past and present, why does Damaged Goods still bear a badge of notoriety? Simply put, its inferior craftsmanship, lack of deeper meaning, and overall attitude make it a sexually explicit work meant to shock and provoke viewers, not garner scholarly admiration and respect.