Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

Guest Blogger:  Mari

In 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the French port town of Calais was attacked by the English King Edward III. After a year under siege, the town was forced to surrender due to famine. King Edward III declared that he would only accept the town’s surrender if six of the city leaders came to him carrying the keys to the city and castle with bare feet and nooses around their necks. Eustache de Saint Pierre volunteered to sacrifice himself for the good of the city and was followed by five other members of the city’s aristocracy. They went to King Edward III as he had commanded and expected to die. The king, however, was persuaded to spare them at the last minute by his pregnant wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, who claimed the death of the men would be an ill omen for her unborn child. To this day, France and the city of Calais honor the six burghers as heroes.

The Burghers of Calais.

Auguste Rodin. The Burghers of Calais. Bronze. Original 1889. This is a copy casted from the original in 1943. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In 1884, the city of Calais held a contest to select a French artist to make a sculpture honoring Eustache de Saint Pierre and his service to the city.  Auguste Rodin won this contest and created The Burghers of Calais. Rather than simply depicting Eustache de Saint Pierre, he chose to create all six burghers because he believed all of the men, not just Saint Pierre, had acted bravely. Each man’s face represents one emotion that must have been coursing through the men back in 1347, such as despair, courage, resignation, and uncertainty. The men wear ragged tunics, have bare feet, and stand with nooses tied around their necks.  Instead of displaying the glory of the burghers, Rodin chose to display the anguish they must have felt, humanizing them and making their sacrifice that much more significant. The Burghers of Calais breaks the mold of typical late 19th century sculpture; the piece has no allegorical figures and lacks a pyramidal arrangement. Instead, the men appear average and stand on level with the viewer. In addition, each man faces a different direction, obligating the viewer to walk around the entire piece to truly understand it. This makes their sacrifice more real and tangible; it forces the viewer to fully realize that these men were willing to pay the ultimate price to save their people.

The copy of The Burghers of Calais that is in Washington D.C. is one of only twelve copies ever made in accordance with French law. It was cast in 1943, 54 years after the original piece was completed. Purchased by Joseph H. Hirshhorn, it originally decorated a traffic circle at his estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. Hirshhorn, a Latvian immigrant, was an avid art collector who made millions on Wall Street and in the uranium trade in Canada. After retiring, he dedicated his life to collecting art, most of which was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1970’s, Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated The Burghers of Calais, along with other pieces from his vast art collection, to the newly built Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C. Today, the piece can still be seen in the sculpture garden surrounded by other copies of Rodin’s work.


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.


Augustin-Alexandre Dumont: General Jose de San Martin Memorial

located on Virginia Avenue, NW, is the General Jose de San Martin Memorial

Augustin-Alexandre Dumont. General Jose de San Martin Memorial. 1925. Bronze. located on Virginia Avenue, NW, in a small park where the avenue intersects with 20th Street NW

Guest Blogger:  Mari

One of five statues located on Virginia Avenue, NW, is the General Jose de San Martin Memorial which resides in a small park where the avenue intersects 20th Street NW. It was originally dedicated in October of 1925 but was rededicated in October of 1985 to commemorate the visit of Argentina’s president, Raul Alfonsin.

The statue, which is in the classical equestrian pose, celebrates the life and accomplishments of General Jose de San Martin. Born in Argentina in 1778, San Martin was educated in Spain and fought in the Spanish military as a young man. He returned to Argentina when word of a revolt against the Spanish colonizers started to spread. After becoming a commander in the Argentinean rebel army, he led Argentina to freedom from Spanish rule in 1812. He then helped Chile and Peru obtain independence in 1818 and 1821. For these deeds he is known as the father of Argentina. To this day, the Order of the Liberator General San Martin is one of the highest honors to receive in that country.

The piece itself is a replica of the original statue located in the Plaza San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina which was created by Augustin-Alexandre Dumont, an artist from a long line of French sculptors dating back to 1737. The copy in Washington, D.C. is made of bronze and stands on a tall platform forcing the viewer to look up to the general’s impressive effigy. When the memorial was first dedicated in 1925, it resided on a grassy hill circled by pavement. The platform that the general stood on was decorative and held a bronze relief of the general’s deeds on each side of the platform. A plaque was fixed below the memorial informing the viewer of its importance. When Argentina’s president visited in 1985, the environment around the memorial had changed drastically since the time of the piece’s installment. The memorial underwent significant alterations when a metro station was put beneath the small park the statue inhabits. Since the statue had to be temporarily removed, it was decided that it should also get a makeover. The platform was replaced with slabs of concrete and placed directly on pavement and bricks rather than in the center of a small plot of grass. In addition, a small wall was installed behind the memorial with an inscription comparing General Jose de San Martin to America’s George Washington due to their similar role as bearers of independence.

The memorial physically demonstrates that while times and styles have changed, the ideals held by world democracies have not. Though the memorial itself has undergone change in the past century, the ideals of liberty, democracy, and justice presented by General Jose de San Martin’s life two centuries ago remain relevant in our modern world.

Dante Costa: José Artigas

Jose Artigas

Dante Costa. Jose Artigas. 1950. Bronze. Located at the Intersection of Constitution Avenue & 18th Street, NW, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Emily

This sculpture of José Artigas, by Dante Costa, is perhaps the most inviting and humanizing likeness of any of the Latin American leaders in the Liberator Series, a set of five statues in D.C. that commemorate  some important figures in the Latin American independence movements. Located on the intersection of Constitution Av. and 18th St., NW, the statue was dedicated on June 19, 1950, as a gift to the United States from Uruguay.
My initial reaction to this work was not solely aesthetic. I wasn’t primarily concerned with its design- Artigas’ open, inviting stance and controlled, warm gaze- or information about the artist. Instead, I questioned the meaning of the sculpture, asking myself “why is this work here? Why is there a statue of a Uruguayan leader in the middle of D.C.? Why would Uruguay send the US a statue of its own founder?”
Curiosity compelled me to look further into Artigas’ background. A brave, passionate man, Artigas led the fight for Uruguayan independence from its Spanish overlords from 1810 to 1820. In 1820, he was forced into exile in Paraguay, where he died years later in 1850.What struck me most about Artigas’ story was the sad irony that he, the father of Uruguayan independence, was unable to bear witness to the glorious fruit of his self-sacrificing labors. When Uruguay finally achieved its independence in 1828, Artigas was in exile, living in a strange country apart from the one he had fought so hard to create.
Though the information I found about Artigas’ background was undoubtedly interesting and inspiring, I still had not yet answered my question: Why D.C.? Diving further into Artigas’ life and personal beliefs, I found my answer. Artigas dedicated his life not only to liberating Uruguay, but also to establishing a democratic system there. During the time of the fight for Uruguayan independence, the United States was the premier example of a successful democratic government system. Artigas was so inspired by the way the Americans ran their government that he carried a copy of the US Constitution with him everywhere he went. Thus, even as Artigas stands in a contrapposto pose, reminiscent of Greek heroes, with his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, he doffs his hat in respect for the United States, a fitting depiction of the country’s most ardent admirer.

Felix de Weldon: Simon Bolivar

Simon Bolivar

Felix de Weldon. Simon Bolivar. Bronze. 1955. Located at Virginia Ave. NW and C Street, NW, Washington DC.

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

My attention was grabbed as soon I saw Bolivar sitting atop his horse, commanding attention as he thrusts his sword high into the air. The sword’s position is slightly behind him, implying that the liberator is ready to attack as he was in the early 1800’s when he made repeated efforts to liberate Venezuela from Spanish rule.

Austrian-American sculptor Felix de Weldon conveys Bolivar’s dual roles of conqueror and liberator by balancing times of war and later establishing a country in peace. His equestrian pose is used throughout art history to represent the power and authority of a hero. This is shown with the horse’s reigns in one hand and the sword in the other. Because of his apparently confident multitasking, I had the impression that Bolivar could handle the challenge of fighting for independence, even if it meant some personal sacrifice and compromise. In fact, Bolivar spent a number of his adult years plotting to liberate Gran Colombia, which is comprised of present day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. An inscription on the base of the equestrian credits Bolivar for this accomplishment.

From the base of the statue to the tip of the sword, the height of the piece stands at 27 feet tall. The height is fitting to Bolivar’s bold manner at a weight of 8 tons. The base is made of black marble, and the equestrian statue is of bronze. The Venezuelan government donated and paid for the sculpture as a gift to America, which was authorized by the United States Congress on July 5th, 1949, and was then permitted to be installed on public property on June 29th, 1955. The work was cast in New York and partly disassembled to travel to DC where it was finally erected in 1958.

The Austrian artist, Felix de Weldon, is most well- known for the sculpture of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia depicting World War II Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.. He was a combat artist stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland during World War II and became an up and coming artist that paid tribute to his new home, the United States, when multiple presidents, including Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy appointed de Weldon to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. While de Weldon did not fight in combat and remained on the home front during the war, he understood the powerful duality of war: brutal destruction leading to a prosperous peace. Thus, through de Weldon’s capable hand, Bolivar’s legacy lives on in his sculpture militarily and heroically, as a man who caused destruction in his noble pursuit of peace.

James Earle Fraser: Arts of Peace

Arts of Peace

James Earl Fraser, Arts of Peace, 1930, bronze. Pylon designer by Wm. Mitchell Kendall. Located at the entrance to Arlington Memorial Bridge.

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

When I came around the corner by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., I spotted two sculptures at the entrance to the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Arts of Peace. The two bronze figures struck me because of their size and presence at the entrance of the bridge. The figures are larger than life, standing at about 17 feet tall. They each stand atop a pylon with 36 stars going around the edges, representing the number of states in the Union during the Civil War to commemorate the important and evolutionary time period in US history.

The statues show influence from the Neoclassical style. This is especially true of the winged horse, Pegasus, which dominates both statues and represents poetry and poetic inspiration. Other Neoclassical elements include a figure (see image) that can be seen from the cross walk at the entrance of the bridge that represents the art of music. This figure, a woman, is clutching a harp just behind her ear and close to her face. She is protected underneath the wing of the horse, Pegasus, and shifts her weight forward in her right leg away from the harp. On the other side of the horse, which cannot be seen from the image, there is a man with a bundle of wheat representing harvest. Both the woman and the man signify times of peace as opposed to the Arts of War sculptures on the other side of the bridge.  I can envision the music echoing behind her as she moves forward and spreads harmony to those around her.

The creation of the sculpture and dedication of the Arts of Peace was long and extensive. The piece was commissioned in 1930 by the Arlington Memorial Bridge Commission. The Commission selected James Earle Fraser to design the allegorical figures. Though the design was completed much earlier, further progress was delayed until 1935 due to a lack of funding. The models were completed in 1938, however, since bronze was needed for the war, the Commission halted construction again. Finally, in 1949, the Italian government offered to cast the sculptures as a gift to the United States for post World War II aid. The sculptures were dedicated in September of 1951.

Charles Grafly: George Gordon Meade Memorial

George Cordon Meade Memorial

Charles Grafly, executed by the Piccirilli Bros., Marble, 1922. 3rd & Penn. Ave, NW, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger:  Emily

Usually when I look at a work of art, the first bit of information I look for is the title. After that, I try to find out who the artist is. Occasionally the artist isn’t the person who actually executed the work, particularly in sculpture. So, when I researched the George Gordon Meade Memorial in Washington, D.C., I initially looked much further into the artist, Charles Grafly, than the people that actually carved the memorial, a New York based group called the Piccirilli Brothers. Then I became curious about the Piccirilli Brothers.

With further research and much to my surprise, the Piccirilli Brothers are actually behind some of the most well-known sculptures in America. In addition to executing Grafly’s model for the Meade Memorial, the brothers also carved the enormous statue of President Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial In Washington, DC and the famous Lions that guard the doorway of the New York Public Library.

The brothers hailed from Tuscany, an Italian region well-known for producing masterful marble carvers such as Michelangelo. As young men they immigrated to America in 1888, and established a studio in the Bronx. Their studio in New York became the “go-to” spot for artists looking for craftsmen to turn their models into sculpture, replacing the former practice of American artists sending their models to Italy to be carved.

The Meade Memorial, dedicated in 1922, spectacularly combines the Piccirilli’s flawless execution with Grafly’s remarkable design. Grafly designed the memorial as a feat of allegorical genius; General Meade commands the statue at the front, flanked by Energy, Military Courage, Progress, Loyalty, Chivalry, and Fame, with War claiming the opposite side. Famous for his leadership of the Union forces during the Civil War, particularly in the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade is represented here striding out of his war-cloak and gazing boldly ahead at a new vision for peace and reconstruction in the war-torn United States. Yet his hands reach back towards War, suggesting that the once more “United” States must remember the tragic lessons of the fatal clashes between North and South as she moves onto the path towards prosperity.