This weekend I visited two statues in the District I’ve been meaning to see for a long time now. Sometimes it takes an out-of-town visitor to make it happen, and luckily I had a great one – my friend and former co-worker Heather, who was visiting from Johannesburg.
There she’s known better as 2Summers, which is a fantastic blog about life in South Africa – but particularly about the under-appreciated city of Johannesburg. She calls herself a destination advocate, which is how I feel about D.C.
One of our destinations on this trip was Meridian Hill Park (also known as Malcolm X), for a photography session with some of the park’s eclectic statues. The one she was particularly interested in learning more about is almost hidden in the northwest part of the park, and is called Serenity.
It looks like a weathered, marble Greek goddess from antiquity, but it turns out she’s much younger – only the years have not been kind to her. And neither have Washingtonians.
This obscure statue made a bit of news in April when her face was painted black and adorned with a bright red smile. Not as significant as the green paint vandalism on the Lincoln Memorial, but still shocking. Turns out it was just one of many indignities visited upon this statue since it was installed in the park in 1925.
The first actually happened within months when it was defaced with red paint and black ink in 1926. And there have been several other incidents over the years – a broken nose, missing fingers, a missing hand. Today she has no discernible features at all, and is looking decidedly unserene.
It’s an odd statue to begin with – donated by a wealthy businessman and philanthropist Charles Deering in honor of his former Naval Academy classmate William Henry Schuetze, who died in 1902. It looks like Schuetze (whose name is misspelled on the statue – another indignity) had an adventurous career in the Navy in the Spanish American War, the Arctic, and Siberia – but died of natural causes in Washington.
Deering had become a great friend to artists and a supporter of the Spanish arts. He donated the Serenity statue by Spanish sculptor José Clarà as a memorial to his friend and classmate Schuetze. There is apparently an identical statue by Clarà sitting serenely in Luxembourg under the Spanish name Serenidad – so if you want to see what she originally looked like, here’s a glimpse:
Our next statue took us to a different part of the District and to the oldest churchyard in the city.
I had been meaning to visit Rock Creek Cemetery for years to see the statue popularly known as “Grief.” It’s the final resting place for the historian Henry Adams – great grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams – and his wife Marian.
I first saw a copy of the statue in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. It’s considered one of the masterpieces of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who designed the Shaw Memorial (a copy of which is in the National Gallery), and who also happened to be a friend of patron Charles Deering.
Adams commissioned Saint-Gaudens to build a memorial to his wife, who committed suicide in 1885. Known by the nickname Clover, she was the most famous hostess in Washington after the Civil War. She ran an intellectual salon across from the White House along with her husband and their friends John Hay and his wife Clara Hay. The two couples even built adjoining mansions on Lafayette Square (which would later be razed and replaced with the Hay-Adams Hotel).
Clover was also an accomplished portrait photographer, one of the first women to work in the field. Her untimely death shocked elite Washington. She was found by Adams after ingesting potassium cyanide, which she used to develop her photographs.
Adams dealt with his grief by leaving Washington and traveling the world for several years. He hardly spoke or wrote about Clover again, but commissioned Saint-Gaudens and architect Stanford White to design a memorial for her gravesite. Adams became particularly influenced by Asian and Buddhist art, and wanted something timeless and universal. The result was a mysteriously cloaked figure sitting in a contemplative pose that was installed in the cemetery in 1891.
Today, the statue is somewhat hard to find. There are no signs, no grave markers, and it’s entirely enclosed by tall shrubbery. And despite the name, don’t go looking for it in Rock Creek Park. The cemetery is actually located near Petworth.
When you find the statue (it’s in Section E of the cemetery) and enter the enclosure, there is a long granite bench designed by Stanford White inviting you to sit and contemplate its meaning. The mystery of the statue and the mystery of Clover drew visitors from the very beginning, and the gravesite became a veritable tourist destination, much to Adams’ dismay. Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would come to find solace here.
But the statue provides few answers to its visitors. Is it in pain or at peace? Are the eyes open or are they closed? Is it a man or a woman?
It’s hard to adequately describe it – which it seems was Adams and Saint-Gaudens’ intent.
What’s clear is that neither of them liked the title of “Grief,” which was said to be the name for the statue popularized by Mark Twain. Although neither would provide an official name, Adams thought of it as “The Peace of God.”
Saint-Gaudens called it “The Mystery of the Hereafter,” and said it was “beyond pain and beyond joy.”
Sitting across from the statue in a deserted cemetery on an overcast day, there was one word that came to my mind: Serenity.