The Keep monument in Rock Creek Cemetery is visible from a great distance because of its eye-popping pink and verdigris colors.
The bronze figures were created in about 1920 by James Earle Fraser, the man who designed both faces of the 1913 buffalo nickel.
Before I try to make sense of our sculpture, have a look at the Standing Liberty Quarter below. This design, from 1916, is neoclassical, that is, it uses elements of artistic style and composition developed by Greeks and Romans to give a classy câchet to art produced for people and needs of the (in this case) early twentieth century. The use of nudity for divine or heroic images is part of the classical patrimony, too.
You’d not go nude on the street if you were a Greek or Roman free person, especially a female one. But in art, nudity is a type of costume. Just as the bat costume turns Bruce Wayne into the Dark Knight, classical nudity transforms a (say) female figure into someone understood to be on a higher plane than ours: they are not held by the same rules we are. Quite fit for a goddess like Liberty, above, and even for George Washington, in 1843. With Washington there is the added twist that he is shown in a form of nudity associated with Olympian Zeus, king of the gods.
So nudity as a costume had and has a moral content. Erotic nudity is different, and the ancients had forms of that, too. But content aside, great ancient sculptors sought to display technical virtue in sculpting statues in general, and not least in sculpting the human nude. And so for centuries they played with variations, competing with one another to find the best possible ways to pose the human body and the best ways to carve hair and clothes. They could be quite sophisticated about it, and their best, final products became something like default templates for reproductions and adaptations.
Think of the Liberty on the quarter. MacNeil exposed her right breast and left her feet bare, clear signs that she is important. But he went further. The fabric she wears is so sheer that her forward motion pulls it against her front and you can see her legs and body (and umbilicus) as though the notional cloth weren’t there. You can be clothed and nude, so to speak, and this was not something the artist stumbled upon by accident. It’s calculated and the endpoint of a long period of R&D. Not only does the sheer clothing emphasize the goddess’s nudity—it also gives the artist a platform to impress us with whiz-bang drapery carving.
Fraser and other neoclassical artists had the benefit of hindsight, and could take in the entire evolution of sculpture (to the extent it was known in his time) in a glance. His art shows he had done a good job of committing famous examples to memory. But could he know that nudity was best interpreted as a costume and not just as a convention? Did he know that the costume of nudity conveyed a moral meaning? No and no. These insights came later, after decades of research. What he did know was that Greeks and Romans sculpted goddesses (for example) nude, or partly so, and since that’s the way they did it, that’s just the way it’s done.
Here’s a sick burn from James Goode in Washington Sculpture (417) writing off Fraser’s life:
Fraser, who died at the age of seventy-seven in 1953, remained a Neoclassicist to the end. Even though he failed to make any mark in the development of twentieth-century American art, many of his portrait statues exhibit a fine sense of naturalism . . . .
Wot a loser!
Keep died while on vacation in Paris and I therefore think that Mrs. K. collaborated with Fraser for this monument. Fraser has costumed the woman in fine heroic nudity. The Art Inventories Catalog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum wrongly emphasizes Rome when it states that “both figures are bare chested and are dressed in loose Roman-style drapery around the waist, and Roman sandals.”
Here and there a very 1910s stylistic feature pops: the way she holds her arms and hands doesn’t look very classical. The mannered pose of her hands and fingers has more in common with the contemporary Art Nouveau movement than any I’ve seen from Greece or Rome.
I stood three feet from the female figure’s face, but the staining is so bad that I cannot tell whether her eyes are slit open or closed. If they are open, they are cast down. The face is typically neoclassical, indeterminately aged youthful and attractive.
The Smithsonian catalog opines that she is wearing a “cape” over the back of her head. Maybe, but a cape is not a very classical accoutrement. A veil would be a better conjecture. Large thick ones are well known in contemporary art. Here’s the so-called “Grief” from the Marian Adams monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the same cemetery.
Our figure has an unusual arms to shoulders pose because—and to highlight the fact that—she is adjusting her clothing to push her veil back. Her clothing proper has been rolled back and down to her waist, presumably so that Fraser could show off his prowess with a nude. Her garment falls over her leg from her waist, exposing the umbilicus and clinging to her left leg which is bent and moving forward.
The Smithsonian catalog gives evidence that the statue group was not erected until 1920. I’d guess Fraser—who was well connected to the mint—had seen MacNeil’s design for the Standing Liberty, which is quite similar to our figure from the sternum down, though the weight is on the other leg. Our figure wears rather generic looking sandals. So, too, does the male figure, to whom I now turn.
The head is, like that of the female, indeterminately youthful. The hair is shortish and in curls, and does not recede from the forehead. There is no facial hair. The flesh of the face is muscular and toned, and there is no fat on the face (or figure), nor any wrinkles or folds. The nose is long and bent; the ears do not obtrude. The figure, as the Smithsonian catalog notes, gazes forward into the distance. Stains on the eyeballs make it look googly eyed: I think the eyeballs were blank originally (as opposed to having incised pupils).
The male figure wears a cloak which is pinned just below his neck on the right side. His nude, muscular torso is exposed under the cloak to the waist, where his garment is rolled up. It then falls to the level of his knees and clings to his forward left leg.
His right arm encircles the shoulders of the female figure and his right hand lightly clasps her right shoulder. His fingers seem to extend a bit over the bunched up cloth of her retracted vail, meaning that he has clasped her after she revealed herself, or right in the act of doing so.
The final visual conundrum is what he is holding in his left hand. It looks like a hat to me, though from one angle it looks like a canteen—but that seems too prosaic for something mystical like this.
So, what is going on here? He seems confident; she much less so with her downcast gaze. He looks experienced; his arm around her is guiding and reassuring. To what does she reveal herself, that he confronts openly and confidently? It looks like a Christian narrative, though a speculative one.
Frederic Keep died in 1911 of a heart attack in a massage parlor in Paris, or so says the relevant consular report of American deaths abroad. That is an unhappy ending. Florence lived on, dedicating this monument in about 1920 and dying only in 1954.
I think, therefore, that what Fraser’s bronze depicts is her late arrival in the afterlife, a pilgrim who can now, as Keep already had, confront her maker, to whom all must be revealed. Keep is a supportive guide. Too long after their last parting in Paris, they will now enjoy the après vie with rejuvenated bodies.
Florence was not the only person to indulge in such a vivid fantasy:
As a postscript, I have to ask myself, is this a funerary portrait? Certainly, Fraser’s pair is meant to represent the Keep couple on some distant shore. Yet they are abstractions of the real people, and it is anyone’s guess as to whether either Keep once looked like his or her alter ego on the monument. So I will not treat this as a funerary portrait despite its liminal status.