George E. Lemon monument, Rock Creek Cemetery. Photo: author.

I suppose you would probably guess that there were trade journals for granite and marble suppliers and cutters in the great age of public art in this country, from about 1890 to 1930. One such journal, The Monumental News, celebrated the above George E. Lemon monument in its 1898 series.

The author has halfway spotted the chief model for this monument, the Roman sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus—though the author says it’s a Grecian formula with Scipio Africanus’ sarcophagus. To a classicist that’s like confusing John Adams with Henry Adams: there’s like a hundred years between them.

The Monumental News volume 10 page 624. Public domain. Volume digitized by Google.

We learn that Lemon was a publisher. Looking to Find a Grave dot com, we find he was born in New York (Onondaga), fought in the Civil War in the 125th Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry, was captured at Harper’s Ferry, paroled the next day, and was wounded in the battle of Bristoe Station, VA, one of the endless campaign-ettes in the Virginia piedmont. His unit had seen brisk fighting at Gettysburg and lost 139 men. His anagraphic details seem at first to indicate that he was decorated:

George E. Lemon grave marker. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC. Photo: author.
Grand Army of the Republic Badge. Photo: Parsa. CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

But upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a Grand Army of the Republic veteran’s badge. I’m not surprised in principle; for many of those soldiers, the Civil War was the biggest and noblest undertaking they were ever involved in, and they looked back on it, and their lost youth, in a flood of nostalgia and reconciliation as they neared death in the last part of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries.

It turns out that Captain Lemon, who was a lawyer in Washington, D.C., was also the founder and publisher of The National Tribune in 1877. As the Pedia of Wiki notes, the subtitle of the paper was “A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Interests of the Soldiers and Sailors of the late war, and all Pensioners of the United States.”

Lemon, who advertised in the Tribune, took on pensioners claims. There is just a slight feel of the ambulance chaser here, or maybe enlightened self-interest, though I see no evidence that Lemon did not also have fellow feeling for veterans. He didn’t have to put the GAR badge on his tomb. Maybe he was like the missionaries who went to Hawaii: “they came to do good and they did great.”

The Pedia notes that the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize (doesn’t give the year), and that circulation “in its heyday” was 250,000.

Let’s return to the monument and something that can’t be trivially looked up in the famed Pedia. As The Monumental News article states, the central feature of the monument is a replica of the sarcophagus of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, who was a prominent Roman who died in maybe 280 BCE.

First, I apologize for my photo in the Vatican Museums. The room is so small my camera could not fit the entire object in field. Still, if you click on the images and compare, you’ll see that the American sculptors have lightly embellished the original, and the New Hampshire granite in which it’s carved is much crisper than the soft volcanic stone of the Scipionic sarcophagus.

That’s sort of the difference between classical art and neoclassical art in a nutshell. The classical art is living and imperfect, whereas the American neoclassical take on it is colder, crisper, smoother, and tends to go overboard. More Catholic than the Pope, as they say.

The next time you go into a great cemetery, keep your eyes open: the Scipionic sarcophagus is one of the endlessly repeated forms that Americans of the great age loved. Either the monument dealers were good at selling them, or there was a stratum of society that wanted to advertise that they were wealthy and cultured enough to know monuments in Rome. Or both. The Lemon monument happens to be the best use of it I’ve seen to date. Here’s the polyandrion for Northern Virginia Civil War dead in Arlington National Cemetery, a free adaptation of the Scipionic model:

Northern Virginia polyandrion. Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. Photo: author.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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