The fine photos by Susan Stierch in figures 1 and 2 show the Anna Victoria Houser monument in Rock Creek Cemetery. Below is the description written for the Smithsonian’s catalog of American paintings and sculpture by Mr. Michael Richman in about 1969.
The memorial features a sculpture of a seated of Helen L. Houser with her arm around the shoulders of her young daughter, Anna Victoria Houser, seated beside her. With her left hand, the mother points to the page of an open book resting in her daugher’s lap. The sculpture rests atop a rectangular base.Michael Richman, Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1967-69.
Richman must have worked from a photograph that caught about as much of the monument as we see in figures 1 and 2, and that was taken from a lower angle, because he’s wrong on two counts that would be impossible had he inspected the statue in person.
First, the base has a much more complicated shape than “rectangular,” as my admittedly poor photograph shows (figure 3). Rectilinear, almost, but rectangular, no. Richman must only have had a photo showing the top of the base and he guessed that it was a rectangular plinth all the way to the soil. His description, in the authoritative SAAM inventory, has been picked up in the Pedia of Wiki and elsewhere and shows the real danger both in relying on the Pedia and, less obviously, of speaking about a monument one has not inspected, and carefully, at that.
Second, the mother is not pointing at the page of the open book. You can just see that if you were looking at a photo taken from a low angle, and you were not troubled by a woman having one arm a foot longer than the other with the long arm’s hand much smaller than the other’s, you might rush to the conclusion that the older woman is the one pointing. But just walking up to the monument and looking from head height (or even better, stepping up onto the step on the base), it is perfectly clear that the child is pointing (figure 4).
So, Anna Houser died at age 11 (figure 5). Her mother, Helen L. Houser, died in 1934 and is also commemorated on the monument. Let’s look at the sculpture.
Two free-standing figures are seated beside one another on a rustic rock “bench.” An older woman on the left has her right arm around the back of a girl; the right hand rests on the girl’s shoulder. The woman’s left arm drops loosely across her body and her left hand rests open and loosely on her right thigh. The woman’s legs, covered in a long heavy skirt, are not crossed, and only the tip of the right shoe, because the right leg is extended forward, can be seen poking out. There is a hint of the left shoe just under the hem of the dress. The skirt is gathered into pleats and cinched under the bust. A loose blouse with a long, scalloped collar is right on target for 1910s women’s style, whereas the Sears catalogues and other fashion advertisements available on line suggest that the long, open (and similarly scalloped) sleeves were more typical of the 1900s.
The woman’s face lacks definition, perhaps because of the poor contrast afforded by the light Barre granite, and difficulty cutting the same. It appears youthful. Still, the thin oval face, tending to squarish, has closed, and perhaps slightly pursed lips, a regularly formed nose, and eyes that are not deep set, under broad arching brows. The eyes are closed in the manner of someone imagining something, and the lightly pursed lips reinforce the sense of effort at recollection, as does the fact of the head being slightly down cast. The neck descends into the loose collar which closes well above the bust. The woman’s long hair is gathered and twisted into a bun behind the head. The hair is loosely pulled back, covering the ears, so that it frames the face with an undulating outline.
The girl is at an angle, pulled close by the woman. Her head comes close to the woman’s right breast without touching it. The face is plumper but closely approximates the woman’s in shape. The eyes are more deeply set under flatter brows. The lips are drawn into a smile, and there are youthful dimples to the sides of the mouth. The head is averted lightly to the right, and the incised pupils direct their gaze directly outward into a perhaps infinite distance. The left eye appears to have been treated differently from the right: it’s closed more narrowly and its left corner extends further around the turn of the head.
The girl’s hair is loose and falls in many long twisting locks from the crown of the head to mid-chest level. As with the woman’s hair, the sculptor has incised lines to give a hint of strands of hair. The girl wears a one-piece dress with a high neckline. A pendant on a bead necklace falls just to the neckline. The dress is approximately knee length, and has short sleeves. She wears socks to just below the calves, and below that buckled shoes.
Charmingly, the right sock is falling. The legs are crossed at the ankle, with the right foot tucked behind the left. A fat, open book rests in the girl’s lap, open at about midpoint. The girl’s right hand rests flat on the open recto, her finger pointing to a spot well down the verso.
The anecdotal story here must elude us. Still, maybe we can say one or two things, because the sculptor seems to have been very intentional. The pair sitting together are clearly the mother and daughter commemorated on the monument. I guess Anna looks about ten or eleven years old. The scene invites us to think that they are reading together, or Anna has been reading to her mother, since she has the book. Her finger marks the place she has stopped reading: her mouth is closed, so she’s not reading now, and her gaze is in any event directed way out into some imaginary realm. So she is rapt with attention to the story. The mother has her eyes closed, perhaps as though she had been listening to the girl read. It might also be read as a look of satisfaction. There is no tension between the two figures, or in either separately.
Still, a monument that mechanically repeats an anecdotal scene from life falls short of its potential. That fat book looks to me like a Bible, and the pointing finger seems to show that it was being read attentively. The girl looks into the distance, perhaps having ingested a comforting spiritual thought, and her look is both rapt and pleased. I can’t help but think that the mother is trying to stoically cover up an unhappy look. Does she know that her daughter is dying? Is she at once distressed and also comforted by her daughter’s (and her own) acceptance of Christian metaphysical promises? That’s a reach, but I do have a hard time reading the mother’s enigmatic expression otherwise. I could even go out on a limb and envision the mother shown after Anna had died, with the scene in her mind taking life in stone—the Anna would be imaginary.
Looking to find a grave dot com, there is a story taken from the Washington Times on 19 May 1918 in which Anna and her fellow girl scouts had collected money for the war effort. The find a grave contributor adds (without telling us it also comes form archival news stories) that the statue imitates the fact that Anna and Helen often read together in life; that she loved to ride her horse “Dapple”; and that she had lived at 1217 Vermont Ave., NW. Her father was Edward Keller Houser, a philanthropist. The contributor also guesses (a word I stress) that she might have died of the influenza in 1918.
We’re still left with the enigma: how did she die? What’s with the look on the mother’s face?