Three monuments, three versions of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s bronze Aspiration. Figure 1 shows the original (of 1926), in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo in a striking photograph by Doug Rife. According to Douglas Keister in his Going Out in Style (p. 122: see bibliography below), Frishmuth “sculpted” the figure in an edition of three in 1926. He doesn’t say it, but I infer that these were bronzes cast from a sculpted clay model, and that this is one of them. Google doesn’t seem to know where any others might be. [See appendix 1]
Figure 2 shows a sensitive copy on the Berwind monument in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The excellent Sculpture of a City (p. 302: see bibliography) devotes a note to the Berwind monument. It was commissioned and installed in 1933, sculpted by the Presbrey-Leland Studios in New York. It seems, therefore, that Frishmuth licensed her image for reproduction, and this fine version in stone is one of those.
Figure 3 offers another version in the Manns monument (of 1944, I suspect) in Druid Ridge Cemetery, in Pikesville, MD. I don’t think anyone else has noted this version yet.
Frishmuth was a talented sculptor with a penchant for female nudes: she liked to explore the dynamics of motion, muscles in tension, and visually interesting poses. Her 1923 statue The Vine is on permanent exhibition in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (figure 4) and exemplifies her style. There is also one in the Met; and others elsewhere.
One might be tempted to think Frishmuth intended The Vine to be erotic, since it’s nude and the female figure meets conventional standards of beauty. That sort of thing is in the eye of the beholder, but if you step back and recall that it is lifeless bronze, you’ll pretty quickly see that the artist is playing with the shapes of muscles in tension, their attachments to bones, and the shapes of the bones underneath. To what ends can the human form be stretched? Can the human form be molded into an abstract series of curves? Can the pose be made visually arresting from all viewpoints? There’s probably also an abstract reference to the joy and freedom in wine and dance, but that’s not what I’m interested in here.
If these physical details of pose and articulation are what you’re interested in, you’re pretty much going to have to sculpt nudes or their equivalent, as in the Aspiration figure, where the cloth is sculpted to appear so sheer that it emphasizes rather than covers the female form. I’d describe the style as influenced by Hellenistic Greek forms like the dancing faun in figure 5. He was made to be interesting from all sides, too.
The dancing faun offers a study of the male figure (from the atrium of the ‘House of the Faun’ in Pompeii) analogous to Frishmuth’s study of the female form. You can make out similarities in the exploration of the twisting human shape, the taut musculature, and visually interesting posing of the limbs.
So, now we can turn to Aspiration.
The photograph in figure 1 is excellent in that it captures the statue in a light that picks out the contrastingly light patina of the flesh of the figure against the darker green background of the chiton and cloak. The light does not help us see the treatment of the torso in any detail, though. Nevertheless the photo reveals Frishmuth’s talent in the expression on the figure’s face and the turn of her head. It is clear that the clothing is meant to be sheer and reveal the torso underneath. The pose in general is of a figure straining to reach her aspirations while buffeted by winds of one sort or another.
By contrast, the winter light in Philadelphia when I took the photograph in figure 2 does a good job of revealing the sculptural treatment of the torso, though at the expense of the face, which is half obscured in shadow. So let’s have a look at the female figure here.
The pose, perhaps by dancer Desha Delteil, who modeled for The Vine, reveals Frishmuth’s usual interests. The figure is on point, with all of the muscles in tension. We can see this because the drapery has been carved with an exquisite sheerness that reveals and emphasizes the masses and outlines of the female figure. As an example of the former, see the shadows that help express the modeling of the torso (figures 6, 7), and for the latter, see the line that expresses the outline of the left hip, thigh, and calf (figure 8). The artificiality of the tensing of the muscles is revealed by the lack of tension in the toes—Aspiration is literally taking off (figure 9). This is a pose we see in the opposite direction in Weinman‘s Descending Night (c. 1915: figure 10). This business with female figures taking off and alighting goes back to classical models, but that’s the tale for another day.
I genuinely like the apse with its little clouds and stars that protects the granite statue from the rain. It’s a little stylized and maybe not consonant with the style of the figure, but, well, I like it nonetheless, and if the figure is going to reach, I suppose it ought to reach for the stars. In any event, it frames the figure better, in my opinion, than the granite slab behind the bronze in Buffalo.
Turning to the Manns monument, while it is better than 99.99% of all other monuments, it’s a different kettle of fish. Allowing for the scattered light which kills contrast in my photos, and my failure to get all my shots from the same directions as in my Berwind photos, it’s still possible to see that whereas the Berwind figure was sculpted by a talented artisan, the Manns figure was copied by a skilled workman.
The drapery is much more opaque and the form does not emerge as in the Berwind figure. It is also more voluminous to in fact de-emphasize the female form. The right breast is insensitively modeled—it looks hard and unreal, like a generic appliqué. The line of the left leg is partly disguised by folds in the drapery. I presume this was due to the decay of the neoclassical movement by the time this was carved, with fewer artisans able to sensitively work in the style; and perhaps a misguided sense of propriety.
Now my task is to get up to Buffalo in order to see the Rogers monument in person, so that I can make a more sensitive comparison between it and the Berwind figure. For the moment, it’s a pleasure to see a work of art on a funerary monument, and to see once again how much the final product in a replica depends upon the hand of the artisan.
Fairmount Park Art Association. 1974. Sculpture of a City: Philadelphia’s Treasures in Bronze and Stone.
Keister, D. 1997. Going Out in Style. The Architecture of Eternity.
In The Book of Presbrey-Leland Memorials (1932, Presbrey-Leland Studios), a catalog of finished projects by this very prominent studio, an image in black and white (figure 16) of a monument that looks identical to the Rogers monument in Forest Lawn (figure 1) is printed on p. 133 with the following text:
Miss Harriet Frishmuth ranks among the foremost women sculptors of the world and in this bronze for the Morton family memorial she has symbolized Aspiration in the uplifted arm and head of the figure which emerges from the deep shadow—the veil of life. PL24165 for Miss Harriet Frishmuth, erected at Windsorville, Conn.A Book of Presbrey-Leland Memorials (1932, Presbrey-Leland Studios), p. 133.
There is a Windsor, CT, and a Windsorville Cemetery, but there is no web presence suggesting the existence of such a monument there. It is a nice photo of the statue when it was still the brownish-black of the unpatinated bronze. The photo would seem to be dispositive that such a statue existed in addition to the Rogers one.