Under a late-summer mackerel sky in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery stands the astounding Henry Bolte monument on its generous plot in figure 1. This prestigous corner of the cemetery, near the Gothic chapel and Hans Schuler’s famed Riggs and Baetjer monuments, is crowded with all sorts of monumental gems, and one appreciates Bolte’s (wife’s) foresight in putting their beaux-arts confection in a generous space. You can see the curbs and stones in place to keep the riff-raff at bay.
This beaux-arts folly consists of a cubic central mass with very unexpected, very wonderful colonnaded hemicycles bulging from its sides. As is often the case, the date is not clear, but I’m pretty sure Bolte’s wife, Virginia, commissioned it soon after his death in 1897. See how fresh the stone looks in her inscription, cut after she died in 1924 (figure 12).
This monument therefore represents full-bore gilded-age excess, akin to when you—or rather, I—go to the buffet and get the roast beef (because it looks so crunchy brown), and, distracted, add macaroni and cheese (to relive my childhood), and then on top of that some General Tso’s chicken (because sweet yumminess), simultaneously taking mashies and some hush puppies on the way to the table and oh! is that a pot of chili over there?
I should refine my metaphor: the Bolte architect had taste and was well informed. The architect did not go full Taco Town, so to speak, but stuffed herself with a better organized meal that conforms to rules of a sort. So think more of a plate piled high with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, yams, and bean cassarole with gravy poured over it all. Figure 1a offers archival footage of the process of design.
But it turns out that there is a second helping of this monument type served up by the Willms family. This monument is about 8 miles away in Druid Ridge Cemetery and dates, I suspect, to about 1922 (figure 3). As with the Aspiration and malleable monument types I have written about, the suburban Druid Hill work, while it is fine and mérite un détour, is slightly inferior to its urban forerunner which deserves the Michelin vaut le voyage label.
Leaving aside the statues for a moment, the two monuments (figures 2, 3) look pretty much the same. Where they differ—significantly—is in detail, which is where I’m heading. I apologize: the light and the position from which I photographed the Willms monument do not do it justice and make it look squat. It is, in fact, just a bit squatter than the Bolte monument because the architect needed to compensate for the overly tall sculpture atop its interesting roll-on-deodorant-applicator base.
The hemicycles (figures 4, 5) differ in refinement. I put the difference down in large part to automated cutting, for the coarser and sharper Willms decoration smells of the machine. Compare, for example, how the Bolte columns swell gradually, in good classical style, whereas the Willms columns have linear profiles and awful round bases like hockey pucks under them. Exquisitely, the diameter of the hockey pucks is slightly smaller than that of the toruses at the bottom of the columns: bad form!
The Bolte columns were born in an age where the machine was still aiding the skilled artisan’s hand, and I’d be surprised if they were not turned on the stonecutting equivalent of a lathe. Yet then the artisan went in by hand and cut in the complicated flutes (filled with rods, note: figure 11) and the two rings of astragals above.
By the time the Willms columns were born, the machine was guiding the technician’s hand. This studio had become so dependent upon it that its designers were beginning to steer clear of things that were hard for a machine to do: a host of refinements that required the (costly) trained eye and hand to carve.
Think of a column blank as a big cylinder suspended along its central axis of rotation; now turn that drum and apply a cutter to it which is guided by a model (nowadays they use computers to guide the cutter). Straight lines are always easier than curves, and so the Willms columns, while tapered, have straight sides. Then cutters were applied lengthwise down the column to excavate the flutes. Rotate the column one twelfth of a revolution, and carve another flute. These cutters leave a coarse surface compared to the more finished surface of the Bolte columns.
The monogram on the Bolte monument (figure 6), while a touching symbol of self-regard, is also beautifully cut. Where lines go under one another, they sink a bit and have a soft look; and the tiny triangular cut at the center of the B to the immediate left of the left hasta of the H is just wonderful. The complex interweaving of the letters reminds me of one of those Celtic weave patterns. The oak branch on the rear of the monument, too, has been sensitively carved with a softness from life (figure 7), as have the flowers on the volutes next to the hemicycles (figures 8, 4) and the laurel wreath with iris flowers and acanthus scrolls on the front (figure 12). Count the dentils in the entablature of the hemicycles of the two monuments (figures 4, 5)—one has more smaller ones, the other has a coarser grind with fewer, larger ones. I could go on, but by now you can probably spot these things for yourself. Figure 10a serves as a check to show by contrast with a landmark monument that there is a limit to the refinement of the Bolte monument.
Although it falls short of the Bolte monument, the Willms one raises an interesting question: why, as late as the 1920s, look back to a gilded-age model? I may have missed one of these in my rounds of Baltimore-area cemeteries, but it’s not like they’re thick on the ground so that the Willms monument might plausibly be interpreted as merely another example of a type that had enduring popularity; so maybe Willms saw the Bolte monument while at a funeral in Green Mount and liked it. Perhaps a very effective salesman was involved.
For example, I have in my possession a copy of the 1932 Book of Presbrey-Leland Memorials, a commercially-motivated catalogue raisonné of monuments that studio considered to be among its finest. It would have made good browsing literature for recent widows or widowers in the market for commemoration, and features monuments in historical styles. On top of that, one suspects that people dying around 1920 led the best parts of their lives in the 1880s and 1890s and perhaps had a hard time shaking off the tastes and class gestures inherited from those days. So perhaps the commissioner of the Willms monument was predisposed even as late as 1920 to prefer an outmoded style.
Turning to the statues, the Bolte one appears to be a holy figure (Mary? A wingless angel? The spirit of truth?) petting a smaller, apparently young figure. The elder figure, veiled with a heavy cape over her cinched dress is seated with the left leg raised because the foot rests on a rock. The feet are bare. Perched in the lap and looking ready to fall is a fat book. The attitude is of a fond, indulgent teacher with an eager student. The young figure is on one knee, the left, and wears a long gown with short sleeves. Her visible foot is bare, too (figures 18, 19).
The inscription, “Thy will, not mine, be done” (figure 16), may be the sculpture’s title, or a theme for the monument chosen by the commissioner. One presumes that the saying (which comes from the Gethsemone scene in Lk. 22:42, cf. Mt. 26:42) is meant to reflect the dying or deceased person’s resignation to the inevitability of death and to realize as a compensation that it is all part of God’s plan. Perhaps the young figure here is envisioned as learning, post mortem, from the holy elder what God’s will actually was. The youth of the figure would correspond to the newly reborn soul, I suppose. It is not clear to me what the sash over the younger figure’s right shoulder means.
If I were a betting man, I would say that this sculpture was produced by the same shop that produced the four sculptures in my malleable monument post. The stone used, and the treatment of the drapery seem similar.
“He shall give his angels charge over thee” proclaims the inscription under the Willms statue of an angel alighting upon an orb (figures 22-23). The angel scatters posies over the grave in an interesting take on a conventional image of grieving: they’ve been brought to the grave in a little flower basket, whereas they are usually envisioned as picked casually en route to the grave and clutched in the bearer’s hand, or cradled in a fold of the bearer’s dress (figures 24-29). The spontaneity is key. Alternatively, the grieving figure is imagined as having woven a wreath or garland of flowers. A good example can be seen in my malleable monument post.
It is possible that the Willms angel was by the same hand as the Painter monument in Druid Ridge: see the similar corkscrew treatment of the locks of hair in both (in my malleable monument post, figure 9). None of this would surprise me, as these were all clearly products of an important Baltimore area studio. In fact, now that I look, it may well be that figure 27 also shows a figure originating in that atelier, as it again has a similar treatment of the hair.
A landmark cemetery is a place where one can spend a good half an hour analyzing a rich, complicated work of art like the Bolte monument. Is it great art? No, of course not. Monuments by an Augustus Saint-Gaudens or a Vinnie Ream or a James Earle Fraser are few and far between. Money wasn’t that plentiful for most folks who commissioned funerary monuments. Yet even conceding these monuments are not objets d’art of the first rank, it’s telling that monuments as good as these were created by artisans in such numbers. Just look at that cluster of monuments in figure 1, and I stipulate that there are better ones just out of frame. A good boneyard is like a Schatzkammer filled with treats to delight the intellect and the eye, and this doesn’t even begin to consider the fascinating social history they can reveal.
But best of all is the aleatory nature of the hunt in these cemeteries: you literally never know when you’re going to spot some incredible, crazy folly like the ones I’ve talked about here, or spot a monument in which self-regard or excessive grief, marinaded in the gasoline of money, has burst out into an incredible and exotic flambé.