The period from about 1890 to about 1920 was the golden age of American public art. A lot of this is owed to the neoclassical style which then reached its peak.
Arlington’s Emerson Hamilton Liscum monument, which is in Arlington National Cemetery and dates to approximately 1900, is a fine example of neoclassical restrained elegance, and nowhere is this plainer than in the inscription on the rear of the monument (figures 2, 3). Should you wish to know more about Liscum than this inscription offers, see the program for the dedication of a 1911 monument to him in Burlington, VT, here.
The original inscription ran down to and included the birthdate of Liscum’s wife May, to whom we evidently owe this monument. The date of her death, in 1933, was carved by a different hand, as you can see from the different spacing and height of the letters. The serifed letters, deep enough to cast a shadow, are reminiscent of the finest Roman examples. See the tall ‘T’s in lines 2, 3, 4, and 8: a fussy attempt at kerning to achieve a very even spacing of the letters. Yet the cutter only does it when two adjacent letters can be squeezed under the “roof” of the T. See how the cutter avoids the ‘tall T’ at the beginning or end of a word or when two ‘T’s fall together: the point was to achieve symmetry. The T in Hamilton (line 1) is not tall presumably because the cutter wanted to cut the name with a solemn regularity.
The monument was unfortunately written up sloppily by an intern of the Smithsonian in 1995. Contrary to what the intern implies, apart from the multi-piece base the figure and stele behind it are monolithic. The sculpted figure emerges from a rough-hewn niche in the face of the slab, as figure 5, an oblique view of the female figure, makes clear. The intern seemingly worked from a poor or truncated frontal photograph, failing to read the surname ‘Liscum’ on the base’s front (figure 1) and recording the monument as being of a certain ‘Emerson Hamilton.’ Had the intern seen the inscription on the rear of the monument, such a mistake could have been avoided. This is why autopsy is so important in writing about art, and a second rule is: always look at the monument closely and photograph it from all sides. It’s like double-tapping.
The figure is standing still in a contrapposto pose with its weight on the unseen right leg (figure 4). The left leg is thrown a bit forward and is exposed to view (figure 7). The left hand loosely bears a palm frond, while the right grasps the handle of a round shield. The upper torso is averted slightly to the right, whereas the head is averted left so that it looks directly out from the plane of the background. The head bears a helmet; the eyes are expressionless, and the mouth is turned down slightly at the corners. The exposed left foot wears a strapped boot.
The drapery is nicely, if conservatively, handled. The strap (a belt? a baldric?) that runs down under the figure’s right breast to a point at the left hip behind the palm frond holds down the cloth of the peplos which is gathered at the hip on the right and creates five small pinched folds above it. The peplos has been cinched below the breasts, and the cloth is depicted as copious and light enough in weight to sustain its poofs by its own internal stiffness rather than falling heavily or slackly because of gravity. This is, of course, mannered and, I think, in defiance of nature, as you can also see in Saint-Gaudens’ Amor Caritas (figure 6).
The Saint-Gaudens figure exhibits two traits of neoclassical art: sheer, flowing voluminous garments with many crepe-like folds and a delight in revealing or suggesting the female form through this drapery. These are not universal traits: you’ll find plenty of examples of female figures quite chastely covered up. You will likewise find fascinated explorations of the male nude. Those, however, will not help us interpret the Liscum figure.
So, gathering some comparisons, I would point to a few very obvious examples drawn from near-contemporary neoclassical paintings which illustrate the lightness and sheerness of the fabric that I think the Liscum sculptor had in mind. Paintings show this more clearly than stone sculpture because the painter can express the diaphanous nature of cloth by painting the body underneath; the sculptor can only reveal a figure under clothes by having it stride forward, or imagining some sort of breeze in order to have the sheer cloth pressed against the flesh and thus expose its contours. Whether drapery is opaque or diaphanous is anyone’s guess in stone, although that guess can be fairly obvious, as in the almost certainly diaphanous drapery in figure 2 of this post. It’s amazing how many neoclassical stone (or bronze) dames walk into a headwind or tailwind (contrast figures 8 and 13).
Looking at these examples, see, for example, the figure on the left in Leighton’s Winding the Skein (1878: figure 7) and his Flaming June (1895: figure 8); Godward’s Idleness (1900: figure 9); and Alma Tadema’s The Etruscan Vase Painters (1871: figure 10) and A Coign of Vantage (1895: figure 11).
Have a look, too, at how the drapery is secured to the body. Amor Caritas (figure 6) is bound in a typical classical way with crossed straps running from the neck in an X pattern under the breasts. One can also see that clearly in Leighton’s Winding the Skein (figure 7). The artist eats his cake and has it, too, for conservative viewers are invited to see the loose voluminous folds and gathers of cloth as effectively covering the chest; yet the cross-banded presentation emphasizes the female shape of the chest precisely by separating and defining two masses.
A comparison with Amor Caritas (figure 6) and Weinman’s splendid Walking Liberty (figure 13) shows that the Liscum artist made different decisions at a number of points. When I first saw the Liscum figure I was at a loss as to whether it portrays a male or female. Of course, close observation shows the figure has breasts (figure 5), and there are a bunch of other signs, such as the clothing, showing it is female. Still, the pose, the musculature of the arms, neck, and booted leg, and something about the face—beetle-browed with muscular lips and cheeks—all strike me as deliberately chosen masculine signs as I contrast them with the ‘girly girls’ of neoclassical art. Again, the figure is standing still and the drapery falls lankly, meaning that it does not very much reveal the female form.
The Walking Liberty half dollar, designed in 1916, postdates the Liscum figure by about fifteen years. Yet we see the same voluminous peplos in sheer material. But where the cloth in figures 4 and 6 hangs comparatively limply, Weinman’s Liberty—clearly labeled as such on the coin—has her peplos billowing in the tailwind and due to her walking stride. It is not bound by straps as in the other two figures. Like the Liscum figure, she wears a pectoral over her upper chest: see that her striped dress emerges from under it. Those stripes on the dress are notionally a continuation of the stripes of the flag, and the dress flowing in the breeze evokes and echoes the flapping of the flag (or vice versa).
Weinman’s Liberty lacks the Liscum helmet, shield, and boots. And although Weinman brings out some of the curves of the female form, especially in the lower half of the figure, he has not exposed her leg as the Liscum artist has. We can, however, find a comparandum in Hermon MacNeil’s Standing Liberty, also designed in 1916 (figure 14).
MacNeil’s figure, in frontal view, is to my eye not as successful as Weinman’s, nor even as much as the Liscum artist’s: there’s something askew with the legs. But leaving aside this and other considerations, MacNeil has done a good job of articulating the peplos, which bares a leg. Look well above the knee on the bared leg: you see cloth coming together like an inverted V. The cloth is pinned at the vertex, and it is pinned again—the pin this time visible as a little dot—just a bit above. The cloth pulls apart between the pins exposing a silver sliver of flesh. That’s how these classical dresses work: the one side (here, the figure’s left) has solid cloth, while the top and right are optionally pinned at intervals. On the quarter, the figure, who is striding forward, has her leg bared because she is moving toward us: it’s pulled through the unpinned gap in the cloth. The Liscum figure has thrust her leg forward and the hand holding the frond keeps the peplos open. The MacNeil figure also shows us a female personification with a shield.
Another Liberty wears a fine peplos pinned on the left and cinched below the breasts on the obverse of Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle of 1907 (figure 15).
The figure is posed, not walking toward us. A stiff wind comes from the figure’s front and left. It lacks a pectoral, though the voluminous, sheer peplos, pinned on the left, exhibits a carefully described series of arcs in the upper torso which we also see in the Liscum figure and his Amor Caritas. It is not clear to me whether the left leg on the coin is exposed or covered by sheer fabric that expresses the leg’s outline. I think I see the sandal Liberty is wearing on that side, and it would be consonant with the physics of a draping, sheer peplos in the wind to have the leg exposed. The ‘S’-shaped and even more elaborate curves described by the bottom hem of the peplos are very, very nice,
You’ll have noticed that I’ve found comparanda for the garment, the pectoral, the shield, and the exposed leg in personifications of Liberty. The Liscum figure need not be one, however; these attributes fit any number of these personifications, of which there are a large number in neoclassical art: Memory (figure 16), Meditation (figure 17), Grief (figure 18), Death, Victory (both figure 19), Liberality (figure 20), and so on.
Still, I think a reasonably good case could be made for Liberty, for Columbia, i.e., the personification of America, or Victory. Of the three, I guess I prefer Columbia. She, our country, stands present at the grave of a brave fallen son in our pre-eminent national cemetery. She looks mighty bummed out about it. The masculine turn of the Liscum figure, along with the armaments connects her to war. But Liberty is just about as likely; there is an “Armed Freedom” atop the U.S. Capitol replete with shield and helmet (and sword, to boot). She totes a laurel wreath instead of a palm frond, but these two are to my mind interchangeable and often appear together, as in figure 19; see the discussion in my post on Phidippides which connects these symbols specifically to the American Christian funerary realm. The military accoutrements and palm suggest victory, but it is too common for artists to have appropriated the symbols of victory to other personifications to give their mere presence much weight. Put another way, I feel more comfortable identifying the personification on the basis of the story I think the monument tells rather than the mechanical presence of attributes.
I’ve linked more than once to the valuable discussions of Bob Speel, working out of the U.K. He focuses on Victorian and Edwardian sculpture in that country, and in particular he has assembled an illustrated dictionary of personifications. Among the figures in his ‘V for Victory’ page is the following illustration (figure 22). I wrote to him a couple of weeks ago to discover where this figure is and who was the artist, but he has been too busy to respond to me yet.
The photograph appears to be vintage, the monument in the style of the others discussed here and I think necessarily dating to that same time frame. I take it to be out of copyright, and the photograph as well because of the lapse of time.
This figure exhibits the same somewhat masculine physique as the Liscum figure, and wears a laurel crown and holds laurels of victory aloft. Her sword is sheathed and its belt is wrapped around it: the victory won, it is not needed for now. If I read the image correctly, the peplos is cinched below the breasts and again at the waist. The fabric has been pulled out under the waist cinch to make an articulation of the fabric at mid-torso. Like the Liscum figure, it wears a pectoral, and also similarly the artist has barely suggested the form of the hips, belly and upper thighs under the lank cloth. The artist has treated the bottom hem of the garment in a stylized way, reducing it to a series of symmetrical abstract curves surrounding a central omega (Ω) form. Below those folds the feet are visible, wearing sandals. The cape with its (aegis?) clasp at the neck is very interesting. The most arresting part of the image is the face with its look of hauteur.
The Liscum monument is among the artistically finest in Arlington, yet it goes largely unsung in the literature and unremarked by tourists in a rush to see the Kennedy graves. It has a pathetic stub of an entry in the Pedia of Wiki which is basically a placeholder referring to the atrocious Smithsonian writeup. Find a Grave has some nice photos but little else of value. The monument’s right there in Section E. Div. Site 843: next time you’re there, have a look: it’s worth a detour from the dead presidents and medal of honor winners.