No, not one of Charlie’s but the figure of an angel in Hollywood Cemetery (figure 1).

Figure 1. Rueger monument. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

William Rueger died in 1936, his wife Dorothea (Vocke) in 1909. In this case it was the husband who was left to commemorate his wife, and to judge by the neoclassical style of Julius C. Loester’s angel, Rueger commissioned it soon after her death. Loester seems to me a good artist of the second rank; I find the symmetry of the composition pleasing, and I like the asymmetrical touches in the treatment of the drapery over the upper torso; but the unfurled banner, the treatment of the hair, and the unenthusiastic sculpting of the female form under the drapery make this sculpture a little dry for me.

Figure 2. Rueger monument from rear. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

Angel figures rarely have their wings so spread. Sometimes they do, but more often the wings are tucked in closer to the body to aid the sculpture (or image) in fitting better into whatever frame the artist imagines. In this case, the frame is (in part) the horizontal line offered by the top of the slab behind the angel (figures 1, 2), and so spreading the wings agrees with this spatial arrangement.

A female abstract figure in juxtaposition with architecture is something we commonly see in landmark works from the neoclassical period. Hermon MacNeil’s Standing Liberty (of 1916, figure 2a), emerging from a waist-high wall, is a prominent example. In the Rueger monument, a cornice has been added in front to the top of the slab on either side of the figure. These serve to symmetrically frame it (and give weight to the parts of the slab notionally supporting the wings), about the way the gap in MacNeil’s wall frames his Liberty. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney similarly adopted a symmetrical pose, spreading the arms of her female figure wide, in her Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution (figure 2b), while Augustus Saint-Gaudens placed his sitting Grief (figure 2c) in front of a slab in Rock Creek Cemetery (here I show the replica in the Smithsonian). See also addendum 1, below.

Figure 2a. Hermon MacNeil, Standing Liberty quarter dollar obverse. Photo: John Baumgart. CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 2b. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, The Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1929. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid. CC-BY-SA 4.0. Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 2c. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Clover Adams monument. Smithsonian American Art Museum, inv. 1970.11. Photo: author.

Looking now to figure 3, we see Loester’s solution to a problem I wonder about in my spare time: the attachment of wings to a human torso. It’s ridiculous to hold an artist to some sort of standard in depicting a mythological figure—how do those snakes grow out of Medusa’s head, even in theory? And if a human figure did have wings, they would be in place of arms, as in birds. But even ignoring that, a heavy human body would require vast muscles coming around the torso and a really strong ribcage to support them, in addition to substantial muscles attaching the wing to the spine in back. If you argue that angels are etherial beings made specially by God, fair enough, but why wings then? They can more efficiently float on their own power (God can make them function any way He wills, after all). And how many of them can dance on the head of a pin? In any event, the official position adopted here is that angels, whatever they may be in reality, are depicted anthropomorphically out of artistic convenience and anthropocentrism. As the Greek philosopher said, if horses had gods they’d look like horses, etc.

Figure 3. Rueger monument, joining of wings to figure. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

Loester draws a veil over all this by having the wings emerge from specially made slits in the angel’s gown. However, the draping of this section doesn’t seem to indicate he thought the angel would need much muscle to fly!

Well, enough of that. Let’s turn around to the front and have a look at the torso, banner, and the pose (figure 4).

Figure 4. Rueger monument. view of torso of figure and banner. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

The angel is depicted at rest, having landed. The wings are extended for visual purposes as discussed above, but presumably if we try to explain it we would say she’s putting on a display to intimidate her viewers. Her weight is on her left leg, the right thrown slightly forward. There is no wind, and her peplos falls slack to the ground. Because it has been cinched below the breasts, it does fall loosely against the lower torso and right leg, lightly expressing their shapes. The feet are planted flat, and wear sandals. The peplos is open on the right side: see the draping edge below the final ‘t’ in the word ‘that’ on the banner.

There is an inherent contradiction in the depiction of the drapery as being sheer enough to even lightly suggest the contours of the lower torso and legs, yet heavy enough to maintain big folds around the arms, over the breasts, and where it falls off the right shoulder. I put it down to conservatism in the artist who wants to play with the female form like everybody else but doesn’t want to épater les bourgeois with too revealing a figure. An artist of the first rank would say ‘who cares’ and do what he or she wanted; but Loester was far enough down the pecking order to need repeat business, I guess.

Figure 5. Rueger monument, view of left side with sleeve. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

If I am not much mistaken we see (in figure 5) the seam where the left wing has been attached to a stump emerging from the torso, just outside of the line of the arm. See how the patina is beginning to form in it along a line an inch or two out from the shoulder and arm? In figure 3 you can see a nice straight line where the right wing attaches to the rear of the statue.

Figure 6. Rueger monument, view of feet of figure. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

I always take a photo of the feet (figure 6), since the best artists carry through their attentive work even to the least parts of their figures. About all I can say here is that this angel (or the model who posed for the feet) didn’t have hammer toes.

Figure 7. Rueger monument, view of head and upper torso of figure. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

The face (figure 7) is pleasant, if somewhat squarer than the norm, perhaps due to a bit of jowl crunching because she’s looking down. She has a thickish nose and bee-sting lips. (Don’t look up ‘bee-sting lips’ on Google: you won’t like what you find.) The eyes are expressionless and appear to me to look slightly down from the face. They are not deep set, and the brows arch high over them. There is a (to me) ugly little line on the forehead where the cap of hair was welded to the head. The neck seems longer than natural and there is a tiara on top of the head (which sports a bun in back). The overall effect is to heighten the figure in order to set off the widely splayed horizontals of the wings and the banner.

The banner is notionally a ribbon with the words “THEY THAT LIE HERE REST IN PEACE” with the quotation marks in the original. I suppose the quotation marks are meant to indicate that the assertion comes not from the angel but from where what is willed must be. If the wings defy reality, the catenary of the banner does not, and the figure’s right leg could be seen to push out against the ribbon slightly to keep its face visible and message legible.

The wings (figures 8, 9) offer a nice opportunity to see how the artist applied layer after layer of clay to his model, like shingles, to give the feathered look. He incised the barbs into the feathers. Once you see his hand at work you can see how he has incised striations all the way down the gown to give it a crepe-y look, and how he has incised the Greek key pattern on the left shoulder of the peplos and applied clay and mashed it down to give texture to the drapery over the upper torso. All this is neither good nor bad, just an indication of Loester’s working habits.

Figure 10. Rueger monument, artist’s signature. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

The final incised addition I saw on the bronze was Loester’s signature, “Julius C. Loester sc[alpsit],” “Julius C. Loester sculpted [it].”

I feel guilty about tarring Loester with being second rate, even though I think it’s true. But if we compare it with just about anything that’s been put in a cemetery in the U.S. since about 1960, the modern work comes off very, very poorly.

Partly the craftsmanship died out during the depression (and was in decline in the 1920s), partly styles changed, and partly the culture changed to where the modestly successful burgher preferred a short upright slab monument if they were not compelled by cemetery rules to be buried with nothing more than a flat plaque that facilitates mowing.

By contrast, the Rueger monument is an example of the gen-you-wine pieces of art that made outdoor galleries out of so many U.S. gilded-age cemeteries. The mixed desire to enrich the civic environment together with some fairly strenuous social competition left an incomparable cultural legacy we can still enjoy today.

Addendum.

Figure 11. George Julian Zolnay, monument to Margaret Howell Davis Hayes, 1911. Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA. Photo: author.

George Julian Zolnay sculpted a 1911 monument for the grave of Jefferson Davis’s daughter Margaret in Hollywood Cemetery (figure 11). The figure, which has excellent toes, by the way, is backed by a roughly waist high wall in the form of an open book. Otherwise the principles of symmetry have been carried through more thoroughly than in the Rueger monument (figure 1). Now that I look at it carefully, It’s not clear to me how Zolnay imagined her clothing to have been arranged and fastened, except that there’s a big fold in front with a hem that rises in a big S curve. It could be that the clothing scheme is irrational, with its internal logic sacrificed to some desire on Zolnay’s part to get the drapery the way he wanted it. The book has a nice tooled-leather cover inscribed PAX, or ‘peace,’ fitting for a statue dedicated during the great years of reconciliation. However that may be, it does form another comparandum for the schema of the Rueger monument.

Addendum 2.

John O. Peters, in his carefully researched book, Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery (2010), gives the useful datum which I had not seen, that the bronze was cast by the Roman Bronze Works, and dates the figure to “ca. 1930.” He had access to cemetery and other historical records, and he gives precise dates where he can, as for the angel on the Cabell monument, which he dates to 1927. His careful use of “ca.” seems to me to indicate that his records fell short and he was estimating on the basis of the dates of death on the stone. The Rueger angel, however, comes from a different world from 1930: she is rightfully compared to figures between 1900 and 1920 on the basis of Loester’s treatment of the pose and drapery. Have a look at the two (figures 12, 13):

The framing elements are different, and the poses are quite different, so anything coming directly from these is irrelevant to what I’m trying to show. Rather, the day of the chiffon-y crepe-y drapery is over by 1927, and the Greek facial features and hair style is gone. I do not pretend that this comparison constitutes definitive proof, but I believe if you were to carry the comparison to further examples, you’d see that there is a sea change between the Rueger figure and figures from “ca. 1930.” In fact, have a look at Vanderbilt’s monument in figure 2b: the drapery is likewise far removed from the neoclassical standard.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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