The Learned monument in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery (figure 1) is a fine work from the twilight of the great age of American funerary monumental culture (this is subjective, but I would put the dates at about 1890 to 1930).
Forest Lawn is luckier than most cemeteries in that conservative Omahans were not as quick as the burghers of other, perhaps more stylish, cities to abandon neoclassical style. It is also common to find a jaunty spit-in-your-eye sensibility in Nebraska which leads to unusual monuments. I saw three pairs of cowboy boots yesterday, two bronzed (on the same monument!) and one in cement.
Here we have a staid but attractive monument from 1929 that would be at home in Rock Creek or Sleepy Hollow. The simple geometry of the arched frame for the angel lacks the more delicate lines of high neoclassical work; it’s squared off with setbacks recollecting the preferred forms of Art Deco which was prominently exampled in Omaha.
There is no carved ornamentation in the granite except for the inscription, which is designed in two registers (for husband and wife) to assimilate to an abstract design, or maybe florals, in most light. It takes a second to come closer and see the names begin to pop.
The architect of the monument (presumably Nellie Walker: see below) has artfully left a light-filled void behind the female figure’s head; it serves a practical purpose of drawing the eye to the most important part of the monument and of making the outline of that part of the monument clear. But it also has a secondary purpose of giving the angel a halo. It’s quite clever. It’s nice how the wings and the upper portion of the granite frame work together to this end. In autumn, as in figure 1, there is a bit of fire in that halo.
The head of the figure (figure 2) is attractively somber, as befits a grieving angel. The symmetry of the pose, which features the angel’s hands outstretched in a protective gesture, is neoclassical but leaning toward the abstract geometries of Deco. The face is not so much that of a Gibson girl as it looks forward to Women of the Thirties ™ such as Amelia Earhart.
Time and chance have caused a patina to grow in an attractive inverted arch running down from the hairdo through the eyes, down to the chin, where the two sides meet. I can’t quite persuade myself that Walker expected the water to run down the statue this way—it seems like a very difficult calculation—but you will not soon find a better imitation of the running of tears down from the eyes.
Too often, as here, a visitor does damage to these figures by affixing flowers or some other feature to the hands. I get it, that these angelic weepers most commonly offer flowers to the deceased, sprinkling them over the grave, so there is a propensity to envision them all as offering flowers. But when you look at the hands, you can quickly see that that is a clumsy misreading of the more sophisticated (or at any rate less clichéd) protective gesture. I’ve seen an equally frustrating and clumsy addition of flowers at Kensico, so it’s not just some Nebraska thing.
Not at all clumsy is the addition, but by some different pilgrim, surely, of a blue necklace to the figure. It’s out of place of course, with its suggestion of materialism in an angel, but of course the shape of the strands and the colors in the necklace are a very nice foil for the patinated curves on the face. So I’m offended and charmed at the same time. I do note that the necklace could be removed without harming the finish of the bronze, which makes the necklace a categorically less offensive addition than the flowers.
Nellie Verne Walker (1874-1973) signed the female figure (figure 3), making this a genuine objay darr by a name artist. Walker was from relatively nearby Red Oak, Iowa, the daughter of a stonecutter whose dalliances with her father’s tools led to her becoming a well known, talented artist (as this monument demonstrates). She was a student of Lorado Taft, who respected her work; her output begins at about the beginning of the twentieth century. See the pedia of Wiki article linked above.