- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

Should you miss seeing the Shaw Memorial before it goes off view, there still are plenty of opportunities to appreciate Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ considerable talent for commemoration. Another of his great works — some consider it his finest achievement — is the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery at Rock Creek Church Road and Webster Street Northwest. It was commissioned by historian, writer and presidential descendant Henry Adams as a tribute to his late wife, Marian “Clover” Adams, who committed suicide in 1885.

Where the public Shaw Memorial is heroic, eloquent and realistic, the private Adams Memorial is contemplative, enigmatic and almost abstract. Its seated figure, neither female nor male, is draped in a flowing cloak, and its face is cast in dark shadow by the hood pulled over its head. The funereal sculpture is commonly but incorrectly called “Grief” for its brooding pose.

“For Saint-Gaudens, this allegorical figure was out of the norm,” says the Smithsonian’s American sculpture curator, George Gurney. “He typically did realistic portraits. This is a combination of Buddhist images and the sibylline effects of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

For those unwilling to brave cold weather, a 1969 bronze cast of the 1891 original is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Also part of the museum’s collection are 16 other works by Saint-Gaudens worth seeing, ranging from early marble busts to a bronze portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

However, to experience the full power of the Adams Memorial, visit the original, where the mystery of the shrouded figure is reinforced by its architectural setting. Steps lead from the cemetery into the sides of a Zen-like outdoor room formed by a pebble-filled plinth and a three-sided granite bench facing the sculpture. Yews wrap the sides of the space to form walls of evergreen. No inscriptions, not even the Adams’ names (Henry is buried here, too), indicate the purpose of this quiet sanctuary. If only contemporary memorials could be so timeless.

Deborah K. Dietsch

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