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The Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial)
The Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial), 1902
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, American (born Ireland)
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August Saint-Gaudens's Angel of Purity

Beautiful and solemn, August Saint-Gaudens’s marble Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial) commemorates the spirit of Maria Gouverneur Mitchell, who died of diptheria in Philadelphia in 1898, at the age of twenty-two. Her bereft parents, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and Mary Cadwalader Mitchell, commissioned this monument for Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, where Maria taught children’s classes. For Mitchell, a famous doctor and writer, and especially for his wife, this sculpture represented to their family, their church, and their city the “singularly sweet and blameless life” of their daughter, the grief of her parents, and the solace found in both art and faith.

When approached by Dr. Mitchell, Saint-Gaudens declined the commission at first, noting that he had “work on hand for two lifetimes.” Then Mrs. Mitchell wrote a second appeal. “What she said I do not know,” wrote Dr. Mitchell later, “but he replied by saying ‘I shall throw aside all other work until I have done this thing for you.’” As Mitchell remembered, “This exquisite monument satisfied Mrs. Mitchell, and nothing could exceed the kindness and care and effort he gave to the whole business . . . I think a sweeter gentleman I never knew, nor one so magnanimous about his fellow-artists, nor any so capable of putting the high poetry of his imagination into marble.”

The sculpture was completed in 1902 and installed in Saint Stephen’s church, opposite the Cadwalader family pew, in 1903. A century later, the church found its congregation and endowment dwindling, and the sculpture was removed for sale. To save this masterpiece for Philadelphia, the Museum turned to the Annenberg Fund for Major Acquisitions, created by The Annenberg Foundation in response to a goal of the Museum’s 125th Anniversary Campaign. Radiant after treatment by the Museum’s conservators, the marble poetry of The Angel of Purity returns to the public.