PHILADELPHIA (August 5, 2005) – The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced today that it has acquired Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ majestic marble the Angel of Purity (Maria Mitchell Memorial), which until recently was located in St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Philadelphia for which it was commissioned in 1902, a testament to parental love and grief for a lost child.
Angel of Purity (96 x 48 inches) was commissioned by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and his second wife Mary Cadwalader Mitchell after their daughter Maria Gouverneur Mitchell died from diphtheria at age 22 in 1898. Inscribed on a tablet held aloft by the angel are the words “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The sculpture faced the Cadwalader family pew until it was removed early in 2004 to be sold by the Church. It was last on view in New York in an exhibition of American sculpture at the Gerald Peters Gallery. With support from a fund for major acquisitions contributed to the Museum by the Annenberg Foundation, the Museum acquired the work from the gallery. The sculpture is currently being cleaned by Museum conservators and will be placed on view in the fall.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, b. Ireland, 1848-1907), who was considered the most gifted American sculptor at the turn of the 20th century, originally declined Dr. Mitchell’s commission upon its proposal, noting that he had “work on hand for two lifetimes.” A second attempt at persuasion by Mrs. Mitchell led to a positive response by Saint-Gaudens, who told her, “I shall throw aside all other work until I have done this thing for you.”
The sculpture is a unique variation on the artist’s earlier Amor Caritas composition, first explored as early as 1870 and best known in a bronze made in 1899 for the French state collections, now housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. For the Mitchell memorial, Saint-Gaudens reworked the angel’s crown and garland of passionflowers, revised the drapery, and redesigned the niche in which she stands. Unlike the earlier Amor Caritas works, Saint-Gaudens produced the final version in white marble rather than bronze, making Angel of Purity unique among the series. The Mitchells were deeply satisfied with Saint-Gaudens’ moving statement of sorrow and serenity, and the artist would later rank the sculpture among his favorites.
“We are thrilled to be able to acquire this beautiful sculpture and to keep it in Philadelphia where it belongs. Visitors will be able to admire it in our galleries, in the context of our American collections and other great works of art from the turn of the 20th century,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Museum.
“The Angel of Purity, so luminous in white marble, represents the finest of Saint-Gaudens’ works on this theme, and it is a masterpiece for the city,” said Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art at the Museum. “I am so delighted to see it join the artist’s earlier monumental bronze of the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, which has graced the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Great Stair Hall since 1932.”
About Augustus Saint-GaudensAugust Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848 to Bernard Saint-Gaudens, a French shoemaker, and Mary McGuiness, his Irish wife. Six months after his birth, the family moved to New York City. At age 13, when he expressed the desire to pursue a career in art, his father apprenticed him to a cameo cutter. While working days on a cameo lathe under two French cameo cutters, Louis Avet and Jules Le Brethon, Saint-Gaudens supplemented his employment with studies in art at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design.
At age 19, Saint-Gaudens traveled to Paris, one of the first few American sculptors to choose the French capitol over Florence or Rome, and was accepted to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied further before moving in 1870 to Rome where he eventually set up a studio and began work on his first commissions.
Settling in New York by 1874, Saint-Gaudens ultimately became one of the most skilled and imaginative sculptors of America’s “Gilded Age,” reinvigorating American sculpture by driving it toward a naturalistic style. Among the great public monuments that secured his fame are the Museum’s Diana (1892-94), which was originally commissioned as a weathervane for Stanford White’s second building for Madison Square Garden in New York, the Shaw Memorial in Boston (1884-1896) and the Sherman Memorial in New York (1897-1903).