by Cynthia Mills. Smithsonian Books, September 2014. 288 p. ill. ISBN 9781935623373 (cl.), $39.95.
Reviewed November 2014
Alexandra Gregory, Cataloguer Librarian/Collection Development Specialist for Slavic Studies, University of Ottawa, firstname.lastname@example.org
Funerary sculpture and cemetery architecture are rarely the stuff of cocktail party chatter, and it is safe to say that the topic has been chiefly neglected in art historical assessments. Cynthia Mills' title is a solid and welcome addition to an art form worthy of more attention and legitimacy.
Contrary to what may be inferred from the subtitle, Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age is not an international survey of sepulchral monuments of the nineteenth century. It is, rather, an exploration of several individual memorials erected to certain prominent Americans in the mid-to-late 1800s through the very personal and often very poignant stories behind each tribute's design, installation, and legacy. Divided into fourteen chapters, the monograph highlights funerary monuments by Augustus St-Gaudens, William Wetmore Story, Daniel Chester French, and Frank Duveneck.
The underlying message of Dr. Mills' work is that a tombstone is not merely a manifestation of personal grief at the loss of a loved one. It is also a public display of mourning that must be fitting for one's station in society, a conflict between an artist's vision and his patron's, a source of delay, frustration and increasing expenditure, fodder for big business, an intrusion on privacy, a challenge to intellectual property, and a confounder of the gap between personal and private space.
An implicit question winds its way throughout the monograph: are sepulchral monuments "art," and if so, does their physical location in public space qualify them as "public art" despite their role as markers of private mourning? Who ultimately owns these sculptures, and what are the public's rights and limitations to enjoy these works? These questions are explored by the author in very poignant vignettes taken from the grieving families' experiences.
The work is richly illustrated with color plates, reproductions of artists' sketches, architectural plans, portraits, and contemporary advertisements. The select bibliography is extensive, notes are exhaustive, and the index highly detailed.
Pinpointing one suitable audience for this title is difficult. Those seeking a general survey of sepulchral monuments or detailed architectural analyses will be disappointed. Scholars of the specific artists discussed therein will be thrilled to discover a lesser known facet of their sculptor's oeuvre as none would appear to be known primarily by their sepulchral works. The book's myriad biographical anecdotes make this a very readable insight into the history and societal norms of America's elite of the nineteenth century. Perhaps, then, it is most accurate to say that Dr. Mills' work would serve to enhance not just one area of a library's collection but several, and possibly even serendipitously.