Screened away from the rest of Rock Creek Cemetery by some carefully-placed foliage is a cast bronze figure, positioned in a granite architectural setting. The sexless figure is draped in a heavy shroud, and its face is free of any expression. A stone bench by the statue invites the visitor to rest and to find peace and solace in the intimate environs.
In 1885, suffering from depression, photographer and socialite Marian Hooper “Clover” Adams took her own life. Her husband, historian and intellectual Henry Adams (a descendant of presidents John and John Quincy Adams), was inconsolable after her death, and in search of peace, he traveled to Japan with his friend, the artist John La Farge. There, Adams studied Buddhist philosophy and culture, and it was during this time that the idea for this memorial was born.
Upon his return to DC several years later, Adams asked La Farge to approach Augustus Saint-Gaudens on his behalf about making his idea for a memorial a reality. At the time, Saint-Gaudens was the most prominent sculptor in America, having earned widespread acclaim for his statuary work, including Standing Lincoln in Chicago and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common. Although Adams was only able to offer vague, abstract concepts for the intended memorial, Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission, and together with La Farge, he and Adams began designing the sculpture.
The figure depicted in the memorial is not Clover, nor is it meant to represent grief or mourning, as is commonly thought. Instead, Adams wanted to convey “the acceptance, intellectually, of the inevitable.” His original concept for the memorial is closely tied to the Buddhist idea of nirvana, a liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and a state removed from human feeling. The notes in Saint-Gaudens’ sketchbook state only: “Adams. Buddha. Mental Repose. Calm reflection in contrast with the violence or force in nature.”
The product of this abstract approach to memorial design is the inscrutable, unfathomable figure that sits in Rock Creek Cemetery. Apparently inspired by Adams’ experiences with Buddhist devotional art as well as Saint-Gaudens’ familiarity with Parisian funerary works, the technically nameless sculpture has invited a variety of interpretations since its installation in 1891, even from among its creators. Adams’ own name for it was The Peace of God, but he felt that the statue’s “universality and anonymity” were key to its impact on the viewer. Saint-Gaudens called it The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding, and La Farge called it Kwannon, after the Japanese Buddhist goddess of harmony.
The most common name for the statue, Grief, comes from comments attributed to Mark Twain stating that the figure personified grief. Adams, however, resisted attempts to characterize it as such, and in fact disliked any attempt to name the figure. Writing to a friend, he stated that the statue was meant “to ask a question, not to give an answer, and the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx.” In his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, he reiterated his belief that the memorial should prompt reflection rather than providing simple answers: "The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer,” he wrote. “...Like all great artists, Saint-Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.”
The memorial attracted a great deal of attention upon its unveiling in 1891. Saint-Gaudens was considered one of the finest American artists of his day, and Stanford White, who designed the statue’s granite setting, was among the most renowned architects in the U.S. Acclaim for the memorial was immediate and widespread. Even Alexander Woollcott, best known for his acerbic wit and ruthless cultural criticism, called the statue “the most beautiful thing fashioned by the hand of man on this continent.”
Adams, who continued to grieve Clover and refused to discuss her for the rest of his life, came to despair at the memorial’s status as a tourist attraction. For many years, the constant visitors who came to appreciate the art prevented Adams from finding any of his own solace in the statue. Upon his death in 1918, however, Adams returned for his final rest, buried next to Clover in unmarked graves at the foot of the memorial.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: March 16, 1972