Beautiful and solemn, this marble figure honors Maria Gouverneur Mitchell, who died of diphtheria 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 she taught children’s classes. For Dr. Mitchell, a famous physician and writer, and his wife, this sculpture represented Maria’s “singularly sweet and blameless life,” their grief over her loss, and the solace they found in both art and faith.
To commemorate their daughter, the Mitchells turned to Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most versatile and imaginative American sculptor of his day. An Irish immigrant who rose from working-class origins, Saint-Gaudens was inspired by the idealism of the Renaissance and the classical past, which he gracefully allied to the naturalism he learned from modern masters in Paris.
Three years earlier Saint-Gaudens had completed Amor Caritas (Charity, or Love), a life-size bronze figure of an angel holding a tablet, for the French state collections (now housed in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). He returned to this design, which he described as “one of the things I care for most that I have done,” to produce the last and finest in a series of related sculptures begun in 1885. He reworked the crown and garland of passionflowers (a native North American flower whose parts can be seen as symbolizing Christ’s passion), revised the drapery, and redesigned the architectural niche. Like his Diana (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1932-30-1), the angel was modeled on the handsome features of his mistress, Davida Clark. The clay model was first cast in plaster, and then later carved in marble at Mrs. Mitchell’s special request. The luminous stone and delicate carving of the Angel of Purity make this the artist’s most moving statement of sorrow and serenity.