Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Main Floor

When: through January 20, 2014

The plaster copy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art, and there are no plans to remove it any time soon, so far as I know.  What will be closing on January 20 is the exhibit set up around it, which seeks to shed some light on the soldiers who fought with Shaw and whose stories have been lost in the attention give to their commander.

If you've seen the movie Glory, then you know the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the African-American regiment he commanded during the Civil War.  Although they were defeated at the battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and lost 1/3 of their number, including Shaw himself, their dedication and bravery proved that African-Americans were every bit the fighting men that white soldiers were.

The memorial itself is worth an extended look - it's the first to feature not only the officer being remembered, but also the men he commanded.  Although the idea of honoring the common soldier is not controversial today, it had not been seen before this work was completed.  Booker T. Washington said of it that it stood "for effort, not victory complete."  The original bronze statute is in Boston, at the edge of the Boston Common.  The plaster copy on display at the National Gallery was exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1900, where it won an award.  It is considered to be one of the finest examples of 19th century American sculptures in existence.

The display around it focuses on the lives of soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the efforts of civil rights leaders to encourage young African-American men to enlist.  Included are photographs of African-American soldiers from the time period.  I was reminded of the several exhibits I've seen over the past couple of years of Civil War portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery - that solemn expression on the soldier's face.

Verdict: I recommend this exhibit - it's small, so easily managed in a lunch hour.  It's not everyday you get to see an award-winning piece of sculpture, with an informative historical display.

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