Allegorical Figures

Cyrus Dallin considered his allegorical or “ideal” sculptures his proudest achievements. Allegorical sculptures try to find forms to express intangible qualities. Ideal sculptures aim to transcend their realistic appearance and historical costumes to exalt civic virtues values such as patriotism, heroism, liberty, and devotion.

Dallin’s allegorical statues project a naïve sincerity, in contrast to the more calculated expression of the Parisian Beaux-Arts style he studied and taught. Their earnest poses look overacted to us. But back in the day of the Cross of the Gold Speech and the Gettysburg Address, speakers relied on lung-powered oratory and big, dramatic gestures to reach the distant fringes of an audience.

Talking movies made these communications comic. Today, the virtual intimacy of modern electronic media mongrelizes commerce and theater. This fosters a cynicism that admirers of fine art must overcome to fully appreciate the virtues of Dallin’s allegories.

 

Lethe

Lethe, or Oblivion

Plaster, 1903
Museum purchase

Unknown for the century before its rediscovery in 2003, this sculpture depicts the mythological river of the Greek Underworld, Lethe, also known as the Waters of Oblivion. Possibly intended for a cemetery monument, the sculpture’s nudity and reclining pose suggest that she is a river, reinforced by the long, wet hair flowing down her back. The tree stump, the cut, inverted poppies, and her eyes closed in dreamy sleep are traditional allusions to death.

In Greek mythology, dying souls drink of the river’s waters and forget about their former lives. Ovid describes the river Lethe in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone. As an art student in Paris, Dallin would have almost certainly been aware of Charles Baudelaire’s erotic poem, “Le Léthé,” from his collection Flowers of Evil. Dallin greatly admired his teacher Henri Michel Chapu (1833-1891), the sculptor of a famous kneeling Joan of Arc, as well as two crouching deities of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone. This suppressed masterpiece may have been created as an homage to Chapu.

 

Angel Moroni

Angel Moroni

Gilded bronze copy of the 1891 plaster model, 1999
Gift of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1999

Perched on top of the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, Dallin’s Angel Moroni (pronounced moe-roe-nigh) is sculpted in hammered copper (repoussé), the same medium as Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. Moroni’s robes and trumpet resemble those of Bartholdi’s four trumpeting angels on the tower of H.H. Richardson’s Brattle Square Church in Boston – a work of the 1870s that the young Dallin most certainly knew and must have admired.

 

Agriculture

Agriculture

Bronze, 1909
Commissioned by the Robbins Sisters (Eliza, Caira, and Ida) of Arlington

Draped in a classical tunic and wearing a laurel wreath crown, this personification of American agriculture is identified by her sheaf of tobacco leaves, the definitive American cash crop and export for four centuries. After almost 90 years of corrosive exposure to the elements, it was removed from the top of the Robbins Memorial Flag Staff at Arlington Town Hall and replaced with a plastic resin copy in 2000.

Dallin’s beautiful Flag Staff base depicts figures and themes from Arlington’s early history: The town’s last Massachusetts chief, the Squaw Sachem, whose name outsiders were forbidden to speak; a Pilgrim father, studying his Bible; a mother teaching her child to read; and a Minuteman on guard with his musket. The base is ornamented with reliefs of fruits, nuts, insects and birds to commemorate Arlington’s famous market garden economy of the early 20th century.