Carrie Mae Weems National Gallery of Art acquisition honors 54th Massachusetts

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial and Carrie Mae Weems National Gallery of Art acquisition, Untitled, speak to our nation’s struggle to achieve racial equity and to the strength and sacrifice of those who have continued to wage the battle. The heroism of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African American regiments formed in the North during the Civil War, has inspired artists for more than 150 years. The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) has recently installed a newly acquired seven-part series of inkjet prints by Weems facing Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture.

The installation of the two works, created almost a century apart, is on view in Gallery 66 on the Main Floor of the West Building.

In the late 19th century, Saint-Gaudens crafted his memorial honoring Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment, depicting their 1863 march through the streets of Boston on their way to war. The bronze version of the sculpture was installed on Boston Common in 1897. Saint-Gaudens continued to work on a plaster version of the memorial, now on view at the National Gallery. Hailed as one of the finest examples of 19th-century American sculpture, the memorial is celebrated for its sensitive rendition of the soldiers.

One hundred years after the completion of the sculpture, Carrie Mae Weems National Gallery of Art pieces incorporate images of the memorial into her series of photographs, in a testament to its lasting power. Her work commemorates another march—that of African Americans streaming north from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration—and celebrates the rich and vital history of African American culture.  

“Ever since their heroic actions during the Civil War, the 54th Regiment has served as a touchstone for the country as it wrestles with issues of race and racism,” Kaywin Feldman, director, National Gallery of Art, said. “At a time when monuments to the Confederacy and to Confederate military leaders were appearing across the nation, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial stood as a glorious exception—a monument honoring those who fought against slavery, fully aware of the sacrifice required. The juxtaposition of these works reminds us once again how the past remains relevant, providing profound inspiration for contemporary artists.”

Untitled (1996, printed 2020) by Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) explores “the tangled web of history” in Untitled (1996, printed 2020) by incorporating several historic images into her suite of seven inkjet prints. The series is bookended by reproductions of a 1973 photograph by Richard Benson of the soldiers in Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Weems also included a 1941 picture by Russell Lee of boys in an ecclesiastical procession outside of a church in Chicago’s South Side, as well as photographs by Doris Ulmann of the ceremonial act of foot washing (1929–1930). Little is known about the photographer of the central picture, but it depicts the Morris Williams family, who moved north to Chicago during the Great Migration.

The text etched into the glass on the pictures alludes to the history of African Americans since the Civil War. Weems infuses the work with religious overtones and evocations of the power of music by including pages from the scores of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and Miles Davis’s “All Blues,” as well as references to Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” By layering text on top of images by white artists (Saint-Gaudens, Benson, Lee, and Ulmann), Weems centers African American perspectives to construct a nuanced history that speaks of racial pride and resilience, sacrifice and determination. The work is also a plea to God, as the score of “Come Sunday” notes, to “please look down and see my people through.”

For more information about the acquisition, visit nga.gov/press/acquisitions/2021/weems.html.

The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial (1900) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster overall (without armature or pedestal): 368.9 x 524.5 x 86.4 cm (145 1/4 x 206 1/2 x 34 in.) overall (with armature & pedestal): 419.1 x 524.5 x 109.2 cm (165 x 206 1/2 x 43 in.) U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park, Cornish, New Hampshire, on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s (1848–1907) The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial (1900) is on long-term loan to the National Gallery from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, and the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park. The sculpture commemorates the storming of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, a troop of African American soldiers and white officers formed immediately after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Although nearly one-third of the regiment was killed or wounded in the assault, including Shaw himself, the battle was considered by many to be a turning point in the war, and the soldiers were honored for their bravery and dedication to country.

Adjacent to The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial are the names of the more than 200 soldiers who were killed, wounded, captured, or missing following the battle at Fort Wagner. Also on view in this gallery are several examples of the more than 40 portrait heads Saint-Gaudens modeled during the conception of the memorial.

For more information about The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial as well as the complete roster of the more than 1,500 men who served in the 54th Regiment between 1863 and 1865, visit nga.gov/collection/sculpture/fifty-fourth-regiment.html.

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