Category Archives: Art history

Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson and Memorializing the Civil War

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Theo Alice Ruggles (Kitson) in 1889, training in Paris at age 17. Photo from Smithsonian Archives.

On Saturday, November 14, 1903 crowds gathered in the new Vickburg Memorial Park, two miles outside of the city of Vickburg, Mississippi, to dedicate the first of the many statues that would eventually be placed there. This first statue was dedicated to the soldiers of Massachusetts who served in the Siege of Vicksburg forty years earlier. It was located on a hill, approximately where General Grant’s headquarters had been. The assembly consisted primarily of citizens from Mississippi and from Massachusetts. At 2:30, the proceedings began with a prayer. A chorus of school children from Vicksburg sang patriotic songs. Many dignitaries gave addresses, including Governor John L. Bates of Massachusetts and numerous distinguished veterans.[1]

Towards the close of ceremonies, the artist who sculpted the remarkable monument, Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, unveiled it, eliciting much applause. There is no mention of any remarks by Theo in the newspaper reports or on the program. The Vicksburg Evening Post spoke in glowing terms of the artist calling her, “the most famous woman sculptor in this country,” a woman whose genius and strength were “so unconsciously natural that one hardly realizes its scope.” Theo, the reporter wrote with approval, “shuns notoriety which many gifted women seek.”[2] We are left to wonder whether this silent and demure persona was one which Theo herself chose or one invented for her.

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Theo c. 1903, about the time of the Vicksburg dedication

One thing is certain, Theo was indeed the most prolific American female sculptor of the early 20th century. She created more than 60 additional works of art for the Vickburg Memorial Park including statues, busts and reliefs. Her sculptures are featured in almost every state in the country. One of her most popular, The Hiker, sculpted in 1906 to honor veterans of the Spanish American War, was reproduced more than 50 times and can be found in Minneapolis, Arlington National Cemetery, Chicago, Providence, Dayton, Sacramento, Savannah, Allentown, Tucson, New Orleans, Knoxville, and many other smaller American towns. One could write at length about numerous aspects of her body of work. For purposes of this article, I’ll briefly highlight her memorials to Massachusetts men in the Civil War, particularly her remarkable sculpture, The Volunteer.

Born Theodora Alice Ruggles in 1871 to Cyrus W. and Anna H. Ruggles, she enjoyed working with clay from a very young age. Her father was a businessman and postmaster in Brookline, Massachusetts. In 1885, at age 14, she sculpted out of snow in her parents’ front yard a work she called “Reclining Horse.” It was apparently so lifelike that Bostonians came in droves to see it.[3] Hardly shunning notoriety, I think. It seems she was rightly eager to display her considerable talent.

The episode prompted a Boston architect to beseech her parents to encourage her artistic work. They tried to enroll her in the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but she was denied admission. Several other schools and artists declined to train her. Like so many professions at the time, sculpting was a male-dominated circle and not welcoming to ambitious young women. This barrier later prompted her use the name “Theo” rather than Theodora. Commissions, she eventually found, could be obtained more easily under the ambiguous name Theo Ruggles Kitson, or sometimes “Tho. A. R. Kitson.” One piece of correspondence from a potential client addressed to “Theobald Kitson” suggests the tactic worked.[4]

An up-and-coming young sculptor eventually agreed to train Theo. His name was Henry Hudson Kitson. Born in England in 1863, he came to the United States around 1877, worked on carving beautiful wooden interiors for opulent New York City hotels, then headed to Paris for two years of training in sculpting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. He brought Theo and her mother to Paris in 1887 were she trained for three years under various artists including Pascal. She earned an honorable mention at the Salon des Artistes Francais in 1890—the first woman to do so. In 1893, back in the U.S., she had four works exhibited in the Women’s Building in the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1895, she garnered another first when she became the first woman to be admitted to the National Sculpture Society.[5]

Theo married Henry Kitson in 1893. They worked together in a studio in Boston and eventually in Quincy, Massachusetts. Henry Kitson created a number of well-known works, including the Minute Man in Lexington and a statue of Admiral Farragut in Boston. But his health was poor and Theo ultimately became the bread winner of the family.[6] She wrote in a widely reprinted letter to the editor that wives should be equal partners in their husbands’ “intellectual as well as material interests” and that women should receive equal education.[7]

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The Volunteer, Kitson’s original 1902 work in Newburyport

It is likely that few, if any, of the Mississippians gathered for the unveiling of her Vicksburg monument knew that the statue had originally been sculpted for the Civil War memorial in the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Dedicated the year before in 1902, the Newburyport monument was the first iteration of The Volunteer. In designing it, Theo rejected the common form of so many Civil War memorials of the late 19th century. In towns across Massachusetts and beyond, statues of soldiers stood atop granite pedestals. Nearly all of them appeared rigid and lifeless—lacking any essence of human spirit. They typically stood at parade rest, the muzzle of their weapon poised, Theo said, as though they were “ready to shoot his own chin off.”[8] Her memorial would be different.

The Volunteer is remarkable, not only for its accuracy but for its sense of lifelike movement. The soldier is shown in light marching order, coat unbuttoned, trousers bloused into his woolen socks, a blanket roll around his chest, musket thrown over his shoulder in a loose version of right-shoulder-shift. Not a parade-ground soldier, but a volunteer as he actually appeared on the march and had never been depicted before in sculpture. The unique realism must have summoned numerous memories for veterans who saw the sculpture. It is no wonder that the Boston Globe reported that Newburyport’s “grizzled” veterans crowded around Theo after the dedication ceremony with tears in their eyes, telling her that it was the most perfect representation of a soldier in the field.[9]

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The Volunteer in North Attleboro

A Boston Globe reporter writing about The Volunteer observed that had Theo produced the first Civil War soldiers’ memorial designed by a woman but also that she was the first sculptor to so perfectly capture the realism and spirit lacking in so many monuments. Breaking away from the confines of stern tradition Kitson “had the courage to give exact expression to the very qualities for which the volunteer soldier has always stood.”

The Vicksburg Evening Post writer described the The Volunteer as stripped of all “parade ground sham and pretense.” Calling upon then-common language imagining a state of national reconciliation which existed only tenuously, the Vicksburg reporter opined, “In him is incarnated the real American soldier, whether from the North or the South…The uniforms may vary but the spirit is the same.” Theo shared in this spirit of reconciliation. When she was asked to perform the Vicksburg unveiling, she specifically requested that Marie Estelle Coleman, President of the Daughters of Confederate Veterans, take part with her.[10] Notions of reconciliation played a prominent role in such ceremonies, attempting to bury decades of animosity and four years of intense bloodshed.

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The Volunteer in Sharon, the only version with different facial features

Not long after the Newburyport unveiling, other Massachusetts towns called for their own castings of Theo’s Volunteer. North Attleboro, Sharon and Townsend are among the other towns featuring Kitson’s work. The Town of Sharon’s is curiously unique in that its facial features differ from the original. Did the resident perhaps make a special request of the artist, looking to differentiate their Volunteer from the others?

Topsfield, Massachusetts commissioned Theo to create another unique monument, and perhaps one of the most beautiful Civil War monuments in Massachusetts. Upon his death in 1908, Dr. Justin Allen of that town bequeathed $8,000 for a Civil War monument. The town formed a monument committee and one of the committee members, Alphonso Merrill, came up with the concept of a fallen color bearer passing the colors to a comrade. Theo took this concept and breathed life into it, sculpting The Wounded Color Sergeant. The monument was dedicated in 1914. Interestingly, the facial features of the soldier who is taking the colors and broken staff from the fallen color sergeant are virtually identical to those of The Volunteer. The same visage is also present in Theo’s more famous 1906 statue dedicated to Mary Bickerdyke in which a wounded soldier is lying with his head on the stalwart nurse’s knee as she tends to him.

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The Wounded Color Sergeant, Topsfield

This may not have any particular significance. Or perhaps it does. Did Theo see a continuity here? A storyline beginning with the young, enthusiastic volunteer of ’61, then his suffering through battle wounds, and finally culminating in a sort of coming of age as he takes up the colors. Perhaps I’ve read The Red Badge of Courage too many times. But I nonetheless wonder why she chose to represent the same individual in three marked different interpretations of wartime experience.

Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson separated from her husband in 1909. She moved to Framingham, Massachusetts and continued working in her studio there up until her sudden death, due to complications from surgery, at age 61. Her legacy survives in scores of monuments across the country.

[1] The Vicksburg Evening Post, November 14, 1903
[2] Ibid.
[3] Frances Elizabeth Willard and Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life, (Moulton Press, 1893), 625.
[4] Ethel Mickey, “Memorial artist honored nearly a century later,” Salem News, July 27, 2010
[5] Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller eds., North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary, (Routledge Press, 2013), 305.
[6] Heller and Heller, 305.
[7] The Potter Enterprise, August 27, 1902, 9.
[8] “Theo Kitson, Sculptor,” from the Boston Globe, reprinted in The Indianapolis Journal, August 24, 1902, 22.
[9] “Theo Kitson, Sculptor,” 22.
[10] “First State Monument at Vicksburg,” Confederate Veteran, volume 12, 107.