I believe that the safest bet in Saratoga Springs is that the centerpiece of creativity is the “Spirit of Life” Fountain in Congress Park. This masterpiece by Daniel Chester French and its installation in the niche and reflecting pool designed by architect Henry Bacon so perfectly combine to memorialize Spencer Trask. Mr. Trask had dedicated himself to the conservation of the naturally flowing waters of Saratoga Springs from commercial exploitation and ruin, and died tragically in a railroad collision, while traveling in the interest of their preservation. His widow, Katrina, sought to preserve his altruistic spirit with a proper monument, which included flowing water. She also requested a seraph figure, the premier level of winged angelic being. Messrs. French and Bacon visited the Spa to examine and review the site and discuss their design options in situ. The memorial sculpture was dedicated the same year Saratoga Springs transitioned from a village to a city, 1915.
It is widely accepted that Daniel Chester French modeled his allegorical female form of the “Spirit of Life” using the real-life form of Audrey Munson. Many other artists besides Mr. French had turned to Audrey Munson as well, and she realistically became a super-model at the beginning of the twentieth century. The appealing likeness of this upstate New York native is recognizable on coins and public buildings across the country in many stirring examples of civic symbolism. The New York Sun on June 6, 1913 reported that, “In recent years many men and women have made the acquaintance in picture and sculpture of this young woman. She is Miss Audrey Marie Munson, and it is said she has posed for more public decorative works than anyone else.”
Loose folds of fabric, or classic draping, was employed by Daniel Chester French to attire the shape of the “Spirit of Life,” and Katrina Trask approved of the expressive physique and position of the figure. This was the second design that Mr. French presented to Mrs. Trask, who had rejected his first submission, which he had titled the “Spirit of the Waters.” This first design also was modeled by Audrey Munson, and she is even more recognizable with her long hair more realistically reproduced. Her eyes are downcast in a demure sadness and her arms are outstretched to the side in gentle benediction, while her legs and feet brace her stance. Daniel Chester French used considerably less classic draping in this first design, and the figure is framed by her very large angelic wings.
The Library of Congress has the papers of Daniel Chester French in their collections. This repository contains the correspondence between himself, architect Henry Bacon, and Katrina Trask, detailing the evolution of the monument. Details revised from the original design were the elimination of two stairways, flanking either side of the reflecting pool, running through the balustrade behind the sculpture, which were deleted before construction began. The sculpture was made more buoyant with uplifted arms, shorter length of hair and an elevated gaze. Additional changes made were the detailing on the urns that border the sculpture and incorporating a personal favorite decoration of Spencer Trask at Yaddo, a pine branch, added to the proper right hand of the figure. The original concept also was to carve the “Spirit of Life” from marble, but the details added and the contact with water, shifted to the use of bronze.
Mr. French modeled the clay at his summer residence, known as Chesterwood, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This model was scaled up to a plaster cast which Mr. French could wheel outside and adjust using the same natural light the final product would be viewed in. The plaster was shipped to the Gorham Foundry in Providence, Rhode Island to be cast in bronze. The foundation stonework and pedestal were prepared by the legendary Piccirilli Brothers in the Bronx. Katrina Trask incurred all expenses for the monument construction, and on June 26, 1915, graciously donated everything to the City of Saratoga Springs.
Daniel Chester French, who until his death in 1931 was a member of the Board of Directors of Yaddo, was very pleased with the outcome of the “Spirit of Life” memorial. He did not, however, abandon his “Spirit of the Waters” design, and had two castings made in bronze. The first was bequeathed to the Fogg Museum at Harvard University; the second is at Chesterwood, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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