Faded legacy of Larkin Mead

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Vermont’s Statehouse, that amazing building stuffed to the dome with both history and contemporary politics, contains several visual echoes of a 19th century artistic superstar who was the toast of the nation 150 years ago, but is almost unknown today.

That once-famous artist, a sculptor named Larkin Mead, stepped out of obscurity in Brattleboro on New Year’s Day, 1857 and became the talk of Vermont – and America – virtually overnight.

Mead was barely 21 years old, working at a mundane job in Brattleboro in the midwinter dark of late December 1856, when a cold snap and a snowstorm gave him the wherewithal of fame. He decided to construct a snow angel. However, he had in mind no child’s construction, but something far grander, something… noticeable. His figure would be a Recording Angel, a figure of grace and power, closing the books on the waning year.

Historical records in Brattleboro report that early risers on New Year’s Day 1857, were amazed to see a statue of “exquisite contour and grace of form.” The stunningly detailed angel stood near the center of Brattleboro, holding a stylus and tablet to record the events of the year just past. It quickly drew crowds of observers, and word spread. The New York Tribune and the Springfield Republican, among many other prominent newspapers, sent reporters to Brattleboro, who wrote up the remarkable snow angel in glowing terms.

It survived only until the January thaw, but by then Larkin Mead had become a national phenomenon. Less than a week later, on the night of January 6, 1857, the Statehouse in Montpelier was consumed in an accidental fire. It was a disaster for the state of Vermont, but it couldn’t have come at a better time for Mead. He was immediately commissioned to produce a statue symbolizing agriculture for the top of the new Statehouse, and later created a statue of Ethan Allen that wound up on the portico of the Vermont Statehouse. Mead was a young phenomenon, clearly one of the most important artists of the mid-19th century.

But as we all know, artistic fashions change. By the turn of the 20th century, Mead was seen as old-fashioned, and his work gradually fell out of favor. The huge statue of agriculture – Ceres – atop the Statehouse decayed because it was made of wood and had to be replaced. In a celebrated show of Vermont thriftiness, a new one that stands today was carved in 1938 by then Sergeant-at-Arms Dwight, Dwinell. And the portico statue of Ethan Allen was somehow thrown away in 1941, later to be recarved by a Barre stonecarver, Aristide Piccini.

And so what we are left with in the Statehouse are really only echoes of Larkin Mead’s 19th century greatness, with one exception: The large bust of Abraham Lincoln that dominates the Statehouse’s first floor. It is the only work at the Statehouse that we have from the hand of Larkin Mead. Mute testimony both to Mead’s skill and to the fickle nature of earthly fame.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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