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The Spirit of Life

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Water and horses are the recurring theme in Saratoga Springs. However, I did not come all this way to see the racing beasts, but to admire the flowing water from The Spirit of Life, the monument dedicated to the Wall Street financier Spencer Trask (1844–1909). But I didn’t come all the way to Saratoga Springs to learn about the tycoon, I came to see the monument created by the architect Henry Bacon and the sculptor Daniel Chester French from which water flows to a rectangular pool that overflows into a timid spring leading to a quite pond. Such is the The Spirit of Life, although not quite.

French's creation, framed by a shallow niche of white marble with a balustraded terrace designed by Bacon, is a winged woman of considerable proportion, hands moving high above her head, representing Hygieia, health provider (hence the notion of hygiene), daughter of Asklepios, god of medicine.

The figure was created based on the likeness of Hattie Anderson, the African American model who capture the imagination of French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, John La Farge, Anders Zorn and many others.

Hygieia has frequently been depicted offering nourishment to a serpent. However, in French's recreation of the myth, she holds a shallow bowl aloft and in the other hand clasps a pine bough, a reference to the towering pines on the grounds of the Trasks' estate. Furthermore, she’s poised lightly on a rock, and a stream of water pours from its cleft. The inscription on the pedestal reads "To do good and serve my fellow man." Not bad for a Wall Street magnate.

The Spirit of Life is a fair example of French and Bacon’s fruitful collaboration over the years, a collaboration that ultimately led in 1922, to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. And that’s why I came all the way over here to Saratoga Springs, following the lead of Dan Preston, editor of the Daniel Chester French papers. This journey is not about horses, or races, it’s about art, and a documentary film in progress.

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