Are You Feeling Spooky or Soulful This Season?

Choose how to celebrate the season with two different ways to explore SAAM’s collection

Explore Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Adams Memorial and other works in SAAM's collection.

As a chill fills the air and the dark nights grow longer, many people start celebrating the spooky season with ghosts, witches, and creatures of the night. However, some prefer to make this time contemplative. For those, this season is a soulful one, remembering loved ones who have passed before. Explore SAAM's collection two different ways and choose the art that speaks to you this season.

I Want to See Spooky

I'm Feeling Soulful

Spooky Season

A grandfather clock with a white sheet covering it, all carved from wood.
Wendell Castle, Ghost Clock, 1985, bleached Honduras mahogany, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1989.68, © 1985, Wendell Castle

Dark house, cobwebs everywhere, creaking floorboards. When the furniture is covered and the house looks like it’s been abandoned for decades, you know the mood is set for thrills and chills. Hand-carved from a single block of laminated mahogany, this masterful work of deception is a favorite at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery.

Mark Leithauser, Vampire Bats, from Lettered Creatures, 2002-2003, pencil on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Hakuta Family in honor of Elizabeth Broun, 2016.52.1.25    

Bats, spiders, and owls are not the only nocturnal creatures who can come out after dark—so can ghosts and ghouls. Delicately drawn in pencil with deep shadows, Mark Leithauser’s image is both beautiful and haunting.

Unidentified, Two Sisters with Doll, ca. 1915, photographic print with applied color, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 2000.47.45

This photograph of a pair of sisters from 1915 gives us major The Shining vibes. One glimpse of these girls, frozen in time, is enough to stop any trike-riding tot in their tracks. Discover more artworks that pair perfectly with Halloween movie classics on the blog.

Jim Melchert, Ghost Plate with Mickey Mouse Ears, 1964, glazed earthenware, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance, 2001.8

Inspired by a line from Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film The Silence that reads, ​“One must tread carefully among the ghosts in your past,” artist Jim Melchert decorated the plates and jars in this series with masks. The ghost in this piece wears a Mickey Mouse hat, evoking playful, yet dark, reminiscences of past experiences.

Soulful Season

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Roman Bronze Works, Adams Memorial, modeled 1886-1891, cast 1969, bronze, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1970.11

This tribute was the request of Henry Adams, who asked leading nineteenth-century American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a memorial to his wife, Marian "Clover." Adams wanted the memorial to express the Buddhist concept of nirvana—a state of being that exists beyond joy and sorrow—and the grief that exists between life and death.

Daniel González, Arte es Vida: 40th Anniversary Dia de los Muertos Celebration, 2013, laser-cut screenprint on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Frank K. Ribelin Endowment, 2020.22.5, © 2013, Daniel González

This print was created in honor of the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, observed throughout Mexico, Latin America, and Mexican American communities in the United States on November 1 and 2. On the holiday, it is said that the spirits of the dead return home for the night to visit their loved ones. The scene features allegories of life and death, LA landscapes, and iconographic references from Self Help Graphics’ artistic history—the printing collective that was pivotal in bringing this 3,000 year tradition to the United States.

Kim Eric Lilot, Self-Portrait without Skin, 1997, 14k gold, platinum, and rubellite tourmaline cabochon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ann D. Cousins, 1998.80

 While many people are afraid of death, Kim Eric Lilot sees it as an inspiration and a necessary part of the life cycle. He turns the fear of death into a celebration of life and diversity. In Self-Portrait without Skin, Lilot’s laughing skull ​“looks” at life through rose-colored glasses.

Robert Windham, Angel of Death, 1979, catalpa, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. James L. Whitehead and Mr. P. Elliot Ellis, 1980.108.2

Cemeteries can feel haunted, especially this time of year, but they can also be places of quiet reflection of those who have passed. Sculptor Robert Windham lived in rural Alabama and drew much of his inspiration from statues and gravestones in local cemeteries. In this piece, the angel shows compassion for a dying man who lies comforted by her enveloping arms and sweeping wings.

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