Art Treasures of Washington – Public Statuary

THE first Equestrian statue to be executed and set up in the United States, after that of George III, demolished during the Revolution,’ was the bronze group of General Jackson, hero of the War of 1812, which stands in the centre of Lafayette Square, Washington.

This statue, more by reason of its eccentric character than because of any virtues of sculpture, will hold its place in the affections of the people, as a kind of landmark intimately associated with impressions of Washington. Its oddity of pose, its absurd complexity of balance, coupled with Jackson’s bizzare doffing of the hat, as if to show how easily he performs the difficult feat of holding on, and at the same time to take to himself the credit of the extraordinary pose of the horse by acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd, like any showman, are things indelibly fixed in childhood memories of the beautiful city.

The fact that the statue balances perfectly upon the hind legs of the horse appeals to the inherent love of a mechanical toy, which lurks in the make up of the soberest; while the story that the group was cast from cannon captured in Jackson’s campaigns, stirs a strain of romance and satisfies the sense of the eternal fitness of things.

The statue was modelled by Clark Mills, an American sculptor, cast by him in his own foundry, and inaugurated, with imposing ceremonies on January 8, 1853, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the old hero’s victory at New Orleans.

Clark Mills, the sculptor, was born in New York State in 1815. He had shown so much promise as a sculptor during a residence in Charleston, South Carolina, that a number of persons had contributed a purse to enable him to go to Europe to prosecute his studies as an artist. In pursuance of this project he was in Washington, on his way abroad, when some friends there persuaded him to forego his visit and undertake the design for the equestrian statue of General Jackson, then contemplated. Never having seen General Jackson or an equestrian statue, he felt a certain modest inadequacy, and at first declined the commission. But the idea working in his mind, he finally overcame his scruples, and making a small model embodying his scheme for the statue, he showed it to the committee in charge, and it was promptly accepted.

A contract was made for the sum of $12,000, the bronze to be furnished by the committee, and, in two years, Mills produced a plaster model, and after waiting nearly nine months, Congress appropriated the old cannon captured by General Jackson, and under various disheartening circumstances, the breakage of cranes, the bursting of furnaces, and six failures in the body of the horse, he finally triumphed.

Mills was solely self taught, having originally been a plasterer by trade. Both the conception and modelling of the statue were entirely his own work, and the task of casting it in bronze was performed by him, all the ingenious appliances necessary there-for being of his own invention and construction.

Mills claimed that the steed was modelled, prancing attitude and all, directly from nature, as he had taught the horse to rear and remain in that position for some time. As to the rider, it was conceded by those who remembered the old hero, that the likeness of Jackson is both faithful and spirited. One conspicuous defect is the lack of sufficient size to give it impressiveness.

The sculptor claimed as one of the merits of the statue that its natural equipoise was absolute ; that is, that the centre of gravity had been so perfectly attained, in the position of the horse and its rider, that the group would rest securely on the hind feet of the rearing charger, without any support or fastening whatever.

A statue of Philip IV of Spain, erected in Madrid about the middle of the seventeenth century, and still standing, in one of the finest squares of that city, has the same equipoise. History re-cords the interesting fact that the horse of this group was modelled by Tacca, the Italian sculptor, from drawings made by the great Spanish painter, Velasquez, and that Galileo utilized his scientific knowledge in giving it the proper balance.

Mills’ statue was so original, and appeared, to the authorities in Washington, so skilful a performance, that Congress added $20,000 to the $12,000 already paid to the sculptor; and soon after voted him $50,000 for an equestrian statue of Washington, a feeble effort erected in the square of that name, in the city, which arouses not even curiosity.

Another early maker of equestrian statues was Henry K. Brown (1814-1886), the author of that splendid mounted figure of Washington, in New York, which holds its place as one of the finest equestrian statues in the world. Horse, rider, and pedestal of this dignified and impressive statue place Brown as a man of great and rare attributes, and it is interesting to know him to have been the instructor of Ward, as Ward was again the friend, if not the direct instructor, of Bartlett.

Brown’s early struggles with poverty resulted in habits of diligence that laid the foundation for the very serious study which he did when his chance came to visit Italy, where his real artistic life began. The ” Washington ” is his masterpiece. Of it a fellow sculptor wrote : ” The sum of all his mental powers seems to have been expended in this one glorious effort, which will be a pattern and guide to the profession for all time; for in it are honesty, truth, and dignity, and none of the straining after effect that eats up the soul of the artist and destroys his love of the noble and the true. Standing in front of this statue one appreciates the dignity and the grandeur of the man that it represents. The statue tells of the sincerity and honour of the artist.”

It seems scarcely fair to speak of Brown’s contributions to the statuary of Washington, without referring first to this great work, which fully represents him, whereas the groups and figurers in the capital city are but pale reflexes of his just powers.

The well known ” General Winfield Scott ” erected in 1874, in Washington, is, however, a dignified figure, well seated upon a quiet and realistic steed. As a whole it is not happy as a work of art. The horse does not possess the points usually looked for in a commander’s charger, and this might well be expected when it is understood that it was modelled from a thoroughbred mare. The animal is not only of too light and delicate a style for the purpose indicated, but also too slight in form and size to support the ponderous figure that mounts it. It has also been thought that the artist made a mistake in representing the general so late in life, when his form had lost the proportions of young manhood, instead of portraying him as he appeared at the culmination of his military career, the close of the Mexican War. This statue must be counted, how-ever, one of the best of the equestrian groups in Washington. It was cast from the cannon captured in the Mexican War.

The equestrian statue of General George H. Thomas, by John Q. A. Ward (1830-1910), is the most spirited of its class in Washington, and has few rivals throughout the country. The artist’s idea was to represent his subject as having suddenly checked the movement of his horse on the summit of a slight acclivity for the purpose of making an observation or overlooking the field of action. This conception is admirably realized in the pose and expression of both horse and rider.

The statue suffers from being placed upon so high a pedestal; but its effect is striking, with something fine and free in the pose, as seen in silhouette against the sky. The statue has grace, elegance, and strength ; it builds up and composes well; the sympathetic movement between the horse and rider is well understood, and the group is admirable in its freedom from the extravagant action noted in many of the statues of the character in the city. While it does not equal the sculptor’s ” Washington,” in New York, it is yet a distinguished work, characteristic of the best of which Ward was capable.

Ward’s monument to President Garfield, erected in 1887, stands in the grounds of the Capitol, and contains some of the sculptor’s most accomplished work. The monument consists of a portrait statue of Garfield surmounting a tall base, about which are reclining three semi-nude figures representing the Student, the Statesman, and the Warrior. The figure of the president is perfunctory, and interest centres upon the three symbolic figures at the base, which are boldly conceived and powerfully modelled.

The four corners of Lafayette Square are dedicated to the memory of four foreign heroes of the Revolutionary War: Rochambeau, Lafayette, Kosciuszko, and Baron Steuben. The most interesting is that depicting Lafayette and his companions, by Mercié and Falguière, two of the most famous French sculptors of their generation. The statue was erected by Congress, in 1890. Lafayette is represented in the costume of the Continental Army. America extends to him a sword. The other figures of the group are Rochambeau, Duportail, D’Estaing, and De Grasse. The modelling is fluently French, and the design and grouping suave and graceful, according to the foreign traditions.

Frederick MacMonnies’ equestrian statue of General George B. McClellan occupies a superb situation at the highest point of Connecticut Avenue, and was erected in 1907, by the Southern Army of the Potomac and Congress.

Augustus Saint Gaudens (1848-1907) is represented in Washington by the famous Adams Monument, erected in Rock Creek Cemetery, to the memory of a woman who died, it is said, under tragic circumstances. This is one of the sculptor’s works which reveals the development of his idealized figures of draped women. The Adams Monument consists of a heavily draped figure, which might be symbolic of Sleep or Eternity, but which has been called Grief and Death, seated upon a rough hewn block of granite, and leaning against a large, polished slab of the same material. This slab forms the centre of an hexagonal plot, about twenty feet in diameter, while opposite, and occupying three sides of the hexagon, is a massive stone bench. The whole is placed within a dense growth of ever-greens, which completely screen the monument from view; an effective, if rather gruesome setting, which accentuates the mysterious and awe-some character of the sepulchral figure.

Saint Gaudens has embodied his emotional idea in the form of a woman’s figure, wrapped about in coarse drapery that shrouds her head, and falls in long, loose, heavy folds at her feet. The figure is in bronze, vigorous in modelling and compelling and forceful in its illusion of suspended animation. The effect is profoundly realistic. The theatrical setting detracts from serious consideration of the figure, and too much stress has been laid upon its literary and emotional side. Upon deliberate inspection, however, the statue reveals much sculptural strength and beauty of construction, under its heavy drapery, while the exposed arm and face are rugged and true in their relation to the whole.

The bust of Henry Lorenz Viereck, entomologist, is the unique work of Charles Grafty, in Washington. It is owned by the sitter. This bust, made about 19o8, is one of the most successful of that series of portrait busts commenced by the sculptor a few years ago, and including at the present time, many distinguished artists, doctors, and specialists in other fields. A collected group of these busts, shown recently 1 at the Saint Botolph’s Club, in Boston, included portraits of the painters, DeCamp, Redfield, Schofield, Paxton, and Clymer, Dr. Louis Starr, Dr. Joseph Price, Mr. Viereck, and others.

In the department of portrait busts Grafly stands unrivalled in his generation. The head of Viereck is extremely typical of the quality and character of the sculptor’s achievement. Founded upon the sound principles of construction, the bust is fascinating in the suggestion of colour ; in the delicacy of the surface modelling; the unity of its forms, both structural and superficial; while the character of the sitter is given with sympathy and appreciation.