Urbanities

Richard Brookhiser
Statues and Heroes
Winter 1991

Like most cities that had a nineteenth century, New York is littered with public statues. If you never give them a second look, they run together in the eye, an undifferentiated blur of bronze frock coats and gray pigeons. Once you fall into the habit of examining them, however, you soon distinguish among the decent majority, the few monstrosities, and the handful of masterpieces. One of the most masterly is Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Sherman Monument at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South.

Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is probably best known today for designing the last of the 20 dollar gold pieces (Teddy Roosevelt bullied him into taking on the job). Sculpture for public places, not museums, was his forte, and the Sherman Monument, erected in 1903, was one of his crowning efforts.

The statue was a long time in the making. In 1888, Saint-Gaudens spent 18 two-hour sittings with the old general to model a bust. That attention to detail shows in the monument. William Tecumseh Sherman was an ugly man—not beautiful-ugly like Lincoln, or sad-ugly like Grant, but just plain ugly—and Saint-Gaudens presented every line and bristle, triumphing over unsightliness by exactitude.

The statue is also a triumph over contradiction, for it combines two wholly dissimilar worlds. Sherman and his horse, Ontario, are real, but the figure of Victory which leads them on (through Georgia, as a pine branch under the horse’s hoofs suggests) is pure allegory. Saint-Gaudens united them by movement: Victory’s wings and robe, Ontario’s mane, and Sherman’s cape all sweep in the same wind. He also united them with gilding.

Saint-Gaudens complained about statues that “look like stovepipes,” and the Sherman monument was originally voluptuously coated with two layers of gold leaf. Over the years, the gold leaf flaked off and the city acquired another black stovepipe. When the Parks Department first suggested regilding the statue, many people were disturbed. Would not the sudden intrusion of gold, against the green and gray which is the New Yorker’s idea of a natural color scheme, look a bit ... garish? The gilt has been on for almost a year now, and it is clear that the Parks Department (and Saint-Gaudens) was right. The layer of shining gold serves a moral, as well as an aesthetic, purpose. Saint-Gaudens thought William Tecumseh Sherman, and the other Union generals, were heroes, entitled to memorials worthy of their great service.” If you think someone is great enough to deserve an allegorical figure as an attendant, you should not stint when it comes to gold leaf.

The only objection I have to the General’s new paint job is that, on a sunny day, he gets lost in his own blaze. Another Saint-Gaudens Civil War sculpture, h i s statue of Admiral Farragut in Madison Square Park, can be safely contemplated in all weathers.

Admiral Farragut shares the park with the usual urban clutter—trees, playgrounds, statues of Chester Alan Arthur and Roscoe Conkling—and you might easily miss him on a quick walkthrough. Don’t.

David Glasgow Farragut is probably less of a household word today than Sherman. Happily, the broad granite pedestal of Saint-Gaudens provides a long inscription in proto-Art Nouveau letters, which gives the highlights. Farragut was born near Knoxville, Tennessee, and spent most of his Navy career in Southern ports. The outbreak of the Civil War found him at the Norfolk Navy Yard, and he was expected to throw in his lot with the Confederacy. Instead, he went to Washington and offered his services to the Union. His most important victory was in the Battle of New Orleans, but his most famous was the Battle of Mobile Bay. For that engagement, he had himself lashed to the mast of his flagship from whence, when the South’s torpedoes sank one of his ships, he gave his famous order to damn them, full speed ahead.

Saint-Gaudens freezes that fierce determination in bronze. Farragut stands with his right foot slightly forward, as if impatient of his ship’s progress. His long heavy officer’s coat is parted by a breeze. You can see the vein on the back of his left hand as he grips a pair of binocuiars. The pedestal has ledges on which you could sit, if you dared.

Saint-Gaudens’s Civil War statues obviously celebrate valor. They celebrate, more subtly, the artist’s admiration of valor, which is something we have lost. (Imagine a Calder mobile in honor of Douglas MacArthur.) What seems oddest about both these statues in today’s New York, though, is that they celebrate the Civil War.

We have not exactly forgotten the Civil War, of course. It is not only the most important event in American history, but one of the few an amnesiac nation still cares about. And yet most of the custodians of our memory are inadequate to the task. Least harmful are the Civil War buffs, those amateur military historians who dress up in blue and gray on weekends to reenact Chancellorsville. They may scant the issues, but at least they know the facts. The multiculturalists push an even more myopic view—the Civil War as a violent, bungled forerunner of the civil rights movement. Professional Southerners foster the equal and opposite errors, dwelling on the losers virtues (bravery, chivalry), but ignoring their faults (buying and selling people). Saint-Gaudens’s Sherman and Farragut give us something that has become almost vanishingly rare—the Civil War as it was understood by those who won it.

That understanding was infused by republican, and Republican, virtue. The link is more than a pun. The great causes of the Democratic Party have historically been those of parts of the whole: states’ rights in the nineteenth century, the common man, racial minorities, or (in cities) the immigrant in the twentieth. On those occasions when the Republican Party has risen to greatness—when it has been run by other than Roscoe Conklings—it has been in defense of the national interest.

The whole that the Republicans defended in the Civil War was in practical terms little more than half the country. Yet the idea of the whole to which they rallied had political and constitutional legitimacy on its side. It had, moreover, the continuity of ideals on its side. I do not know what, in their private hearts, General Sherman or Stonewall Jackson thought of the Declaration of Independence. But I do know, without question, which one of them upheld it.

Artists can afford to remain suspended before tragic ironies. But peoples, and leaders, must live through them. If they live through them as gallantly as General Sherman and Admiral Farragut, then artists as great as Saint-Gaudens should do them honor.

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