Almost from the time that cities first arose, their inhabitants have filled them with statues and monuments, as if such adornments were an essential ingredient of civilized urban life. The pages of Homer explain why: the Homeric heroes do noble deeds in the hope of winning honor and glory, the praise of their fellows and of posterity, which for the greatest actions will take the form of "a marble monument," in The Iliad's constantly recurring phrase. For the ancients, statues are the repository of civic memory, commemorating the great and good deeds that built the society. For every new generation, they spur the ambitious to emulate such deeds, and they define the virtues that the community thinks worthy of honor.
For millennia after the Homeric heroes vanished, leaving only their immortal memory, the Western world—New York included—carried on the tradition of monument making in this spirit. But in the years since World War II, the knack seems to have disappeared. The modernist aesthetic doesn't think much of decoration or of figurative sculpture. More important, today it is unfashionable, almost politically incorrect, to honor people so grandly. In our age of equality, we don't like the idea of heroes: we dwell more on the imperfections of our great men than on their uniqueness, and we believe that vast impersonal forces, rather than extraordinary individuals, are the makers of history. The spirit of the age, we like to think, called forth our historical personages; had it not happened to call George Washington, it would have called George Bloggs. And where our ancestors saw virtue, we tend to see hypocrisy: for example, was not Jefferson merely the man who, as a British poet sneered long ago, dreamt of freedom in a slave's embrace?
Yet when you consider that figurative, commemorative sculpture in public spaces goes back at least five millennia, and that the classical tradition of public statuary from which New York once so successfully drew goes back about two and a half millennia, you can't help thinking that the traditional forms are bound to reassert themselves someday. In the long run, a society can't flourish without vibrant public ideals and reverence for its heroes. New York's public life has greatly improved in the last few years in so many respects; in this climate, perhaps it's not too much to hope for a revival of the tradition of placing memorials and monuments in our streets and parks, to fill out the picture our forebears began.
What does that picture look like so far? David Garrard Lowe has written in these pages of how the names of Parisian streets and squares celebrate "the civilization of France, of Europe, of reasoning mankind" ("Urban Lessons from Paris," Winter 1996). In New York, our public memorials honor New York, the New World, the United States, and "reasoning mankind."
The "reasoning mankind" part of the formula often finds expression in allegory. A splendid case in point is architect James Brown Lord's Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, on Madison Avenue and 25th Street. Fully one-third of this sumptuous turn-of-the-century building's $700,000 budget went for works of art—not just sculpture, but mural painting, stained glass, wood carving, and so on. Most striking is the sequence of nine full-size statues of the highest artistic quality that crown this Palladian villa of a courthouse, proclaiming that the creation of societies based on the rule of law is among mankind's noblest accomplishments.
Here are the great lawgivers: Moses, who brought the Ten Commandments down from Sinai; Confucius, representing Chinese law; Zoroaster (carved by Edward Clark Potter, who did the New York Public Library lions), representing Persian law; the Greeks Lycurgus and Solon, lawgivers of Sparta and Athens; the emperor Justinian, creator of Rome's Justinian code; the British king Alfred the Great and the French monarch Louis IX; and Manu, the mythical Indian lawgiver. An empty plinth on the far eastern end of the building held a figure of Muhammad, embodying Islamic law, until the early 1950s, when Muslim nations petitioned the state to remove it, in accordance with Islam's ban on representations of the prophet. Today's notion that America has failed to recognize the contributions that those of non-Western origin have made to our nation doesn't withstand examples like these.
The whole building is an eloquent text in stone describing the ideals of our system of law. Reinforcing these nine worthies are personifications of law's attributes—figures of Wisdom, which makes the law, and Force, which backs it up; and statues of Justice, Peace, Strength, and Abundance, qualities with which the rule of law endows a society. Architectural historian Henry Hope Reed has called this courthouse "the epitome of the academic tradition in the arts at the turn of the century"; certainly some of the era's finest sculptors carved these figures, including Karl Bitter, Daniel Chester French, and Frederick Wellington Ruckstull, New York's self-appointed defender of the academic tradition, who never missed a chance to heap scorn on Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne.
New York also honors "reasoning mankind" in its statues of the great writers and musicians who make up the canon of Western culture. Though multiculti mandarins might deride this magnificent inheritance for its dead-white-European-maleness, those who erected these statues were, in fact, celebrating the diversity of both the American nation and New York. The city itself erected John Quincy Adams Ward's statue of Shakespeare at the southern end of the Mall—"Literary Walk," as it is called—in Central Park. Conceived in 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth, this bronze statue is as good as any that exists of the Bard anywhere. At the 1870 dedication ceremony, Colonel Henry G. Stebbins, banker and Central Park commissioner, said that the statue "will remind coming generations that we were able to appreciate the genius and know how to fitly honor the memory of Shakespeare." It stands, thus, as a monument not only to Shakespeare but also to New York's sense of its own civic culture as capable of appreciating his genius.
Various ethnic groups put up most of our other memorials to the artistic geniuses of the Western tradition. Taken together, these memorials celebrate New York's melting pot of immigrant peoples, who have maintained their cultural identity even as they have assimilated into New World ways, and who, in bringing their artistic heroes with them, reformulated and enriched American culture. On Literary Walk just to the north of Shakespeare, we have, courtesy of the city's Scots, statues of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, both from the 1870s, and both the work of Sir John Steell, who created Edinburgh's grand Scott memorial. German New Yorkers provided the Mall with Central Park's first work of sculpture, a bust of Friedrich Schiller, dedicated during a three-day Schiller festival in 1859, the centennial of the poet's birth. A German-American choral group erected the nearby bust of a brooding Beethoven in 1884, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the composer's Ninth Symphony.
At the park's Conservatory Water, near East 72nd Street, memorials to two writers who have delighted the imaginations of generations of children delight today's children as welcoming places to climb and play. The bronze group of characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, inspired by John Tenniel's classic illustrations, is arguably the popular favorite of all New York's works of public sculpture, a fact that may somewhat mitigate our uneasiness in knowing that Central Park's designers, Vaux and Olmsted, were adamant that no works of sculpture be placed anywhere in the park other than in the Mall and on Bethesda Terrace. Nearby, the statue of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) reading to an Ugly Duckling, given by a Danish-American group, is almost equally popular—though it momentarily became a symbol of the breakdown of public order during the city's dismal 1970s, when the figure of the duckling was stolen in 1973, sawed off at its webbed feet. New York's Finest found the purloined fowl in a brown paper bag in a Queens junkyard. Both these statues date from the 1950s, and their traditional style is miles outside the modernist artistic mainstream of the era. So it comes as a surprise to learn that José de Creeft, who sculpted the Alice group, was primarily an abstract sculptor and a good friend of his fellow Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris.
Half a dozen of New York's statues honoring great Italians arose from campaigns led by Carlo Barsotti (1850-1927), an immigrant who in 1880 founded Il Progresso, in time the city's largest-circulation foreign-language daily newspaper. He and his paper championed the wholesome idea that New York's Italians, with their entrepreneurial abilities and traditions of mutual aid, would most quickly rise in America with an absolute minimum of government aid. Barsotti pushed hard for Sicilian sculptor Pasquale Civiletti's elaborate Carrara marble statue of Giuseppe Verdi, the great operatic composer and Italian patriot, at Broadway and 73rd Street. At the memorial's unveiling in 1906, only five years after the composer's death, 10,000 people watched as a balloon was released, climaxing a parade, speeches, and musical performances. "As it rose," write historians Michele Cohen and Margot Gayle, "it set free twelve doves, lifted the red, white, and green veil from the statue, and showered the spectators with flowers."
Barsotti sponsored the most spectacular of New York's monuments that celebrate the specialness of the New World—Gaetano Russo's Christopher Columbus monument in Columbus Circle, unveiled in 1892 on the 400th anniversary of the Italian explorer's discovery of America. A marble Columbus surmounts a granite column, embellished with ship's prows and anchors like a famous lost column of Augustus, on which the Roman emperor had hung the prows of the ships he defeated in the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c. To the east of this monument, stretched along Central Park South, stand a trio of heroic equestrian bronzes of Latin American liberators: Simón Bolívar, who in the early nineteenth century led the fight against Spanish colonial rule in South America; José de San Martín, the Argentine liberator of Chile in 1817 and Peru in 1821; and poet José Martí, a hero of the Cuban fight for independence in the 1890s—and a onetime New Yorker. The New World, these bronze horsemen proclaim, is the place of revolutionary liberty.
Nowhere more so than in the United States, of course, and in this spirit, it's fitting that the first masterpiece of public art in New York City was the equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square Park, near where Washington passed as he rode from the Van Cortlandt house in the Bronx to reclaim New York City after the British evacuation in November 1783 in our own revolution. He points before him, apparently sighting the city ahead. (Today he appears to be saying, "Lo, it is Bradlees," for the discount department store stands squarely in his path.) This statue of Washington, who carried out some of his earliest military campaigns of the Revolution near New York and lived in the city as the nation's first president, was dedicated on July 4, 1856. That evening, sculptor Henry Kirke Brown wrote to his wife: "I have now been at work nearly four years upon this work,—this morning I bid it farewell with a sad heart; I have given so many years of my life to it,—I consign it to the future, to my country,—may it benefit them!" Brown's superb statue, only the second public bronze ever cast by an American foundry, clearly evokes the stirring second-century equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Campidoglio in Rome, drawing a fitting parallel between the nobly stoical Roman emperor and the "Indispensable Man."
Another Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Hale, is the subject of one of New York's most beautiful statues, which dramatically shows the recent Yale grad, caught and convicted as a spy, standing with Byronic defiance in the chains of his British captors. The monument stands in City Hall Park, where Hale's hanging was then thought to have taken place, though we now know that he was executed at Third Avenue and 66th Street. If the site isn't historically accurate, neither is Hale's appearance: no one knows what the hero looked like. Sculptor Frederick MacMonnies simply made up an idealized image of bravery. MacMonnies's animated, spontaneous modeling of the Hale figure was part of a revolution in our public sculpture, as perceptive observers recognized at the time. Metropolitan Museum president Henry Marquand pronounced the Hale statue "among the finest works we have ever produced in this country," and novelist Theodore Dreiser called it "one of the few notable public ornaments of New York."
MacMonnies well understood the purpose of his statue as a public lesson in virtue. "I wanted to make something that would set the bootblacks and little clerks around there thinking," he said, "something that would make them want to be somebody and find life worth living." He intended no condescension, having been himself an art-world version of a Horatio Alger story. Born into a working-class Brooklyn family in 1863 and having worked as a clerk in a jewelry store, at 18 he went to work as a gofer in the studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Once, when the great sculptor was away, the young gofer modeled some small figures in clay, whose quality so impressed Saint-Gaudens when he saw them that he immediately elevated MacMonnies to the rank of full assistant. Later, along with his friend the great architect Stanford White, Saint-Gaudens put up the money to send MacMonnies to the école des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The young sculptor's supremely fluid surface modeling was a great hit in Paris, and before long he was earning greater renown at the Salon than was Saint-Gaudens himself.
Parisian opinion notwithstanding, Saint-Gaudens was New York's (and America's) greatest sculptor, and it was the Civil War, rather than the Revolution, that elicited his finest efforts—his first and his last public monuments, both in New York. The first, standing with ineffable majesty atop Stanford White's beautiful exedra in Madison Square Park, is the statue of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the Civil War naval hero who said, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" The bronze image of Farragut, resolute at the prow of his ship, his gaze scanning the horizon for the enemy as the wind blows back his coat, is an image of fortitude that, in Manhattan, only Holbein's portrait of Thomas More in the Frick Collection can match. The New York Herald writer who covered the statue's unveiling in 1881 had it right: "The pose is remarkable for its naturalness, its supreme quality of just arrested motion."
The later work by Saint-Gaudens is the equestrian statue of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, dedicated on Memorial Day, 1903, in Manhattan's Grand Army Plaza (itself named in commemoration of the Union Army) at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. To me, this is perhaps the single most beautiful sight in New York. In a manner that had become characteristic of Saint-Gaudens's work, the fancifully allegorical merges with the grittily realistic, as the winged goddess of victory leads on the stubble-faced general, his cape blowing in the wind as he bestrides his horse, carefully modeled on the famous jumper Ontario. The sculptor, when the New York State Chamber of Commerce commissioned him to create this monument, agreed to deliver it in two years; it took 11.
Saint-Gaudens was obsessed with achieving exactly the right relationship between the forward angle of the horse and that of winged Victory. He wished to achieve a sense of forceful movement forward, of progress. And did he ever: thanks to the artistic legerdemain of the master sculptor, it is harder to think that these figures are stationary than that they are in motion. Viewing the monument from the east, at mid-afternoon on a clear day, with the gilded forms, rich in magical detail, etched against the blue sky, one is moved not only as one is by anything beautiful, but with a patriotic charge that I do not think even a Georgia native could resist—though at the time of the statue's unveiling, one chivalric Southerner is reported to have said, "Who but a Northerner would let a woman walk while the man rides!"
A society that cherishes ideals has to be prepared to defend them—by force, if necessary. As John Stuart Mill put it, "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse." New York commemorates not only the generals and admirals but the ordinary fighting men who served and sometimes died to protect our nation. Sometimes it memorializes them grandly, as in Columbus Circle's Maine Monument to the 260 sailors killed when the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana harbor in 1898, launching the Spanish-American War. Atop the monument, cast in bronze from guns recovered from the Maine herself, is a female figure, Columbia Triumphant, symbolizing American sea power and embodying in sculpture the thesis of a then much-read book, Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History. At the time of the statue's 1913 dedication, many believed that America's victory in the war with Spain proved the book's contention that naval power was the critical factor in international politics.
The monument's Italian-born sculptor, Attilio Piccirilli, ran (with his five brothers) a renowned Bronx stonecutting firm that carved such famous designs as the lions in front of the New York Public Library and Daniel Chester French's seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. In the early 1920s, Piccirilli and Enrico Caruso were frequent guests at the dinner parties of their close friend Fiorello La Guardia—who always prepared the spaghetti sauce himself.
By contrast to the imperial splendor of this monument, New York commemorates World War I more simply but more often. Every neighborhood, from Hell's Kitchen to Richmond Hill, from Park Slope to Greenwich Village, seems to have its simple bronze "doughboy," a remembrance of the multitudes of ordinary young men drawn into that terrible war from the city's streets. Typical is the one brightening drab De Witt Clinton Park on Eleventh Avenue and 53rd Street. Sculpted by Burt Johnson, it bears on its base John McCrae's famous lines: "If ye break faith with those who died/ We shall not sleep/ Though poppies grow in Flanders Field." Someone takes these lines with appropriate seriousness: today, more often than not, the statue carries a bunch of fresh flowers in its bronze hand.
People leave flowers as well at the base of the grandest of the city's World War I memorials, the moving 107th Infantry Memorial on Fifth Avenue and 67th Street. The sculptor, Karl Illava, was peculiarly qualified to create this stirring monument: as a former sergeant in the 107th Infantry, he had witnessed just such battle scenes as he depicted here in bronze, using his own hands as the model for all the hands in the group. The Parks Department, alas, has to keep extra bronze bayonets on hand to replace those that keep disappearing.With World War II, the ideas of modern art are much more in play. The city's principal World War II memorial, in Battery Park, consists of eight 19-foot-high granite slabs in two parallel rows, standing solemnly against the backdrop of the Hudson River. Simply inscribed on these slabs are the names of the 4,600 World War II servicemen who perished in the Atlantic Ocean. One can't help thinking that this memorial, a collaboration of the sculptor Albino Manca and the architects Gehron and Seltzer, must have been Maya Lin's inspiration in designing her Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington.
Like all great cities, New York has more than a grain of self-infatuation, and in the first two decades of the twentieth century—that era of imperial splendor—the city set about celebrating itself in sculpture. A virtual encyclopedia in stone of the history and ideals of New York City is the building on the northwest corner of Chambers and Centre Streets that houses both the city's Hall of Records and its Surrogate's Court. Erected between 1899 and 1907, the building overflows with figures by sculptors Philip Martiny and Henry K. Bush-Brown, depicting New York in Its Infancy and New York in Revolutionary Times, governors and mayors from Peter Stuyvesant to De Witt Clinton to Abram Hewitt, and allegorical figures of Medicine and Industry, Commerce and Law, Music and Study—among many other endeavors.
As this building makes clear, by the beginning of the twentieth century the city viewed itself not merely as an economic dynamo but as a place increasingly consecrated to culture and study and the loftier aspirations of mankind. It was a time when the city was in a fever of building libraries and museums, parks and statues, universities and hospitals. Teeming with immigrants from distant shores, the city vibrated with vast programs of edification and assimilation, with a sense of common purpose in building a metropolis where everyone might possess material and spiritual well-being. In other words, it was a golden age—though you would hardly know it from reading the works of such left-wing New York City historians as Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace. As an antidote, one should look at the Hall of Records/Surrogate's Court building to see that something very special was brewing in the city around 1900, nothing less than the coming into its own of the capital of the twentieth century.
For me, though, three other statues are even more potent expressions of New York's civic ideals. First is Civic Fame, a 25-foot-high gilded copper figure by Adolph Alexander Weinman atop McKim, Mead & White's magnificent 40-story Municipal Building on Centre Street at the head of Chambers Street, catercorner from the Hall of Records/Surrogate's Court. Installed in 1914, Civic Fame is a stately woman, in a flowing classical gown, her bare feet gracefully balanced on a globe. She wears a laurel crown and holds a branch of laurel, the symbol of Apollonian self-discipline—the sine qua non of civic virtue, or civic fame, which in this context means something more like honor, not mere celebrity. The beautifully erect, self-possessed figure conveys this message even to those who do not know the symbolism of the laurel. She stands with Junoesque mien surveying her metropolis, reminding us of the ordering discipline it takes to make a city work.
An equally powerful expression is the magnificent sculptural group simply entitled Transportation, crowning the 42nd Street facade of New York's greatest building, Grand Central Terminal. Fifty feet high, 60 feet wide, and 1,500 tons of Indiana limestone, Transportation has been called by architectural historian Henry Hope Reed the "best piece of monumental sculpture in America." The sculptor was a Frenchman, Jules-Félix Coutan, who in his Paris studio created a quarter-size plaster maquette of the group, which he then shipped to New York for a local sculptor, John Donnelly, to model the final version in his studio in Long Island City, Queens. Workmen hoisted it into place atop the terminal in the summer of 1914, about a year and a half after the building's formal opening.
Here the gods are not Greek but Roman, befitting the imperial Roman splendor of Whitney Warren's great building. In the center is Mercury, god of commerce and travel, and messenger of the gods. Coutan described him as "the god of speed, of traffic, and of the transmission of intelligence." To his right is Hercules, symbolizing strength, and to his left is Minerva, goddess of wisdom, guardian of cities. Behind them rise the outspread wings (35 feet across) of an American eagle. The trio surmounts an enormous, beautiful clock, set within a broken pediment embellished with cornucopias, symbols of abundance. The three were meant to symbolize the grandeur of the Vanderbilts' New York Central Railroad; but surely these are the tutelary deities of all Manhattan, the city of the unquenchable entrepreneurial flame. As the historian Paul Johnson reminds us in his History of the American People (and as most of our New York historians don't grasp), so-called robber barons such as the Vanderbilts, ruthless though they undoubtedly were, not only left magnificent monuments in their wake but also created the vast national enterprises into which the teeming multitudes of immigrants were absorbed and uplifted by the engine of American prosperity (see "The Robber Barons' Bad Rap," Winter 1995). To deny that this is what New York, in its essence, is about is to posit a fantasy city.
The third potent symbol of our civic ideals is Liberty Enlightening the World—the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor. Dedicated in 1886, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi's copper statue, a gift from the people of France, is without question the most famous public sculpture in the United States, perhaps in the world. The form of "Lady Liberty" is Roman, though with a superb transmutation of symbols. Where, for example, we might expect this stately, classically gowned woman to hold high a scepter, she instead holds the torch of enlightenment—of liberty. Her crown, with its seven points, represents the seven continents. In her left arm she cradles a tablet, said to be of Masonic origin, inscribed with the date July 4, 1776. The statue, indeed, is simplicity itself, and its base, by Richard Morris Hunt, bears the lines of Emma Lazarus that are New York's unofficial motto. For me, it is wonderful that this classical statue should symbolize New York—this city so seemingly consecrated to modernity—with an authority that no work of modern sculpture could conceivably duplicate.
Has the great tradition of figurative, symbolic civic sculpture truly petered out? With few exceptions, such as the Javits Center's recently dedicated statue of its eponymous senator, our public sculpture since World War II has mostly been abstract. One thinks of the sundry works by Calder, Noguchi, and countless lesser lights adorning sundry antiseptic plazas in front of glass office buildings. Philip Johnson's kitschy bronze clock, just installed across from Lincoln Center and looking like a refugee from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, at least tells the time, whereas Noguchi's famous orange cube in front of 140 Broadway, like most of its abstract brethren, signifies nothing; it has nothing to say about civic memory or civic ideals. Even worse, minimalist sculptor Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, a Cor-Ten steel wall that bisected Manhattan's Federal Plaza in the 1980s, expressed little but indifference, perhaps even hostility, to the concerns and aspirations of mankind. Workers in the Federal Building hated this steel wall, regarding it as a brutal and inconvenient intrusion in their daily lives. The General Services Administration eventually consented to their petition asking that the thing be removed—to the horror of today's art-world panjandrums, who decried the philistinism of the masses.
Maybe for ordinary New Yorkers, like those who so often leave flowers at our war memorials, the great tradition never died. Perhaps, now that so many civic traditions once thought lifeless are again vigorously alive—witness the magnificent restorations of Grand Central Terminal and the Public Library reading room or the breathtaking new ancient Greek galleries at the Metropolitan Museum—we might try revivifying this one, too.
City Journal has a proposal. Not a single monument or memorial—not even a plaque or a street sign—exists anywhere in New York to the three native New Yorkers who just happen to be America's three greatest novelists: Henry James, Herman Melville, and Edith Wharton, the last of whom is as important a chronicler and definer of her city as Dickens is of his. New York has in general done a remarkably poor job of honoring its writers: a bronze bust, from the 1880s, of Washington Irving stands at the corner of Irving Place and 17th Street, in front of Washington Irving High School; a bronze statue, from the 1870s, of the obscure poet Fitz-Greene Halleck stands on Literary Walk in Central Park; a grand memorial to poet and civic leader William Cullen Bryant adjoins the Public Library in the park named in his honor; insubstantial lettering on a couple of street signs commemorates onetime city residents Edgar Allan Poe and Isaac Bashevis Singer. And, amazingly, that's about it.
In so rich and philanthropic a city as this, can we not erect statues to honor the three greatest writers New York gave the world? Why can we not put them up in Central Park, to fill some of the gaping holes in never-completed Literary Walk—a notion Parks Commissioner Henry Stern says he would welcome? Perhaps this modest step—it would cost less than $1 million—might spark a renaissance in the art of civic sculpture in New York. At the very least, as Henry G. Stebbins said of Central Park's statue of Shakespeare, it "will remind coming generations that we were able to appreciate the genius and know how to fitly honor" the memory of the world-renowned writers our own city nurtured.