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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

From Model to Monument: American Public Sculpture, 1865–1915

The earliest commissions for public monuments in the United States date to the late eighteenth century and were completed by foreign artists: for instance, French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon created a full-size marble statue of George Washington (1786–96) for the State Capitol at Richmond, Virginia, based on studies from life. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, Americans who patronized sculptors for outdoor portraits most frequently awarded commissions to Europeans. These artists brought from abroad the Neoclassical aesthetic that native sculptors strove to emulate through the mid-nineteenth century.

Throughout the ages, public sculptures have served as didactic tools, offering moral, patriotic, and cultural instruction. Symbols of pride, they have proclaimed cities as tastemakers in civic and aesthetic matters. Urban centers such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Richmond aspired to have such monuments, engaging in public fund-raising efforts and commissioning American sculptors based both at home and abroad. One of the first successful efforts was Henry Kirke Brown’s equestrian statue of George Washington, paid for by a group of shipping merchants and dedicated in New York’s Union Square in 1856.

The years between the Civil War and World War I represent the great age of American civic sculpture in bronze. The Civil War (1861–65) created a demand in both the North and South for public sculpture commemorating military heroism and sacrifice, from common soldier to admiral to general. This movement lasted for several decades, with major sculptors such as John Quincy Adams Ward and Augustus Saint-Gaudens producing monuments of stirring impact addressing war, slavery, and Reconstruction themes. Concurrently, immigrant citizen groups, inspired by ethnic pride, also funded monuments in urban spaces to recognize the accomplishments of individuals from their homelands. Most of these monuments were produced in bronze, in a Beaux-Arts aesthetic that emphasized naturalism and dynamic treatment of form and surface.

The City Beautiful movement focused attention on a deliberately planned network of buildings, thoroughfares, and parks while acknowledging the importance of monuments and architectural sculpture to their embellishment. Planned and landscaped public spaces, such as New York’s Central Park, promoted the necessity of art within urban environs. The siting of monuments was of paramount importance to sculptors schooled in the American Renaissance ethos of cross-fertilization between the arts. Sculptures, with their custom-designed pedestals, architectural settings, fountains, and approaches, in the most successful instances seamlessly harmonized with parks, squares, cemeteries, or grounds. Many sculptors enjoyed productive relationships with the leading architects of the day to create these ensembles: John Quincy Adams Ward worked with Richard Morris Hunt; Augustus Saint-Gaudens collaborated with Stanford White (28.101; 39.65.54a,b; 2012.14a,b) and Charles McKim (17.90.1); and Daniel Chester French paired up with Henry Bacon (15.75; 26.120). Likewise, artists and architects together planned elaborate programs for temporary outdoor sculpture, especially for world’s fairs in Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and San Francisco in 1915. Often treating allegorical themes of cultural progress, civilization, and nationhood, these sculptures were frequently executed in a temporary material called staff, a mixture of plaster and straw, or similar materials; occasionally they were translated into marble or bronze (1994.501).

Concurrent with the post-Civil War public sculpture movement, the growth of the bronze casting industry in the United States during the late nineteenth century facilitated the transition from marble as the preferred medium to bronze, a durable material that has greater tensile strength than stone and better withstands the outdoor elements. Along with the rise of American outdoor sculpture, an ancillary market developed for models of and reductions after monuments, in effect bringing public statues into private homes, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. Preparatory models, or maquettes (2017.655) represent the artist’s vision for the final monument before translation into the permanent media of bronze or stone. Reductions are small-scale reproductions of works in existence (1985.353), while excerpts replicate part of a larger whole, sometimes with compositional modifications (07.90; 39.65.54a,b).