Men on horseback dominate memorials

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

With all the memorials in the capital, you would think the man who came up with the idea for Memorial Day would have one of his own.

He does — on Logan Circle at 13th and P streets Northwest. What makes the monument to Maj. Gen. John A. Logan special, vaulting it into the upper tier of Washington statuary, has less to do with his post-Civil War vision for what would become Memorial Day and more with the protocol of memorial sculpture: The man is on a warhorse.

“The biggest compliment you can give a man is not just to have him standing on a pedestal but sitting on top of a horse. There’s a certain stature in the fact that you’ve got an equestrian,” says George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum has been cataloging the nation’s outdoor sculptures for the past 20 years and helps run a program to preserve them.

Equestrian monuments are the creme de la creme of memorial sculpture, and Washington, with 28 at last count, has more of them than any other American city.

The range of their subject matter is relatively narrow. One pays tribute to a woman. One or two celebrate ideas or cultural icons. A few honor non-Americans. The vast majority memorialize Americans in battle and the qualities that make good soldiers — honor, sacrifice, valor, grit, victory.

Even men who made their ultimate mark in politics or other fields are shown as they were — or as the culture hoped they were — in war.

None in the District salutes the heroes of the Confederacy, perhaps understandably: Most monuments to Union officers were unveiled when the wounds of the Civil War were fresh. For a mirror image, head for Richmond.

Washington’s horse-and-rider monuments are familiar fixtures of parks, circles and squares, but too often they blend into the background as drivers and pedestrians speed by. Let’s slow down for a closer look, touring a dozen neighborhoods, most lying within a triangle bounded by Adams Morgan, Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill.

The all-important steed

Our tour begins with the earliest equestrian statue in America, the centrally located portrayal of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. His horse rearing on two legs, Jackson doffs his hat in a pose depicting the general as he reviewed the troops in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans, which ended the War of 1812.

Dedicated Jan. 8, 1853, on the 38th anniversary of that battle, the sculpture represents a crowning achievement for its creator, Clark Mills. It required him to solve a problem that baffled even Leonardo da Vinci, namely how to balance a horse on its hind legs when making a monumental sculpture. Pieces that heavy — the statue contains 15 tons of bronze — tended to fall over.

Mills, a self-taught artist, solved the problem by buying a horse and training it to stand on its hind legs while he studied how it balanced itself. He saw that if he centered the animal over its rear hooves, it would stay upright. His observations also resulted in a high degree of realism. Faithful, too, is the likeness of the rider, based on contemporary portraits of Jackson.

Another problem Mills overcame was the absence of bronze foundries in the United States at that time. He set one up beside the White House, on 15th Street, and made six castings before getting the horse right. The cannons at each corner of the statue’s granite base were cast in Spain during the 18th century and captured by Jackson when he seized Pensacola, Fla., from the British in 1814.

Mills met such resounding praise for his piece that he was called upon to duplicate it twice. Replicas stand in New Orleans, appropriately, and in Nashville, Tenn., near Jackson’s plantation, the Hermitage.

A theory debunked

Story Continues →

View Entire Story
blog comments powered by Disqus