Monument to a forgotten figure


One of my...hobbies, interests, whatever, is public sculpture. I was just down in Washington DC with my family, and got to see a lot of it. I favor the period roughly 1870-1920, which seemed to have developed a style and training regimen which allowed for a large number of skilled practitioners to be working across the country at the same time. As I travel, I find work even in small towns that is of astoundingly high quality.

Take a look at this:

This is part of a memorial to Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most respected figures of the late 19th century, now bulking nowhere near so large as his greatest opponent in the field, Robert E. Lee. It stands on the high end of the Mall in Washington DC, just below the Capitol, looking out to the memorial to his boss, Abraham Lincoln.

It took twenty years for the sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady to study and create the two dynamic groups of mounted soldiers and the gigantic statue of Grant on his horse Cincinnati (supposedly the third-largest equestrian statue in the world), along with some lions, reliefs, and other features.  If you've never heard of Shrady (I hadn't) it might be because he died two weeks before the monument was dedicated.  He deserves to be better known.

To my eyes, the work is startlingly Hellenistic, rather than Classical.  The cavalry group on Grant's right and the artillery group on his left struggle dramatically through mud.  Every body part of horse and man is torqued, exhibiting force and movement.  Garments flap, faces are contorted.  You feel the terror and stink of the Overland Campaign.

Here is the cavalry group:

Here is an artilleryman's face:

For his part, Grant sits with grim calm, his hat foursquare on his head.  He was a man who needed impending disaster to be able to relax.

The monument, though dramatic, has trouble holding its space.  It looks a bit of an afterthought, and I gather that changes have occurred around it.  The sculpture can't manage the space alone--no sculpture can.  It could use a flight of stairs or a colonnade.  It wouldn't even need to be architecturally distinguished to do the job.  The new National WWII monument, elsewhere on the Mall, is pretty much a decorative fountain (big in monuments nowadays), but its big blocky columns with their metal wreaths define the dedicated space effectively.

Wikipedia entry on the memorial.

Some other photos, not by me.