June 11, 2023


We Bring Good Things to Life

Americans put up statues during the Gilded Age. Today we’re tearing them down.

The explosion of statues reflected a combination of the era’s art, fashion, economic change and technological development. During the late 19th century, industrialization and urbanization transformed America’s landscape beyond recognition, while the end of slavery and increased immigration from Europe seemed to transform its people. In a moment of flux, people wanted to recover (and in some cases invent) links to the past. But the past they conjured tended to celebrate the accomplishments of white men and follow the whims of wealthy industrial donors; the materials they used to decorate public spaces were imposing and grand, erasing the contributions of women and ordinary people, and reinforcing elite power.

Newer cities that had grown with the arrival of railways and manufacturing wanted to mark the importance of local sons, or establish their links to greater historical events. Local historical societies began to create festivals or commemoration ceremonies to mark a city’s past, and statues served to hold up figures in a pantheon of local or national heroes. Public artworks, like theaters or libraries, were a sign that a town was a place with an identity.

Older cities too were focusing on appearance. The “City Beautiful” movement, which flourished between 1890 and 1910, had goals of erecting public parks and beautifying the urban landscape with elegant design. This movement influenced neoclassical public buildings and created squares and plazas just perfect for statues.

Many statues of this period were not paid for by the government, but with private funds. Urban planners wanted to create distinctive public spaces, and wealthy donors amassing unprecedented fortunes were able to contribute to public art, especially if it celebrated figures they admired. A perfect example of this is the statue population of Central Park, which grew in the decades after the park opened in 1876.

Central Park offers examples of the range of popular statuary of this period: from heroes in the arts (Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Walter Scott); national history (a Pilgrim, General William Tecumseh Sherman); to the idiosyncratic choices of donors (the Falconer). When a dog sled raced to get diphtheria vaccine to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, this triumph was hailed around the world. Ten months later a statue of the lead dog, Balto, was installed in Central Park.

The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, at the American Museum of National History, in which he is flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure, was commissioned the same year.

Each of the statues in Central Park reflects a set of values about what was important and who should be celebrated. The heroic individuals are all white men, while female figures are allegorical or classical. In fact, the first statue honoring actual women (a trio of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth) is due to arrive later this year.

Central Park also has a Christopher Columbus statue, one of at least 50 put up around the country in this period — many to mark the 1892 anniversary of his voyage. Central Park’s Columbus was commissioned by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, but Columbus was a popular choice among Italian American groups who wanted to install a statue. At a time when Italians were gaining a foothold in American life, with large numbers arriving in the 1880s and ’90s, celebrating Columbus was a way to celebrate Italian heritage and to show their Americanness at the same time.

For any group to install a statue in a public space was to lay claim to full civic participation. This was in one sense a democratizing moment of public art, something that had in the past only been available to kings and presidents, due to costs and ownership of public spaces. Now small-town committees and groups could commission statues, and these statues often represented secular heroes, or community ideals rather than religious figures.

But this also required new technology. The industrial revolution in Britain led to the creation of commercial bronze foundries, in response to a demand for sculpture among a growing middle class — as decorative art and for architectural elements.

Casting in bronze goes back more than 2,000 years, but in the 1850s electrotyping became available to make it more efficient and cheaper. Casting firms in England led the way; J.W. Singer & Sons was an early adopter of this technology. It exhibited at the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia and made statues that went all over the world, from lions at the HSBC bank in Shanghai, to a 50-foot statue of Sir John Macdonald in Montreal, to the statue Thomas Francis Bayard in Wilmington, Del. The firm’s best-known work is “Boadicea and her Daughters” near the houses of parliament in London.

High demand for bronze work meant newer competitors also entered the field by the end of the century. Established in 1897 the Roman Bronze foundry in White Plains, N.Y., quickly became the leading foundry in the U.S.

Roman cast Balto the dog in Central Park, as well as the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Austin, and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington. That the company contributed to memorializing both sides of the Civil War shows the tensions in the creation of national memory at this time. It also reveals there were artists available to sculpt pretty much anyone’s vision of the past.

The range of statues from this period shows us how people of this era envisioned the past, and points to distinct visions for the future. Some people wanted to hail Confederate generals, remembering a time of slavery and using it to support white supremacy in their present. Others threw in cash for the Statue of Liberty to have a base. Still others thought Balto deserved a spot in Central Park.

This statue industry dwindled after its high point in the 1920s. The Depression meant funds for public art were reduced, and fashions changed. Classical statuary was no longer a desired design feature for public spaces, although casting firms went on to make more abstract design features for art deco and mid-century buildings.

The statues being taken down now are the representations of often cruel and reprehensible individuals. But the artworks that made them also represent a particular era in urban history and art history that should be recognized.