From Paris to Harlem, Bartholdi’s Washington and Lafayette statue
On April 19, 1900, a replica of the Lafayette and Washington monument in Paris was unveiled in Harlem, clouded by the shadow of its sculptor’s statue in New York harbor.
In the center of a little triangular plaza in Harlem — at the junction of West 114th Street, Morningside- and Manhattan Avenues — stands a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, clasping hands. The sculptor was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, venerable designer of France’s colossal gift to the United States in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty.
The statue is a clone of Bartholdi’s work in Paris. With almost double life size figures the artist depicted Gen. Lafayette as the emissary of the good news to Gen. Washington: France was sending military aid his Patriots against the British in the American Revolution. Today the work’s restrained composition may be well suited to its sedate little acreage, but the unveiling of Bartholdi’s late 19th-century heroic tribute — in Paris, Chicago and New York — released a flurry of critiques like a burst of pigeons.
Inauspicious Paris Salon of 1892
The statue’s story began in 1888, when Joseph Pulitzer, editor of the New York World, offered a gift to the city of Paris — a statue of Lafayette and Washington. Bartholdi likely designed the work in 1890, the date inscribed on its base, but he first exhibited it at the high-profile annual art salon in Paris of 1892. It was an inauspicious debut.
“The Champs Elysées Salon of 1892 is not a brilliant one,” a New York Times critic wrote from Paris that spring. He added tersely, “Bartholdi exhibits Washington and Lafayette shaking hands, and they seem to think it a grave affair.” By some inadvertent convenience to the judges, Bartholdi’s prior Legion of Honor position placed his entry hors concours (“out of the running”) in the Paris Salon, so they could justly overlook the work of so noted a contributor without awkwardness. The statue received no award.
The next year, in 1893, Bartholdi sent a miniature of his statue to Tiffany & Co. in New York. At the same time, he presented the statue at the great Columbian Exposition in Chicago, whose mayor hastened to solicit subscribers to buy it. New York art critics leaned in on the Tiffany statuette, then looked toward Chicago. “It is…obviously unfair,” concluded a writer in the Times, “to foist on her another poor piece of sculpture.” heightened criticism from miles away.
Lengthy analyses in newspapers debated respectfully, yet pointedly, whether Bartholdi’s new offering was “worthy of his best work”, and raised concerns about quality control in the placement of public art. Critics compared the artist’s earlier Marquis de Lafayette statue in Union Square (1876), and his Lion of Belfort in France (1880), not to mention his pièce de résistance, the instantly iconic Statue of Liberty (1886).
“France has such an undisputed lead of the world in sculpture”, the Times argued, adding that she would be ill-served “by a work that does not represent the higher level of her genius in the arts.”
Bartholdi was said to take umbrage “in violent terms” to several New York reporters, but similar critiques of the statue’s lackluster execution appeared to be shared across the Atlantic. Pundits cited the work’s “weak drawing,” its “poor likenesses” of the subjects as compared to other portraiture, and especially the quirkily shortened figure of George Washington, whose tall stature was legendary. One Parisian was said to remark, “‘Aha! encore un navet pour l’Amerique! Pauvre pays!’ (Aha! still another ‘turnip’ for America. Unfortunate country!)”
However by late 1895, Bartholdi’s Lafayette et Washington had found a permanent home. The city of Paris erected the monument in its Place des Etats-Unis (United States Square). And the statue also won over a new best friend in New York.
C.B. Rouss Buys Statue for New York City
In 1897 a New York City merchant named Charles Broadway Rouss bought a replica of Bartholdi’s statue as a memorial to his late son. In March of 1898 the bronze Lafayette and Washington arrived in New York in the hold of the steamer Myrtle from Havre, France. Rouss offered the statue to New York City, a gift which, regardless of the earlier critical fuss, the city graciously accepted.
On April 19, 1900, local dignitaries, members of Revolutionary and historical societies, the French Consul General, and hundreds of regular New Yorkers rallied into Harlem’s newest park for the dedication of Bartholdi’s statue. An evening event followed at Carnegie Hall. President William McKinley, presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan and controversial Roman Catholic priest Père Hyancinthe from France all sent regrets for their absence, but celebrities included the famous poet Edwin Markham, who recited an original poem for the occasion, and the renowned boy soprano Earl Gulick, “the American Nightingale,” who sang.
Today the Bartholdi monument still presides over the placid tree-lined streetscape. Despite the left-to-right placement of its figures — erected as the Lafayette et Washington statue five years earlier in Paris — the replica conversely is now called the Washington and Lafayette statue. It offers no hint of its contentious beginnings and, looming over its relatively low-trafficked setting, it is not at all without a certain charm.
New York Times,”The Old Salon in Review,” May 16, 1892; ”A Monument for Chicago,” September 24, 1893; “Bartholdi and His Work,” September 28, 1893; “Bartholdi’s Group Analyzed,” October 12, 1893; “Mr. Rouss’s Gift to the City,” November 14, 1897; “C.B. Rouss’s Gift Arrives,” March 20, 1898; “New Statue is Unveiled,” April 20, 1900.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “Mr. Pulitzer’s Gift Accepted”, December 22, 1888; “Harlem and the Bronx”, February 17, 1900; “To be Unvailed [sic] Thursday”, April 16, 1900.
Auguste Bartholdi: Un dossier documentaire et pédagogique, Christian Grawey, online.
(This article was originally published in April 2010 on suite101[dot]com)