In the annals of monumental sculpture, James Earle Fraser’s equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt hardly ranks as a masterpiece. The Rough Rider is portrayed in frontiersman’s garb and flanked by two figures on foot: a Plains Indian and an African tribesman. Prominently sited before the august Central Park West entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the equestrian nonetheless forms an important part of a major monumental ensemble. In late June, the museum requested that the statue, which is owned by the City of New York, be removed. What will replace it—an elephant or T. rex, perhaps, or nothing at all?—has not been disclosed. But the result is likely to be another unhappy reminder that we long ago abandoned the monumental aesthetic that offers the public visions of human greatness. “Man as Hero”—to quote the title of a valuable treatise by the painter and critic Pierce Rice—is an endangered species.
Fraser’s statue, flaws and all, is worth reflecting on—as is the commemorative ensemble, designed by John Russell Pope, of which it forms a part—before the amputation occurs. TR and his company look like they are striding right out of the museum. The three men, along with Roosevelt’s horse, are looking straight ahead. This simplistically linear dynamic is more appropriate to a motion picture still than to a work of public sculpture, and it is a defect. TR’s pose, with the left arm holding the reins raised at the elbow while his torso turns so his right hand can rest on his pistol holster, is modeled on Verrocchio’s magisterial Bartolomeo Colleoni equestrian in Venice (1495). But Colleoni’s torso pivots emphatically in one direction while his head turns the other way, along with his horse’s—creating a subtle directional tension, wholly lacking in the TR, that is essential to Colleoni’s monumentality. Moreover, Colleoni’s mount is far more skillfully articulated than TR’s, which takes its cues from the generic and rather dull handling of the equine in Donatello’s monument to Gattamelata in Padua (1453).