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The White House recently mandated the creation of a National Garden of American Heroes to mark the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The garden, according to the executive order, will feature honorific statues of “historically significant” men and women. Assuming the project comes off, it could end up being a statuary Bridge to Nowhere—a haunting ground for curiosity seekers that fails to attract a broader public. But if the White House manages the project thoughtfully, its value could run deeper than our political fault lines.

Appropriately, the order calls for “lifelike or realistic” figures rather than “abstract or modernist” ones, meaning the statues should resonate with the public at large, not just our cultural illuminati. It also applies this requirement to new artworks commissioned through the General Services Administration’s Art-in-Architecture program for Federal courthouses and other buildings (a commendable decision in light of the late Bruce Cole’s revelation of GSA shenanigans in Art from the Swamp).

We do not yet know where the garden will be, how large it will be, how many statues it will contain, or what proportion of them will be newly commissioned works. The list of candidate categories in the executive order is long, ranging from the founding fathers to “authors, intellectuals, artists, and teachers.” The mandate names more than 30 prospective honorees, from John Adams to Orville and Wilbur Wright. It’s worth noting that the list includes no Native Americans, though several are now represented in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection of 100 statues, two from each state.

The statues in this collection offer a sobering lesson. The best, most monumental statue is also the earliest—or a replica of the earliest: a bronze copy of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s magnificent marble statue of George Washington, installed in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond in 1796. As Lafayette said upon seeing the original statue, “That is the man himself.” The founding father’s pose is subtly dynamic and spatial—rather than flat, pictorial, and obvious in its movement, as with so much statuary of more recent vintage. The copy now stands in the U.S. Capitol’s majestic rotunda. The statues of recent presidents in that chamber—Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan—are depressing by comparison, and unworthy of their august architectural setting. Ike’s is an uninspired photographic likeness. Ford is robot-like. And Reagan’s softly modeled face lacks both structure and character.

The Garden of Heroes could serve a useful cultural purpose if it teaches patrons, artists, and the public about the work past sculptors have done in commemorating eminent Americans and the great events of American history. If the original works cannot be loaned or donated, the garden should display high-quality replicas.

A great place to start would be with copies, perhaps in an open-air, roofed portico or pavilion, of Houdon’s brilliant portrait busts of eminent personages of the Revolution and Early Republic: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Robert Fulton, and Fulton’s friend and benefactor, the writer and diplomat Joel Barlow. (The White House owns the Barlow bust.) Houdon’s busts and his Washington statue are endowed with an inner radiance because they were conceived tectonically, from the inside out. Even the clothed portions of the Washington statue reflect scrupulous attention to the underlying anatomical structure. As a young man, Houdon modeled a life-sized flayed figure, or écorché, in plaster as a study for a statue of John the Baptist. Such anatomical discipline, which plays out in the geometric precision of the forms comprising Houdon’s figures, is scarcely to be found among contemporary figurative sculptors, whose figures are modeled tonally—in terms of the interplay of light and shade on their surfaces—rather than tectonically. This tonal modeling can result in a surface that assumes an autonomous, expressionistic value independent of the underlying form, an anti-classical technique for which Rodin, the founder of modernist sculpture, is well known. Rodin has many “realist” adepts doing their slapdash thing these days. Caveat emptor.

A considerable number of American statues from the nineteenth century reflect, in varying degrees, sound sculptural values. Copies should be included in the Garden of Heroes. J. Q. A. Ward (1830-1910) was arguably the best sculptor this country ever produced. Ward’s Freedman, a monumental portrayal of an anonymous African-American—in a seated pose reminiscent of the Hellenistic Belvedere Torso—unfortunately exists only at table-top scale. But his statuary monuments to Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan in Spartanburg, South Carolina; Commodore Perry in Newport, Rhode Island; and the abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher in Brooklyn are all important works, as is his majestic Garfield monument in Washington.

Another monument that warrants inclusion is the Minute Man by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), an impressive early work whose pose was skillfully derived from another Hellenistic masterpiece, the Apollo Belvedere. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was a pivotal figure in American sculpture, which he guided in a more tonally- and pictorially-oriented direction in line with the academic training he received in Paris. But Saint-Gaudens started out as a cameo cutter, not a modeler, and this glyptic discipline is evident in the facial portrait of Lincoln he produced for his standing statue of the 16th president in Chicago. That statue is probably the one that most deserves to stand in the Garden of Heroes.

The garden will inevitably expose the artistic decline of our statues and busts since the 1930s. For example, we don’t have a major-league statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who deserves to be included, though he is not listed in the order. Perhaps the best FDR statue stands in London’s Grosvenor Square. Installed in 1948, it is the work of William Reid Dick, a British academician who was basically on the same wavelength as his American peers. The pose and vesture are remarkably similar to Ward’s Beecher, but Reid’s statue, while it hardly dishonors its subject (as Robert Graham’s repulsive caricature at the FDR memorial in Washington does), is lifeless by comparison with the Beecher statue.

Statues of what the late painter and critic Pierce Rice called “anonymous heroes” should also be on view. Armenian-born sculptor Haig Patigian’s monument (1933) to San Francisco’s old volunteer fire department deserves consideration, as does a more prominent San Francisco landmark, the Mechanics Monument (1901) by Douglas Tilden, in which five heroic male nudes operate a titanic apparatus punching the boilerplate below. Also well worth considering are the relief groups decorating the stupendous bridgehouses of Chicago’s DuSable Bridge, particularly The Pioneers by James Earle Fraser and Henry Hering’s Regeneration, a tribute to Chicago’s recovery from the catastrophic 1871 fire. Both date to the 1920s and are the work of former Saint-Gaudens assistants.

If the National Garden of American Heroes is successfully realized, it will deepen the public’s appreciation of our nation’s cultural heritage. At a time when the woke regard sensible aesthetic standards as microaggressions or worse, the garden could also offer worthy artistic precedents to guide future works for Federal buildings and other public venues, including the garden itself.

Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington. He is a co-founder and past chair and research fellow of the National Civic Art Society.  

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