“The greatest gift the hero leaves his race is to have been a hero.”
Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA is often called “America’s most beautiful boulevard.” Now a National Landmark, it runs five miles from east to west and has a wide, two-lane street on both sides of a generous median. Throughout the avenue are six large monuments.
Of the six, the first one dedicated is the only one that deserves significant attention.
Completed in 1890 by the French Academic sculptor Antonin Mercié (1845-1916), the representation of Lee and his mount Traveller is one of the most important equestrian statues in America. The pair are presented as walking calmly and proudly forward, and although Lee may have lead “the Lost Cause,” he is not presented as defeated, a villain or scapegoat—he is presented as the archetypical military commander.
The most touching statement as to the understood meaning of the monument comes from the dedication address on May 27, 1890. After spending significant time discussing the importance of military heroes and firmly placing Lee in this exalted category, Colonel Archer Anderson spoke:
This monument “is the recognition in Lee of the principal elements of this high ideal—courage, will, energy, insight, authority…fortitude, hopefulness, joy in battle—all exalted by heroic purpose and kindled with the glow of an unconquerable soul; it is, beside and above all, the unique combination in him of moral strength and moral beauty, of all that is great in heroic action with all that is good in common life, that will make this pile of stone a sacred shrine, dear through coming ages, not to soldiers only, but to all.”
The art-historical importance of the piece is that with this monument the South is firmly stating the importance of Lee—that he was a great military commander. They are not enshrining the ideas of the feudal South with this monument—but the idea that Lee was one of their greatest military heroes and should be considered as such by all.
The esthetic importance of the piece is that Lee is presented, not only as a man of great strength—but great beauty. “Moral strength and moral beauty,” as Anderson spoke in his address. Lee is presented as the ideal; an ideal in action.
The sculptor Antonin Mercié had a distinguished career as a leader in French sculpture, and many of his works can easily be found in reproduction today. Of interest here is that Mercié made his name as a neo-Florentine sculptor, characterized by lyricism, grace, softness and a certain fanciful idealism.
His Lee is an interesting departure from this oeuvre, tackling a modern-day subject in a more “realistic” style. For those as familiar with Mercié as I, his venture into this genre is a bit jarring at first, but the more one looks at the sculpture and thinks of its subject, the more one can truly fall in love with this equestrian.