U.S. Grant's Steely Bronze
Sunday, December 23, 2007
His pedestal of white marble is 22 feet high, and Cincinnati, his enormous war horse, stands in bronze on top of it, so that by the time you reach Ulysses S. Grant himself, the crown of his slouch hat is 43 feet up in the air.
His equestrian statue at his Washington memorial is very big, but maybe not big enough.
Behind him the white dome of the Capitol gobbles the sky, and that dwarfs him. Before him the long Mall stretches far away, and that dwarfs him, too.
He was twice elected president, a million of his countrymen gathered for his funeral in 1885, and he wrote a great American book. But the little man up there on his stallion isn't politicking or writing, he's slaughtering relentlessly, overseeing war.
At Shiloh and Vicksburg and in the wilderness, he watched thousands of good men die. You can imagine what he's watching, the carnage, the cannons, the bravery, the waste, but you don't have to imagine. In two amazing sculpture groups to the general's left and right, onrushing Union soldiers, desperate and doomed, are fighting the Civil War.
The slaves were freed, the Union saved, and then after a while came permanent, triumphalist bronze and marble monuments erected to the victors. They're all over the Northern states. Washington is filled with them. The Grant is the third best in the city. Many Washingtonians don't even know it's there. Or who put it there.
The sculptor, Henry Merwin Shrady (1871-1922), a businessman with a law degree, was scarcely known when he won the big commission 105 years ago, and is scarcely known today. In terms of monuments he didn't do much else.
Shrady worked for 20 years on the memorial's three great bronzes, gave them all he had, and it killed him.
Their setting isn't great. The approaches are awkward, and the pool in front of the statue is too big, and the lawns around it are a mess. The Grant Memorial's plaza is a broad Beaux-Arts extravagance whose Latinate allusions and marble moldings and bronze lions have been designed to link the high splendor of America to that of Rome.
The grand thing about Shrady's three grand sculptures -- the artillery to the right, the cavalry to the left, the general between them -- is that they don't only lead you back to classical antiquity, they also take you to the movies.
His sculptures, like the movies, offer horses at full gallop, drama, ceaseless action, bugle calls, grunts and screams. Shrady has set his art on an old aesthetic line that runs through the white horses on the Parthenon, and through the bronze ones at San Marco's, and then veers off toward John Wayne.
Grant isn't hard to find. If you sit on Abraham Lincoln's lap in the Lincoln Memorial, and look out straight ahead, between the Doric columns, along the long Reflecting Pool and past the Washington Monument, you'll be looking into his grim implacable eyes.