A wonderful old bronze statue of Samuel Dupont that used to stand in the center of Dupont Circle now stands in a place called Rockford Park in Wilmington, Del. I don’t know why it was moved, but it seems like it should be back in its rightful place, i.e. Dupont Circle.
— Chris Belles, Alexandria
You’ve heard the old saying “Ars longa, vita brevis,” right? Art is long, life is short. Don’t believe it. Sometimes ars can be pretty brevis, too.
Take the ill-fated statue of Adm. Samuel Francis Dupont. Dupont was seen as a hero for his service in the Mexican-American War and in his early exploits during the Civil War, when a Union fleet under his command captured Port Royal, S.C.
But in 1863, Dupont failed to secure Charleston, S.C. Many historians feel he was poorly equipped, forced to use new ironclad ships that were not suited to the task. In any event, President Abraham Lincoln relieved Dupont of command. Two years later, Dupont died.
Time softens ill feelings, and eventually it was agreed that the old sailor should be honored in Washington, specifically in the traffic circle originally known as Pacific Circle (for its western location). The commission to design a statue for Dupont Circle fell to Launt Thompson, an Irish-born sculptor who had moved to the United States in 1847 with his widowed mother.
Thompson worked in New York, did the Great Tour of Europe, settled with his wife in Florence, Italy, then returned to the United States and piled up the commissions, including a statue of Gen. Winfield Scott that’s at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington.
Thompson’s Dupont statue was unveiled Dec. 20, 1884, a day so bone-chillingly cold that attendance at the dedication was lower than expected. Still, 2,500 people were there.
“The scene was an exceedingly brilliant one, and long to be remembered for its imposing features,” wrote The Post. “The glittering uniforms of the army and naval officers contrasted richly with the more somber citizen’s dress of the officials gathered on the platform.”
Sen. Thomas Bayard of Delaware lauded Dupont — a scion of the chemical and munitions-making family who had never traded on his famous name — and praised Thompson’s statue, which “depicted the admiral standing on the quarter deck, marine glass in hand, which he has just lowered after an inspection of a distant object, leaving his countenance lit with an expression of alert interest.”
Wrote The Post: “Applause and favorable criticisms greeted the unveiling.”
Perhaps it was polite applause. Even before the statue was dedicated, the New York Times had praised the realistically treated sword, belt and uniform but described Dupont’s hands as “somewhat neglected and uncharacteristic.”
But really, Washington is full of stolid bronze white men with funny facial hair and neglected hands. What was one more?
Let us now leave the statue briefly and cast our eye toward a curious item from the Dec. 5, 1890, Post: “Launt Thompson, the sculptor, and a man of fine scholarship and artistic genius, has been sent to Blackwell’s Island to recover from the effects of excessive drink.”
Thompson suffered from more than the occasional bender. Blackwell’s Island was the first lunatic asylum in New York City. It was the place writer Nellie Bly entered at the behest of publisher Joseph Pulitzer. She pretended to be a patient and wrote a scathing expose of the horrific institution.
Thompson was moved from Blackwell’s Island to a private sanitarium and then to an insane asylum in Middletown, N.Y. He died there in 1894 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Answer Man doubts it was a premonition about the statue that drove the sculptor mad, but the fact remains that one influential group of critics came to hate it: the Admiral’s own family. In 1917, a Post reporter wrote (somewhat bitchily): “Recently the du Pont family, probably desirous of spending some of the millions that the present war has brought into their coffers upon their own military hero, and make him appear less insignificant than the artist has left him, have had Congress authorize a new du Pont statue.”
The Duponts promised to foot the entire bill to replace it with a nifty fountain. Though a joint House resolution provided that the original statue would remain in the District, that didn’t happen. In 1920, it was packed off to Delaware and the space readied for its replacement.
There was just one problem: There didn’t seem to be enough water in Dupont Circle, a severe drawback when you’re trying to build a fountain.
Next week: Here comes the fountain.
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