Washington DC is full of monuments. Some of them we all know, some of them I go by and have no idea who the person is or what they did. Everybody knows the Lincoln and the Jefferson and the Washington: most people ignore what must be one of the most powerful and compelling pieces of public art in the nation, the Grant Memorial.
It sits at the base of the Capitol–if your back is to the Washington monument, and you face the Capitol, it’s at the reflecting pool, at the bottom of the steps. That’s Grant on the horse, and there are two figure groups flanking him. You’re yawning right?
Well look more closely:
Neither one conforms to some simple notion of heroism: in both things have gone terribly wrong. The Cavalry has just commenced a charge, but the lead rider’s horse has fallen, leaving him about to be trampled. Supposedly modeled on Shrady himself, the fallen rider looks stunned.
The artillery group has been ordered to wheel right, but the bridle controlling one horse has snapped, and chaos has just broken out.
One mounted rider in the front pitches back: it’s not clear if he’s been shot or is just trying to control his rearing horse. The rider in the back doesn’t know things have gone bad yet. He looks resigned, haunted and miserable.
And why not? As Schrady sculpted the groups it’s clearly a cold, rainy day. There’s rutted mud six inches deep under the wheels, and discarded equipment half buried in muck. The soldiers are deep in a tough, tough slog.
On the cavalry side, the mud is even thicker, and the trampled gear suggests a dark fate for the fallen horse and rider.
It’s a deeply grim impression overall, war not as heroic poses and triumphal moments, nor as noble, sentimentalized sacrifice, but as a combination of mud and misery and chaos. Both groups are amazingly dynamic and complex: Kirk Savage, in Monument Wars, argues it tells different, incomplete stories from every angle, and that each figure remains isolated from the others, lost in his own confrontation with duty and necessity.
The figure of Grant certainly suggests this. While they ride towards him, Grant ignores what’s going on on either side, and looks off into the distance at the Lincoln memorial.
It’s a brutal image of the indifference to suffering Grant must have cultivated in himself to win the war. Unshaven, hat drawn low, collar up, he doesn’t look proud, or “commanding,” or arrogant, he looks like a determined man with an awful job to do.
I can’t think of any piece of public art like it anywhere in the US: we rarely tolerate this much ambiguity on such a heroic scale. The Grant Memorial has none of the stolid martial glory you expect: instead, it has a modern sense of complexity. The flanking groups suggest strategies and traditions failing, not timeless martial verities. They memorialize regret and random chance. It makes callousness one of its central virtues: callousness and endurance as well as courage. It may be the single best artistic representation of the Civil War in the country, maybe the best representation of war itself.
Shrady, the sculptor, began the work in 1902 and died two weeks before the Grant Memorial was dedicated, in 1922. He was a self-taught sculptor who first made his reputation sculpting animals. He didn’t manage that many other pieces, and by all accounts the Grant memorial commission was his obsession. There’s a far less interesting but still quite good statue of Lee in Charlottesville, a large but banal statue of Washington on horseback at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge in Brooklyn, and a rather dapper statue of financier Jay Cooke in Duluth, on the left. When Shrady died, the New York Times called him one of the leading American sculptors.”
I had thought that Shrady’s complicated image of the Civil War might reflect the cult of “reconciliation” in the early twentieth century, and the triumph of the southern version of the war as “the war of northern aggression” in a battle for state’s rights. That is, that its ambivalence about the war might reflect sympathy for the South. But Shrady apparently had a very hard time with his statue of Lee, which was finished after his death. Compared to Grant, Lee looks noble but very much defeated.
Shrady’s Grant Memorial has to be among the best pieces of public art in America. There’s a website here which looks at in in detail. If you’re in DC, it’s an easy walk from Union Station and the capitol. Most people stop there to photograph the Washington and Lincoln memorials and the mall, and never notice Shrady’s masterpiece.