A Monumental Error in the Making

tags: Chicago, memorials, monuments, public history, Columbian Exposition

Harold Holzer, director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, is the author of the 2019 biography Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French (Princeton).

In 1891, sculptor Daniel Chester French won the most coveted (and lucrative) assignment of his burgeoning career: a monumental statue to symbolize the nation’s democratic ideal and serve as the centerpiece of the forthcoming World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With “The Republic” French produced a colossus that, at least for a year, ranked as one of the most conspicuous and admired sculptures in the nation.

Though the original is long gone, a smaller but still-formidable replica stands today on a traffic island in Chicago’s Jackson Park, destined to re-emerge from obscurity when the new Obama Presidential Center is built nearby—that is, unless this version vanishes, too. Late last month, a municipal panel included “The Republic” on a list of 41 public sculptures “subject for review” and, perhaps, removal for promoting narratives of white supremacy or racism or—more likely in this case—“presenting selective, over-simplified views of history,” one of the categories the city identified among its rationales. The feverish iconoclasm now poses a threat to one out of 10 of the 500 public monuments in Chicago, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s renowned “Standing Lincoln” and French’s own equestrian statue of George Washington.

“The Republic” should be considered a treasure, not a target. It evocatively captures fin-de-siècle national confidence along with enthusiasm for the Windy City’s central role in the country’s future. And it suggests that Americans once believed themselves rightful heirs to classical traditions—especially democracy. Not to mention that it is a seminal work by the major sculptor who would go on to create the cherished statue for the Lincoln Memorial, likely because “The Republic” proved he could produce grand-scale monuments.

Crafting a giant sculpture meant to dominate the largest world’s fair ever staged presented a formidable challenge. French was expected to fashion a national emblem that could compete for attention and affection with the recently installed Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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