Robert E. Lee Equestrian Statue, Emancipation Park

As I described in a recent Facebook post, I was in Charlottesville on Wednesday, August 9th, to do some research on the Lee Statue in Emancipation Park, which has become the focal point of so much controversy lately, and will be so again this Saturday, August 12th, when various alt right groups are scheduled to gather for a rally. Because of the number of people projected to be present–either to join this rally or oppose it–the city has moved the site from Emancipation Park, to McIntyre Park–a move which has prompted an ACLU lawsuit. My approach, in all of this, as a sculptor, has been to go back to the origination of the statue, to see what the sculptor himself may have said about his intentions for the statue, or what the sculpture itself may reveal. I decided to do this because most of the arguments for taking the sculpture down seem to hinge on its being a symbol of white supremacy. But is this true? Is this simply a contemporary interpretation, or is it actually present in the written record of the project? In looking for answers, I discovered through a “History of Emancipation Park” webpage on the Charlottesville website (www.charlottesville.org) that the sculptor’s original model for the statue was in existence, and on display in the Jefferson Madison Regional Library in downtown Charlottesville. I could hardly believe this, and felt obliged to call the library to be sure. Yes, I was told, it’s on the third floor, just as you step out of the elevator.

So I drove into town, parked in the garage, walked down Market Street, and then up the steps into the pillared library.  Now, a small model or ‘maquette’ is a standard step in doing a large sculpture; it’s a way of working out a design at a scale which can easily be adjusted and altered–I’ve done them myself so I’m very familiar with the process. I stepped into the elevator and pressed “3,” and though I was only going up one floor, the ride seemed to take a long time–and then the doors opened.  I stepped out, and there it was, in a small plastic case, the maquette fashioned originally in clay by Henry Shrady himself in 1921 and then cast in bronze, the whole thing about 16″ high. 

As you can see, it is quite detailed, providing a clear picture of what the finished sculpture would look like. Lee looks trim, even youthful, hatted as if ready for a battlefield inspection tour; his horse Traveller, is energetic, with a sprightly gait. It would have made for a good statue–but unfortunately, William Shrady was ill when he began the project, and died before he completed the full-size statue. It was said that on his death bed, he pleaded with his attendants to “keep the canvas wet,” but they, apparently thinking he was raving, ignored his pleas, and so the canvas was not wetted, the clay dried out, and when the sculptor Leo Lentelli , who was hired to complete the project, tried removing the canvas, the hardened clay broke loose, and pretty much ruined the statue. Rather than simply refining what Shrady had begun, Lentelli made subtle but significant changes, as you can see. The horse is a heavier, more muscular animal, with a slower gait, and Lee is fuller, more robust. It’s altogether a more somber portrait. He does not appear to be the vigorous general riding off to battle, but the somber warrior finished with fighting. And what of the hat, now off? Is this an act of deference, to his troops, or to a victorious army?  I speak at some length on these matters because we can be sure that every detail of the sculpture was carefully thought about by the sculptor; the sculpture therefore “speaks,” and deserves a “hearing,”as it were. Was the sculptor–or sculptors–complicit in the creation of symbols of white supremacy? Were they, instead, simply specialized contractors fulfilling a commission whose design and purpose they were not privy to? Or did their intentions, as individual artists, diverge from or conflict with the “official” purposes for the monument? Can answers to any of these questions be discerned in the sculpture itself, or in the history of its making? These questions interest me, even though I feel the danger resident in asking them. Yet the process of doing so may help me, at least, separate history from memory, and myth.