Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Lafayette and Washington Monument - Lafayette Square


As a token of the long and deep friendship between France and America, in 1873 the Cercle Francais de I'Harmonie, or French Fellowship Society, offered a gift to the United States.  Sculptor Fredric-Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to execute a statue of Marquis de Lafayette, whose help had been crucial to George Washington during the Revolution.  The Lafayette statue was dedicated in Union Square on September 6, 1876.  

In 1888, two years after Bartholdi's more famous statue, Liberty Enlightening the World, was dedicated in New York Harbor, millionaire publisher Joseph Pulitzer commissioned the sculptor to design a gift to the people of France--a monument depicting the first meeting of Lafayette and Washington.  It was exhibited in Paris in 1892, then transported to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.  It was dedicated in its final spot, the Place des Etats-Unis (United States Square) in Paris in 1895.

Fredric-Auguste Bartholdi would have one more gift between the two countries to execute.  Monumental News reported in its September 1899 issue that the sculptor "suggested that a duplicate should be erected in the United States."  Charles Broadway Rouss rose to the challenge.

Born Charles Baltzell Rouss, he had legally changed his middle name to Broadway--the street where his large store was located.  The New York Times would later describe him as "an eccentric character in the commercial life of New York."  Monumental News explained that Rouss had "very generously purchased" an exact copy of the monument from Bartholdi, "as a memorial of his son."  Rouss's eldest son, Charles H. B. Rouss, had died on April 5, 1891.  

In the fall of 1899 the Parks Commissioners selected "a triangular piece of land at the junction of Morningside Esplanade and Manhattan avenue" as the site of the monument.  Monumental News reported, "The monument will be about thirty-eight feet high" and would sit upon a 15-foot marble pedestal atop a two-foot granite base.  The article said:

It represents the figure of Washington on the right and Lafayette on the left, shaking hands.  Washington's left hand grasps his sword, while Lafayette upholds the flags of the two countries.  The flags rise about four feet above the twelve feet figures.  The inscription is in French, which, translated reads: 'Lafayette and Washington, Homage to France, in recognition of her generous assistance in the struggle of the people of the United States for independence and liberty.

That inscription was, in fact, the one displayed on the Paris monument.  The New York version would be decidedly simpler and more succinct.

The unveiling ceremony was scheduled to take place in February 1900, but was delayed "to meet the convenience of Senator Daniel, who will be the orator of the occasion," according to the New-York Tribune.  The dedication was moved to April 19, which apparently meant that the bronze plaque with the date would have to be recast.  It reads:

Lafayette - Washington
Presented to the City of New York
Charles B. Rouss
April Nineteenth  Nineteen Hundred

The New-York Tribune put a positive spin on the delay.  "The time for the unveiling the monument was well chosen, for [it] was the anniversary of Concord and Lexington, the opening battles of the Revolutionary War, and also of General Lafayette's arrival in America."  There were two large stands erected on the square, one for the band and the other for the speakers and distinguished guests.  

A fenced lawn originally encircled the monument.  (note the horse-drawn vehicle to the right.)  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Sadly, Charles Broadway Rouss could not totally appreciate his gift.  He was totally blind by 1895.  He was scheduled to speak along with eminent figures like General Horatio C. King, Randolph Guggenheimer, and George Washington's grand-nephew, W. D'H. Washington.  After the French Consul-General, Edmund Bruwaert pulled the cord to unveil the bronze grouping, reported the New-York Tribune, "Mr. Rouss rose to speak, but was overcome with emotion and had to be assisted to his chair."

The original statue had received mixed reviews in Paris.  The July 1893 issue of The Magazine Art had written, "The truth is that M. Bartholdi, while a very active member of the Parisian army of art, is not one of the lights of modern French sculpture at all...M. Bartholdi's sarcastic comrades regard the Washington-Lafayette group as a piece of clap-trap quite good enough for ignorant Yankees, and laughed tremendously over it."

New York critics were kinder.  The New-York Tribune wrote, "The figures of the two generals are colossal, that of Washington being the taller.  The two heroes face each other with clasped hands...Washington's face wears a benign expression, while Lafayette looks hopeful and defiant."  Sixteen years later, however, Munsey's Magazine made a veiled criticism, saying, "Bartholdi has given Washington a rather more corpulent figure than appears in any of the other statues or paintings."

In almost all cases, the passage of more than a century quiets artistic debates.  If Bartholdi's grouping suffers any humiliation today, it is that the monument is largely unknown and greatly overlooked.

photographs by the author
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  1. Great information thanks. There's also a terrific relief of Lafayette in prospect Park.

  2. I had long wondered about that statue—thanks!

  3. Thanks, Tom, for the article. Very well done, as usual.