Equine and equestrian sculpture has vexed artists for centuries.
On the one hand, sculptors find the horse an ideal subject for their medium for the same reasons that painters do for theirs, with the added benefits in sculpture of physical mass and more direct mimesis. On the other hand, sculptors of horses face the challenge that equines are both heavy and top-heavy, with ample bodies perched on thin legs. Those bodies are easier to represent with pigment on canvas, for obvious mechanical and financial reasons, than with stone or bronze. As a result, the history of equine and equestrian statuary has largely been a history of technology and financing, particularly for statuary on a grand scale.
Despite these challenges, artists have managed to produce equestrian statues, in one medium or another, since the classical periods of both East and West. The vast army of terracotta warriors near Xi’An, China, for example, dating to the third century BC, discovered in 1974, and under ongoing excavation since then, represents an extraordinarily ambitious project. Guarding the remains of the first emperor, the army occupies a memorial site measuring roughly 50 acres and includes an estimated 520 chariot horses and 150 cavalry horses. On the other side of the globe, the renowned equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, erected in Rome circa 176 AD, represents not only the single fully surviving equestrian bronze from the imperial age, but also the only example of the genre available to the Renaissance (the Horses of St. Mark’s are equine, but not equestrian). Together with rediscovered bronze casting techniques, the monument helped spur the Renaissance revival of public, memorial equestrian statuary that reached well into the first half of the 20th century.
Equestrian statues in bronze, particularly in the West, number in the many scores, indeed hundreds, of examples. But if they are abundant, they are also, at least comparatively speaking, uncommon. (Every town and village in New England, for example, has its memorial “for the Union dead,” but very few of these are equestrian.) Equestrian statues in bronze are challenging, large, and complex. As portraits, they require artistry that is both accurate and interpretative, that both depicts the subject and moves the viewer. As sculptures either full-sized or bigger, with commensurate pedestals and sites, their execution demands skilled architects and engineers in addition to accomplished artists. For these reasons, plus the expense of valuable labor, materials, and land, equestrian statues in bronze are very costly and time consuming to erect and generally involved committees, competitions, commissions, philanthropy, and public approval — not to mention delicate politics — to complete. As both cause and consequence, their makers almost always had significant artistic stature, and often an equestrian specialty, and their subjects always had public importance.
That importance typically derives from warfare (needless to add, mounted warfare): generals, statesmen, monarchs, and especially generals turned statesmen or monarchs are the most frequent subjects. This body of work includes, to invoke just a few examples, Pietro Tacca’s equestrian monument to Philip IV (1640); three important equestrian statues of George Washington in Manhattan (1856), Richmond, VA (1858), and Washington, DC (1860); similarly important equestrian statues of Napoleon I in Paris (1852), Rouen (1853), Cherbourg-Octeville (1858), Laffrey (1868), and Montereau-Fault-Yonne (Second Empire). Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, also has fared well, with a major monument in Edinburgh (1852); a 30-foot high, 40-ton behemoth first sited in Hyde Park (1846) and later moved to Aldershot (1884); and the present statue at Hyde Park Corner, cast from cannons captured at Waterloo (1888). The cities of Washington, DC and Paris, in an apt reciprocity, each boast important equestrian statues of Generals Washington and Lafayette.
Equestrian statuary enjoyed an important extended moment in the United States in the decades leading up to and following the Civil War, between 1850 and 1920, with a number of monuments to Union or Confederate horsemen erected in major cities and on battlefields of consequence.
The Gettysburg National Military Park, to take a salient example, features only seven equestrian statues among its scores of monuments and memorials, but they represent the major sculptures at the site dedicated to specific individuals rather than to military units. Though primarily intended, of course, to honor Union and Confederate officers, this group of equestrian statues also tacitly pays homage to the hosts of equines who took the field for both sides and who suffered immense carnage.
In Traveller & Company: The Horses of Gettysburg (1995), Blake A. Magner reports a contemporary estimate that 3000 to 5000 of the approximately 72,243 horses who participated in the battle suffered death, often horrific and painful death, as a representative Confederate diary extract testifies: “It was piteous to see the poor animals walking about with terrible wounds, and to hear their groans.”
While both Confederate and Union capitals tell their stories in bronze, Richmond does so with a succinctness fitting the Lost Cause: the dominant and somewhat grand equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee (1890) is joined by equestrian statues of J.E.B. Stuart (1907), and Stonewall Jackson (1919), all clustered on Monument Avenue. By contrast, half of the more than 20 equestrian statues that stud the Washington, DC landscape memorialize Union generals. Ranged in a loosely defined (and imperceptible) ring overlooking the Capitol, White House, and Potomac River, and focusing and lending their names to key urban circles and squares, the statues range aesthetically from the vigorous tribute to the hell-for-leather cavalry general Philip Sheridan (1908), to the stately memorial to George B. McClellan that occupies the heights of Connecticut Avenue (1907), to the imperial monument to William Tecumseh Sherman that looms over Sherman Square (1903), and to its affective counterpoint, the solemn and sedate statue of U.S. Grant on the Capitol Mall (1920), sited so that Grant, with the Capitol at his back, gazes across the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Potomac River to the battlefields and vast nation to the west.