Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Cautionary Tale...

This imposing bronze statue of statesman William Seward (1801–1872) at 23rd and Broadway, was created by the artist Randolph Rogers (1825–1892). The sculpture was dedicated in 1876, and Seward is said to be the first New Yorker to be honored with a monument in the city. Seward earned it. He was secretary of state during the Civil War, a typical New Yorkers appetite for a stressful job. However, he is best remembered for his purchase of Alaska from the Russians ("Seward's Folly")

The story I heard was that his statue of Seward was nothing more than a new head added to a sculpture of Lincoln that Randolph Rogers had already made. The size of Seward’s body appears too large, and the proportion of the head to body seems at odds. Also, the original subscription effort to fund the memorial, which began in 1873, faltered, and to save money as the story goes, its organizers asked Rogers if he could cut some corners. Rogers supposedly offered to sculpt only a head of Seward, which would then be affixed to an existing body, laying around his studio, of Abraham Lincoln. Seward is depicted seated with pen and parchment at hand perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1904, a writer to The Times referred to the “great saving of time and labor to decapitate the Lincoln model and place the head of Seward on it;” that writer added conspiratorily, “I know whereof I speak.” Each time a revelation like this surfaced, rebuttals would appear. One writer to The Times quoted Seward’s son, Frederick, who called the story “unfounded and absurd.” The letter writer went on to point out that the committee that raised the money for the statue published a detailed accounting of its financial records and activities in 1876, which apparently makes it plain that the statue’s $25,000 cost was paid in full by 250 donors, among them General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) and Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843–1899).

The only conspiracy at work here seems to be Rogers’s lack of imagination, and perhaps his poor eye for proportion. When I saw the orange caution tape drifting across the statue, I just couldn't resist. Just say no to bad sculpture!

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