In 1891, Angelina Crane made a public bequest of $53,000 to New York City to erect a drinking fountain in her honor. Despite contest from heirs, Ms. Crane’s wish was finally upheld by the courts, and mayor George B. McClellan commissioned Frederick William MacMonnies to design a monument that would stand in City Hall Park. The Piccirilli brothers (who also executed the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial,) carved the stone.
Although the commission and intended location must have encouraged MacMonnies to honor the ideals of public service, he ostensibly had considerable decision-making power over the subject and execution. In his own words,
I had plenty of time and all kinds of ideas. I thought at first I would make a city of New York, a female figure, a creature who was enthroned, and waters and rivers at the side, etc., and then that did not seem to appeal to me, and then I finally thought as I got nearer and nearer, of this idea of local dignity, the genie of the spot—so I thought I would make Civic Virtue.
MacMonnies is most commonly associated with the Beaux Arts school, but Triumph of Civic Virtue sports a number of features reflect a more purely classical style. The lilt in the man’s stance hearkens back to Michaelangelo’s “David,” for example. “Civic Virtue’s” musculature contains a similar detail and proportion to that of the Farnese Hercules. The female figures of Vice and Corruption hearken back to demigods and monsters of Greek myth.
The model for the male has been claimed to be both the famous bodybuilder Charles Atlas, and alternatively George Lorz, an exceptionally well-built fireman from Engine Co. 8. The mermaid models have been identified as Helen Geary, a magazine cover girl, and Mabel Foth, a New Jersey housewife, (both of whom reportedly referred to the statue’s critics as “nuts”).
Even before the statue’s completion, leading up to its 1922 dedication, officials at City Hall had allegedly begun receiving complaints about the nature of the depiction of a man over two women. Depending on the source one follows, objections were lodged by the Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the National League of Women Voters. Feminist groups had begun to be taken more seriously at the time in general after their suffrage victory in the passage of the Ninetheenth Amendment.
But MacMonnies mused upon a much deeper source of the discontent, one rooted deep in Western culture:
Can it be, that the women are angry because some man finally found the strength to resist temptation? In most instances of romantic sculpture, we have the man succumbing to the temptress. I think women should be pleased when strength is found to withstand their wonderful wiles. Antiquity is all the other way.
Michele Bogart, an art historian and authority on the Triumph of Civic Virtue, notes that MacMonnies’ depictions of women in public works were already controversial. In her words, his “conflation of the public (municipal) and the personal (psychological) disturbed many people.”
This indeed had precedent in 1894, when MacMonnies (an American expatriate who spent much of his life in France,) travelled back to the United States to dedicate another work to the Boston Public Library: Bacchante with Infant Faun. It was a gesture of personal gratitude toward its architect Charles Follen McKim.
As with Triumph of Civic Virtue, special interest groups who found the imagery highly offensive to their sensibilities spoke out. McKim was not stalwart against political pressure, and in turn presented it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has since become enormously popular, with numerous casts having been made for other museums.
The case of Triumph of Civic Virtue however, took a more complex turn. New York Mayor John F. Hylan, who probably was not pleased to bear responsibility for the decision made by the city’s Art Commission, held a hearing about its future with the Board of Estimate. Aside from the women’s groups, the mayor (who was probably keen not to lose the women’s vote) and an art professor testified in opposition, claiming the statue was not in keeping the architectural style of City Hall. Supporters included the president of the National Association of Women Sculptors and Painters who pronounced Civic Virtue quite brilliant, and a professor who said City Hall was Italian Renaissance, not Colonial, and in fact the Florentine-style statue was very fitting for the site. The board voted to install Civic Virtue as planned and leave him there for two weeks while the public voted in daily City Hall balloting whether to keep it. The results of this voting were not reported.
It was mayor Fiorello La Guardia who ultimately effected the statue’s removal from City Hall Park. Many sources cite correctly that La Guardia objected to the statue on the ground that he did not enjoy seeing its backside on a daily basis, but few note the urgings of an equally displeased Robert Moses, which would undoubtedly have influenced the decision as well.
Triumph of Civic Virtue was originally slated to be moved to Long Island City which was the original borough seat, but came to Kew Gardens in 1941 following the relocation of Borough Hall. Queens borough president George Upton Harvey had come into office after his predecessor resigned due to scandal, and he genuinely courted the statue for its timely allegorical value.
And so the statue remained for 71 years. On its 50th anniversary in 1972, a group from the National Organization of Women protested for the its removal. In 1987 Claire Schulman, Queens’ first female borough president, also called for it to be evicted. Helen Marshall, borough president from 2002 – 2013, has in the past not considered the statue worth actively supporting.
Throughout the decades, the ravages of weather and time took their own toll. The Fine Arts Federation of New York took up a campaign to procure the necessary funding to restore the Triumph of Civic Virtue, seeking both private donors and petitioning the city for abiding by its obligation to maintain public art. The economic downturn of 2008 had a dampening effect on these efforts.
In February 2011, U.S. representative for the district Anthony Weiner along with New York City councilwoman Julissa Ferreras for Queens’ 21st district (who was then also Chair of the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues) held a joint press conference in which they announced that the statue was put up for sale on the online marketplace Craigslist. (Neither had any power of office to effect such a sale.) Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery publicly expressed interest. (Members of MacMonnies’ family – but not the man himself – are buried there.) Weiner’s efforts summarily ceased however, after he became embroiled in a sex scandal that forced his resignation from office.
The statue’s outcome ultimately lay in the hands of the New York’s Department of City Administrative Services (DCAS), which in the summer of 2012 refused to confirm what future plans existed despite repeated requests from the press. The statue was fenced in after receiving reports of a serious crack needing repair. DCAS released a statement at the time denying that any firm plans had yet been made.
On September 28th 2012, DCAS signed a contract with the Green-Wood cemetery to put the statue in their custodial care under long-term loan. Shortly thereafter, the agency also contracted to spend nearly $50,000 of its budget on a custom armature for its transport, and about another $50,000 to clean and treat it to prevent further decay. The Public Design Commission held a public hearing shortly after Hurricane Sandy on November 13th, 2012 which was not attended by any member of the public aside from Green-Wood representatives to decide upon whether to approve DCAS’ decision. They voted to support the relocation. On December 10th 2012, Civic Virtue was removed from Kew Gardens to the cemetery, without the fountain. The statue has since been given a new rectangular base by Green-Wood for its public display, where it remains to this day. Subsequent borough president Melinda Katz has remarked that she is not interested in having the statue returned to Queens.
In conclusion, it’s worth nothing that MacMonnies defended his work in his own words as follows:
What do I care if all the ignoramuses and quack politicians in New York, together with all the dam-fool women get together to talk about my statue? Let ’em cackle. Let ’em babble. You can’t change the eternal verities that way. From Paris to Patagonia—universal allegory pictures sirens, temptresses, as woman. If you suppress allegory you suppress all intellectual effort. I gather that allegory has long been extinct in City Hall.
The Politics of Display in Manhattan and Queens : Lessons from the Monument Life Cycle. Bogart, Michele H. Journal of Urban History. 2012 38: 509.
Maeder, Jay. “Terrible Swift Sword” New York Daily News February 21 2000 Published.