Joan of Arc
Riverside Drive at 93rd Street, Manhattan
This statue of Joan of Arc, a national hero in France, sits astride a strutting stallion on a small rise just inside Riverside Park at 93rd Street. It is truly a magnificent sight, though the surrounding trees envelop Joan like a big hotel bathrobe, making her hard to spot in the summertime. A person could walk right past without knowing it’s there. Uh… unless, of course, that person entered the park from the stairs at the landscaped entrance at 93rd, where visitors are greeted by the horse’s (anatomically correct) hind quarters.
Anyway. Joan and her horse face to the west, right into the leafy embrace of the trees. She is standing in her stirrups (as if she were trying to see around a tree branch), holding a sword up in her right hand, with her gaze directed slightly upward, a pose that combines piety with aggression. Which probably suits her.
The statue was sculpted by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, and (holy crap) they should have made a statue of her she was so interesting.
It was, near as I can figure, the first statue made by a woman to be installed in New York City. (And, for that matter, the first statue of a woman.) The story of how it came to be placed in Riverside Park is an interesting one, if only for its old-time sexual politics. Believe me, Joan probably had an easier time at Orleans than Huntington did getting this thing put together.
The idea for it all came from a group of New Yorkers who were keen, for whatever reason, to mark the 500th anniversary of Joan’s birth. They traveled to the Paris Salon of 1910 on a fishing expedition for possible ideas or leads on sculptors, and there they saw a plaster statue of Joan of Arc by Anna Hyatt, the future Mrs. Huntington. Hyatt, who was an unknown carver of animals at the time, had gone to France to study and had become smitten with Joan’s story.
Hyatt’s statue of Joan of Arc was widely praised, but Hyatt received only an honorable mention from the judges because no one at the Salon believed a woman could make such a statue without a man’s help. …No kidding. The Americans, for their part, must have seen something in Hyatt; four long years later, they offered her the commission for the statue in Riverside Park. By that time, the monument was commemorating more than the young martyr. World War I had started, and the statue became a sort of salute to the perceived indomitable nature of the French.
Hyatt did most of her work at her family’s home in Gloucester, Mass., using her niece and a fire department’s horse as models and researching medieval armor and whatnot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The statue was dedicated on Dec. 6, 1915. Among the dignitaries in attendance were the French ambassador Jean J. Jusserand; Robert W. de Forest, the president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the wife of Thomas Edison, who pulled the cord that unshrouded the statue. Sadly, Jusserand said nothing memorable in his address, laboring mostly to point out Joan of Arc didn’t even know New York was here when she was alive. Which it wasn’t.
After Jusserand spoke, he presented the honorary president of the committee that raised money for the statue, the renowned Connecticut coin collector J. Sanford Saltus, with the Legion d’Honneur. Hyatt was then given the French equivalent of a participant ribbon, something The Times reported as the “rosette for artistic merit.” (Seven years later, the French gave her a Legion d’Honneur, too.) A salute was fired by a national guard artillery battery, the Lafayette Guards band played “Le Marseillaise” and everyone called it a day.
The statue is bronze; the pedestal is made of Mohegan granite and it supposedly contains stones taken from the dungeon in which Joan of Arc spent her final days and also a piece of the Rheims Cathedral that had been damaged by WWI artillery. Inside the pedestal are letters, presumably commemorative, by then-President Woodrow Wilson and the vicar of the Rheims Cathedral and, as The Times reported, “other personages.” The whole bit, statue and pedestal, is more than 20 feet tall.
The front of the pedestal bears two inscriptions. One is framed by a gothic arch, matter-of-factly reporting the gloomy details of her life:
JOAN OF ARC
BURNED AT THE STAKE AT
MAY 30TH, 1431
The lower inscription is more mundane:
THE JOAN OF ARC STATUE COMMITTEE
IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK 1915.
Naturally, the statue became, in the decades after its construction, a symbol of Franco-American relations. The statue was usually included in the itinerary of visiting dignitaries (…for instance, Marie Alexandra Victoria, the Queen of Romania, was compelled to schlep up there when she visited the States in 1926, despite the fact that, according to The Times report of her trip, she was “fatigued and suffering from a heavy cold”…) and it was the scene of various wreath-layings and other ceremonies honoring whichever French person (or persons) was close at hand.
During World War I, these sundry visits and ceremonies reportedly attracted huge crowds. The French general Joseph Joffre visited the statue on May 10, 1917, about a year after he was relieved of command in France. Joffre first stopped at Grant’s tomb, up the street, where a crowd estimated at 25,000 gathered to watch him pay his respects to Monsieur Ulysses. The throng then moved down Riverside Drive to Joan’s statue, and there was apparently a moving silence of some five minutes as Joffre laid a wreath of white lilies. He was then, The Times reported, given a check for 38,000 francs by representatives of the Daughters of the American Revolution to, the Daughters said, relieve the suffering in his country. …It was part of a whirlwind of Francophile statuary for Joffre. On that same day in May, Joffre was present at the dedication of the monument to the Marquis de Lafayette in Prospect Park.
The next year, the city renamed the strip of land around the statue Joan of Arc Park. In 1919, the observation of what was then called Lafayette-Marne Day manifested itself in an elaborate ceremony around the statue, with parades of military veterans, speeches by dignitaries and a flyover of two biplanes from Hazelhurst Field. In 1920, the year Joan was canonized as a saint, 15,000 people gathered for the speech making, and the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania roused every pigeon on the Upper West Side with a 21-gun salute.
In 1939, Joan’s sword was repaired, the statue covered with a new layer of patina and the staircase leading to the statue’s backside was refurbished. The statue was fixed up again in 1987.
Joan of Arc, who was born in 1412, was burned at the stake for heresy on May 30, 1431, was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1909 and canonized as a saint in 1920. She was supposedly divinely inspired to help liberate the French from English rule. More impressive, probably, is that her story, as told in the movie “The Messenger,” briefly transformed the model Milla Jojovich into a serious actress. Here’s what the church has to say about that (Joan of Arc, not Jojovich).
Updated July 2007, SIRIS 76003516