Thursday, January 4, 2007

Washington Arch: OMOM Essay 12

A good artist only incorporates into a sculpture those details he believes essential to convey his message. As a viewer I enjoy the challenge of trying conscientiously to figure out what each detail means. "About the sculpture" for the Washington Arch involved sorting out eight allegorical figures and four coats of arms. Together these allow the Arch to make a broader statement about Washington than could a single portrait sculpture - even as attractive a sculpture as Ward’s Washington at Wall St.

In the course of my research on the Arch I brushed up on my Latin to ponder Washington's motto, "Exitus acta probat," which appears twice on the Arch and seemed incongruous for him. (The usual translation is "The end justifies the means.") I also puzzled over the object held by Athena/Wisdom - see photo. Unable to identify it at first, second or third sight, I looked up early accounts of the Washington Arch to see if an enterprising New York Times reporter had interviewed the sculptor. No luck there, either. This is one of the few cases in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan when I grudgingly admitted defeat. If you can figure out what that object is, please do let me know.

"About the Subject" focuses on Washington's participation in the Constitutional Convention, including the source and context of the inscription on the south side of the Arch: "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.” Fans of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged will recognize it as the oblique reference from the discussion of Directive 10-289:

"Whatever type of men we're counting on and planning for," said Dr. Ferris, "there's a certain old-fashioned quotation which we may safely forget: the one about counting on the wise and the honest. We don't have to consider them. They're out of date." ("Miracle Metal" chapter, p. 501 pb)

The Forgotten Delights calendar (Dec. 2006) has a close-up of Washington as commander in chief and a stirring quote from Patrick Henry on the appropriate time to fight for one's values.\
Added 1/9/07: Thanks to Quent Cordair of Quent Cordair Fine Art, who suggested that Athena might be holding an old-fashioned oil lamp. He noted, “Athena/Wisdom lighting the way through the darkness of difficulties and uncertainty would make some sense thematically too.” It does look like an oil lamp, and the idea of Athena shedding light does make sense. True, I’ve never seen Athena with an oil lamp (and as a trained classical scholar I’ve seen hundreds of Ancient Greek images of Athena), but this Athena is early 20th c., and might not abide by the rules of ancient iconography.

Thanks also to Harry Mullin, who discovered that the New-York Historical Society has a treasure trove of documents on the Washington Arch. I’d love to go through them, but at the moment I'm too pressed for time.

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