We were pleased to find an international inventory of equestrian statues. It reaches way back to ancient times. Marcus Aurelius from the year 176 is there (of course) along with Alexander and many other greats from Europe and beyond: Brazil to Vietnam; Mongolia to Somalia; Congo to Uzbekistan.
From the 1600s through the 1700s, the number of equestrians remained surprisingly modest: only 15 or so per century. Then came the 1800s, the golden age of bronze statuary, with more than 250 equestrians. We find the European monarchs (many of all the Louis, Georges, Phillips and Napoleons) as well as American generals from the Revolution through the Civil War.
You might expect horse-borne poses passé in the age of the internal combustion engine. But the 20th century proved a hotbed of hundreds more the world over. There are counter-intuitive, catch-up monuments, like that of the ancient Roman General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo whose success drove a jealous Emperor Nero to demand his suicide. This statue in The Netherlands dates to 1964.
The 20th century list includes equestrians of King Rama V Chulalongkorn in Bangkok, Thailand, aka King Rama V (1908), Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey (1927) and Bassel al-Assad, the older brother of Syria President Bashar al-Assad, who died in a car accident in 1994.
When was the dawn of Philadelphia bronze age? Not when you might expect. As the nation’s capital in the 1790s, a Washington on horseback was proposed to top off a “Monument designed to perpetuate the Memory of American Liberty” but they didn’t get around to casting the Father of His Country for another 60 years, and about another 100 in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, in the 1850s and 1860s, Andrew Jackson made two appearances (Washington, D. C. and New Orleans) and George Washington made three (Richmond, Washington, D.C. and Boston) before finally landing a Philadelphia appearance in the 1890s.
Worldwide, more than 400 equestrian statues were dedicated between the 1880s and the 1920s. Of those, 135 were American. Twelve are in Philadelphia starting with General John Fulton Reynolds in 1884 and, three years later, General George Gordon Meade. From 1890 to 1911 the city enjoyed a rush of nine more equestrian bronzes, five more generals, a Medicine Man, Joan of Arc and Remington’s Cowboy.
But seven years before launching this rash of mostly legend-leaning generals, Philadelphia’s very first equestrian, a figure straight out of authentic mythology, was installed on the pediment of Saint George’s Hall, 13th and Arch Streets. On June 6, 1877 a cryptic headline in the Inquirer reads only “St. George.”
“Quite a number of persons were collected yesterday at Thirteenth and Arch streets to witness the unboxing of the statue of ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ which arrived on Monday evening by the ship ‘Hawthorne.’ It was cast in antique bronze by Messrs. Elkington & Co., of London and Birmingham, and is one of the handsomest specimens of art ever brought to this country. It weighs 3400 pounds, and including the horse, is twelve feet in height. Owing to its great size, it was cast directly on the Thames, so as to be ready for shipment….”
Saint George’s building-pedestal lasted only another 26 years and the sculpture followed its owner, the Society of the Sons of St. George, to a new home further west on Arch Street before spending four decades in deep storage. In 1975, the bronze was unveiled a third time in Philadelphia, on Martin Luther King Drive at Black Road in West Fairmount Park.
Reynolds, on the other hand, an early casualty at Gettysburg (he was fatally shot in the back of his neck during the first minutes of the three-day battle) held his ground, a patch of sidewalk at City Hall, for 135 years and counting.
[Disclosure: the author is on the board of directors of the Association for Public Art.]