William Shakespeare, Central Park

This essay is adapted from Chapter 37 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book, all of which will eventually be updated and posted on this site. Click on “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan book”  in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see which are already here.

John Quincy Adams Ward, Shakespeare, 1872. Literary Walk (Mall), Central Park. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

  • Sculptor: John Quincy Adams Ward. Pedestal: Jacob Wrey Mould.
  • Dedicated: 1872.
  • Medium and size: Bronze (8 feet), granite base (8 feet).
  • Location: Central Park, Literary Walk, north of the 65th Street Transverse.

About the sculpture

Near the end of A Winter’s Tale (Act V, scene 3), Queen Hermione pretends to be a statue of herself, so perfectly painted that it could pass as a living woman.

        Paulina (draws curtain aside to show Hermione, standing like a statue).
I like your silence, it the more shows off
Your wonder: but yet speak; first, you, my liege,
Comes it not something near?
Leontes. Her natural posture! . . .
O, thus she stood,
Even with such life of majesty, warm life,
As now it coldly stands, when first I woo’d her!
I am ashamed; does not the stone rebuke me
For being more stone than it? . . .
Paulina. O, patience!
The statue is but newly fix’d, the colour’s not dry.

Today a technician can do a laser scan of a sitter, then mechanically produce a “portrait” in foam that captures the exact shape of the sitter’s eye sockets, the tendons of the neck, the size of the feet, the folds of a favorite shirt. Would such a statue, physically accurate down to the minutest detail, be a better portrait sculpture than Ward’s Washington or Saint Gaudens’s Sherman (Chapters 6, 31)? Would it at least be better than the awkward Fitz-Greene Halleck who sits just north of Shakespeare on the Literary Walk?

Ward, Washington (Wall St.); Saint Gaudens, Sherman (Fifth Ave. at 60th St.); MacDonald, Halleck (Central Park). Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

In short, does the esthetic quality of a portrait depend on minute fidelity to the physical characteristics of the sitter?

This question is crucial, because it involves the reason for selectivity in art, the function of art, and the relationship of art to philosophy.

A laser scanner aids but also limits its technician. It will automatically record all details of the sitter, but some of those details will be purely accidental: the twitch of the eyelid, the unconscious slump of a shoulder. For the viewer, studying such a reproduction is like studying a stranger at a cafe. We don’t know whether that frown is habitual, or whether she’s merely upset that the man at the next table is shouting into his cell phone.

By contrast, even a meticulously realistic artist constantly makes choices about which details to include, because an artist starts from scratch. This wrinkle? That one? The full volume of those bushy eyebrows? Less of them, to focus more attention on the eyes? Based on what the artist decides is important about the sitter, he or she must make innumerable choices about expression, pose, proportions, costume, texture, composition.

In Farragut (Chapter 19), Saint Gaudens emphasized the Admiral’s farsightedness and courage. In Conkling (Chapter 18), Ward emphasized the casual yet authoritative manner of a prominent politician. For Shakespeare, Ward agreed when accepting the commission to adhere as closely as possible to the few surviving early representations of the Bard. Beyond that, Ward chose to stress the pensiveness of a writer working out theme, plot, character, and dialogue. Look at the posture: Shakespeare’s head is bent, his feet aligned, his weight solidly on one foot.

John Quincy Adams Ward, Shakespeare, 1872. Central Park Mall (Literary Walk). Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Standing that way, he can’t possibly be rushing to a show at the Globe or out for a beer with friends. His face confirms this: his eyes are downcast, his face expressionless and withdrawn, as if he’s absorbed in the drama he’s creating.

Switching from the artist’s perspective to the viewer’s: when we look at a sculpture created from scratch, we know that whatever is included is present because the artist considered it important. Because of that, a sculpture can convey not just the character of a particular individual, but the artist’s view of what’s important about humans and the world. An artist who shows a courageous man such as Farragut says, “The world is the kind of place where dangers exist but can be faced”—otherwise the very concept of courage is pointless.

An artist who shows a thoughtful man such as Shakespeare says “The world is a place where mental effort pays off”—otherwise thinking is a useless task.

An artist who shows a man fighting evil and losing, as in the Hellenistic Greek Laocoon Group, says, “The world is a place of horrors that man is powerless to prevent”—so fighting fate is noble but futile.

Saint Gaudens, Farragut; Ward, Shakespeare; Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus, Laocoon Group. First two: Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante. Third: Jean-Pol Grandmont / Wikipedia

Ayn Rand defined art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” (See News, Chapter 30.) A statement such as “The world is the kind of place where dangers exist but can be faced” is an example of a metaphysical value-judgment. The work of art that conveys such a statement presents a vivid view of the world—the sort of world you might want to struggle toward, or fight to avoid at all costs. Such art brings philosophy, that most complex and abstract of fields, back to an image you can see and hold in your mind.

If a time-traveling laser technician scanned a “portrait” of Shakespeare, it would tell us only what Shakespeare looked like physically. Ward’s statue of Shakespeare does much more than that. By showing the playwright deep in thought, it says that the world is a place where mental effort pays off, and implies that the process of thinking is worthwhile.

About the subject

In 1948 Cole Porter flippantly advised men who wanted to impress society girls to quote Shakespeare: “Just declaim a few lines from Othella, / And they’ll think you’re a helluva fella.” A century earlier, Shakespeare wasn’t the exclusive property of the upper classes. In 1849 twenty thousand working-class New Yorkers who favored American actor Edwin Forrest’s interpretation of Macbeth mobbed the Astor Place Opera House, where New York’s wealthier citizens were watching British actor William Macready in the same role. Police shot and killed twenty-two rioters, but the mob didn’t disperse until cannon were dragged to the scene.

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth, William Macready as Macbeth, and the Astor Place Riot. Images: Wikipedia

In the years after the Civil War, familiarity with and appreciation of Shakespeare became largely the province of intellectuals. Edwin Booth (d. 1893; Chapter 17)  achieved national fame and popularity primarily as a Shakespearean actor, but he was one of the last Americans to do so.

Laying the cornerstone for the Shakespeare monument, 1864. Image: Harper’s

When the cornerstone for Shakespeare was laid in April 1864, to honor the Bard’s tercentenary, the New York Times reported “a not very large but indisputably a very elegant and intellectual audience.” Judge Charles P. Daly noted that the proposed sculpture would provide Americans the chance to demonstrate

our sympathy with, appreciation of, and common property in the works which Shakespeare has left for the delight and instruction of mankind, and which, if we omitted to do, would be a reflection upon us as an intellectual and cultivated people.

In other words: hey, we’re not ignorant cowboys any more!

More

  • John Quincy Adams Ward (b. Urbana, Ohio, 1830, d.  New York City, 1910) worked with Henry Kirke Brown on the Washington at Union Square, dedicated in 1856 (Outdoor Monuments Chapter 13). Far earlier than his contemporaries, Ward believed American sculptors should present American ideas and be trained in America: he never studied abroad. For fifty-odd years, he was known as the “Dean of American Sculpture.” Indian Hunter, 1869 (Central Park, near the Mall), established his reputation. Manhattan has Washington, Greeley, Holley, Conkling, Dodge and Shakespeare (Outdoor Monuments Chapters 6, 7, 11, 18, 24, 37), as well as the Seventh Regiment Memorial,1869 (Central Park, West Drive at 67th Street), and the Pilgrim, 1885 (Central Park, east end of the 72nd-Street Traverse). The original sculptures of the New York Stock Exchange pediment were Ward’s, but they’ve been replaced with copies. Brooklyn has Henry Ward Beecher, 1891 (Columbus Park).
  • Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music – even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free previewcomplete app). The supplementary page on ForgottenDelights.com is here.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations.  Patreon subscribers get a fourth recommendation, access to a compilation of all the recommendations, plus videos of the week’s blog post and recommendations. If you simply follow me on Patreon (also free!), you’ll get occasional notices of upcoming exhibitions and other info I want to share. The blog post of favorite recommendations from 2017 includes some Patreon recommendations, so it’ll give you a sense of what I offer there.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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