The French Origin of Robert E. Lee’s Statue in Virginia

Just like the Statue of Liberty in its time, the controversial representation of the confederate general, which has been the target of anti-racism protests, was made in Paris before being sent to the United States in 1890.
© Carptrash/Wikimedia Commons

“A contest has been launched for the design of a monument to General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. All participants’ models and plans should be sent in […] before May 1, 1885.” Sculptor Antonin Mercié, the “unrivaled master of the chisel,” may well have read this announcement, which was first published in the Courrier de l’Art weekly newspaper in September 1884 before being covered by the mainstream French press.

Mercié’s proposal was chosen to pay tribute to the American general, on the condition that he made it a little more palatable. The statue he originally designed – Lee on a rearing horse, trampling corpses and wounded soldiers – projected an image of strength, passion, and temporality. “It was akin to the equestrian statue of Louis XIV designed by Bernini, exhibited at Versailles,” says French art historian Laure de Margerie, who has been studying French sculptures in the United States since 2001. “The tension between the figure and his mount illustrated the disorder of the Baroque tradition.”

However, the Ladies’ Memorial Association (LMA), which launched the bid, was looking for a simple, calm, eternal image of the Southern general. Founded by a group of white women following the American Civil War, the LMA campaigned for the creation of confederate cemeteries and monuments throughout the South. When Lee died in 1870, the LMA immediately suggested that a statue should be erected in his honor in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. The monument was designed to be a “Mecca” for the South and a sanctuary for the “Lost Cause.”

A Southern Symbol

Mercié returned to the drawing board. He sketched Lee wearing a simple uniform, without a hat, sitting upright on an immobile horse facing the south. Quite the symbol. But the French sculptor did not receive unanimous support. An American monthly newspaper at the time complained that the statue’s design had been entrusted to “an alien who did not know Lee, who had no special sympathy with the ‘Lost Cause’, and whose model, seemingly, had not enough merit to attract the favorable notice of the members of the jury.” Perhaps the French-American committee member Augustus Saint-Gaudens had something to do with the decision?

Lee’s statue ca. 1910-1920. © Library of Congress

“It is not that surprising that the committee chose a French artist for the design of such an important public monument,” says Laure de Margerie. “French classical sculpture has always had an excellent reputation in the United States.” Born in Toulouse and trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Mercié was one of the artists who contributed to the Third Republic’s “statue-mania.” His creations paid homage to “great men” (Adolphe Thiers, Jules Michelet, Alfred de Musset), national figures (Joan of Arc), and the fallen soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

In May 1888, the sculptor was visited at his Parisian studio by a reporter from the New York Herald. Mercié, described as “a short, well-built man, very Parisian both in dress and manners,” was putting the finishing touches to his model. To help him in his work, the American committee in charge of the project had sent him the boots and coat the general was wearing during the Battle of Appomattox, his final combat before he surrendered on April 9, 1865. The sculptor finally revealed the finished work, and declared that Lee’s daughter had visited his studio and found the resemblance to be “striking.” By sheer coincidence, Mercié was also working on a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette at the same time. The work depicting the French hero of American independence was later installed in front of the White House in 1891.

Delivering the Statue

A representative from the state of Virginia personally traveled to Paris to oversee the delivery of General Lee’s statue, cast by the Thiébaut brothers, the leading artistic founders of the time. The bronze parts were transported by boat to New York, then by train to Richmond, where their arrival was greeted by a procession. The crates were loaded onto wagons and paraded all across the city. Ropes were attached and soldiers, veterans, and members of the LMA took turns pulling the seven-ton weight through the streets. It is said that pieces of rope – relics of the event – can still be found in the attics of countless houses in Richmond.

The statue, standing more than 21 feet tall, was hoisted onto a granite pedestal designed two years earlier by French architect Paul Pujol, and inaugurated on May 29, 1890. More than 100,000 people attended the ceremony. In France, the liberal newspaper Le Constitutionnel criticized “protests expressing the most acute anti-minority sentiment,” observing the absence of star-spangled banners and the ubiquity of confederate flags. The Catholic daily L’Univers also described the scene: “General Early gave a passionate speech in honor of Lee. The sheet covering the statue was then pulled down, provoking indescribable enthusiasm. Hurrahs and deafening cries rang out, while drums, music, and cannons roared loud enough to burst eardrums. Anyone would have believed that the South was going to come back to life, and who actually knows if it was ever truly dead?”