When the equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson was unveiled on January 8, 1853, twenty thousand people crowded Lafayette Square to witness and celebrate the event. Participants in the dedication ceremonies included President Millard Fillmore, his cabinet, members of Congress, officers of the United States Army and Navy, and the statue’s sculptor, Clark Mills. When he was introduced to the assembled throng, Mills, a little- known, self-taught, former house plasterer, was too overcome with emotion to speak. Instead, he pointed silently to his work.
Standing nine feet high and twelve feet long, and weighing fifteen tons, the statue depicts Jackson reviewing his troops on the morning of the Battle of New Orleans. His horse rears, anxious to move along the line, but Jackson calmly holds the reins and raises his hat in acknowledgment of his soldiers. The Battle of New Orleans secured Jackson’s place in American history. From that day forward, he would be known as “the Hero of New Orleans,” the man whose leadership and gallantry pre-served the Union against the invading British troops. For his part in the project, Clark Mills would become known for his creation of Jackson’s likeness in Lafayette Park. His work was the first equestrian statue designed, cast, and erected in the United States, and he solved a problem-that of balancing his rearing horse entirely on its hind legs-that had thwarted even Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most celebrated artist of the Italian Renaissance.
Thus opens one document in the White House Archives on the first equestrian statue erected in the United States. It is a little-known fact that the equestrian monument that stands by the White House is dedicated to a man who was not only the president of the United States twice, but the commander who led the retaliation troops against the Creek Indians who resisted white settlement in what is now Alabama in 1813. Over 400 American settlers were killed in that war, as were 1,600 Creek Indians.
Later on, Jackson became even more famous for the Battle of New Orleans, in which he defeated the British in the last battle of the War of 1812 — a victory that was widely celebrated, despite the fact that the battle occurred after the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed and the war was technically over.
These two battles made Jackson a national hero and paved his way to the White House. It is interesting to note that, of the 30 equestrian statues that decorate strategic points around the U.S. capital, the very first was erected right in front of the White House. The selection of Andrew Jackson and not George Washington, for instance, could be interpreted as a message to all future presidents, telling them that the country’s leader should be a soldier, rather than a politically skillful president. But in reality, this was a matter of choice, and not all American presidents adhered to Jackson’s methods.
The desire to erect a statue that represents symbol and reminder of the spirit of combat and military force in front the Oval Office must have been implanted in the minds of the architects — or whoever led the construction of the U.S. capital. Marking the territory with numerous statues of commanders and generals on horses was probably quite different from the original development plan for the city, which was conceived by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The French architect, who had been entrusted to create the urban plan for the city, was discharged as soon as he found himself in conflict with the interests of those in political power.
Historian James M. Goode records a list of the politicians and other influential people who were in involved in the project, which was meant to contribute to the identity of the American capital. I find Goode’s essay “Four Salutes to the Nation” to be extremely interesting, in large part because of the detailed description of the long and painstaking preparations to build this monument that was entrusted to the little-known and self-taught Clark Mills.
A few years later, Mills — who was, by then, already famous — built another equestrian statue. This one was the now-famous statue of George Washington, erected in a then-remote and unimportant place — today’s Washington Circle. There were several attempts to move the statue closer to politically and symbolically more important areas in Washington, but it was all in vain. John DeFerrari writes about the story in his essay, “History of the George Washington Statue in Washington Circle.”
However, the history of the equestrian statues started in antiquity, as explained in this short overview of the of the art of the equestrian statue:
One of the oldest examples of equestrian statuary in Greek sculpture is the Rampin Rider or Rampin Horseman (c.550 BCE), unearthed on the Athenian acropolis. Featuring a kouros mounted on horseback, it exemplifies Greek Sculpture of the Archaic Period (600-480 BCE). Roman sculpture, being designed to showcase the power of Rome, included a large number of equestrian statues of Roman Emperors. Sadly, over the centuries, most have been melted down for church bells or coin. One famous surviving example is the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (175 CE, Capitoline Museums). In traditional Chinese art, statues of rulers are quite uncommon, thus equestrian statues are extremely rare. Even the huge hoard of statues known as the Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE, Shaanxi province, China) has no statues of mounted riders.
The erection of equestrian statues continued through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque eras. The latter coincided with the age of Absolutism, and equestrian statues were very popular with authoritarian rulers,notably in France. Louis XIV,for instance,commissioned one for the Palace of Versailles, and another for the Place Vendome in Paris.
As we know, the United States contributed to the army of the world’s equestrian sculptures with Clark Mills’ bronze statue of Andrew Jackson (1852) and the bronze equestrian portrait of George Washington (1856) in Union Square, New York. The rest of the long list of these statues is available in the piece “Men on horseback dominate memorials,” published by the Washington Times.