The Equestrian Monument of Simon Bolivar

By Michael Reed, Director of the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonne Project
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The equestrian monument of Simon Bolivar is unquestionably Sally James Farnham’s magnum opus. It is an imposing work that took five long years to complete and is regarded as the crowning achievement of her long and varied career. Farnham’s achievement cannot be overstated for the monument’s history is a colorful tale of meeting great odds head on and overcoming professional setbacks in order to succeed where others had failed.

In 1884 the government of Venezuela presented the City of New York with a bronze statue of Simon Bolivar. The gift was meant as a “token of admiration from the southern republic to her sister in the North.” Bolivar was considered the George Washington of the southern hemisphere, liberating not only Venezuela, but also Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia from Spanish rule, instilling democracy as the governing power in the region. The sculptor R. de la Cora was commissioned to create the first monument, which was placed among a grove at West 83rd Street in Central Park known as Bolivar Hill.

From the very start the de la Cora monument attracted controversy. The New York Park Commission hotly debated its artistic merit. The New York Times grimly listed it as one of the city’s more “unsightly New York statues” in 1899. Soon the questionable monument, labeled a “monster piece,” was removed from its base. A second commission to create a Bolivar was awarded to Giovanni Turini. The National Sculpture Society flatly rejected his submission. The granite base, which held the monument, stood empty for the next fifteen years.

By 1915, the Venezuelan government decided to try again and invited sculptors to submit designs in an open, international competition for the Bolivar monument. Farnham’s interest was instantly piqued, “Bolivar was always one of my heroes of romance. He was always in the strong current, never in the backwaters. He lived extremes-in the trappings of a prince being acclaimed by the multitudes, in the thick of a revolution, mud-splashed and sweating…” She had visited the theme of Bolivar once before in her Frieze of the Discoverers at the Pan-American Union (1910, Washington D.C.).

This time she submitted a design based on a classic equestrian form, a victorious Bolivar astride his horse. The work was a triumph of detailed naturalism with studied bits of drama; his wind-swept cape; the power of the horse in all its equine glory striding forward and the strong features of its noble leader. The work was an impressive 15 feet tall. The granite base displayed the coats of arms of the grateful nations he helped to liberate. This was undoubtedly El Libertador.

In August 1916, the Venezuelan government awarded the $24,000 commission to Sally James Farnham, who beat out twenty other entries by some leading sculptors of the day. The New York Times called the commission a “substantial recognition of an American woman sculptor.”

Farnham began at once to create her monument. She traveled to Venezuela to research and absorb Bolivar’s homeland and its culture. Her youngest son, John, remembered in 1989 that she “was proud that her works were accurate in their smallest details. She even researched the buttons on General Bolivar’s uniform.” Almost immediately she ran into problems. She would later recall, “Bolivar’s life was not an easy one, and in my studio it continued to be one of storm and stress.

At the time this country was at war. There were few competent workmen; the fuel question was most serious; and many essential materials were impossible to obtain.” Farnham estimated that she lifted at least three tons of plasticene in making the original form. She commented with her usual wit, “You see I am really a stevedore, not an artist.”

The war halted much of her production until March 1918 when she rented studio space from John Ettl, a sculptor known for his method of enlarging sculptural monuments. She worked on weekends and holidays at the Ettl studio to complete her Bolivar because of the distraction from others there during “working” hours. In October 1919, Farnham sued Ettl in New York’s Supreme Court after he refused to allow her and her plaster caster into his studio, claiming Farnham neglected to pay $100 in rent. Desperate, Farnham asked the court to intervene before her model was ruined. In court it was revealed that Ettl called Farnham a “liar” and “made threats of violence against her.” The model was lost during this legal dispute and Sally had to start over from scratch.

By late 1920 her model was finally completed and cast the following year at the Roman Bronze Works foundry. Plans for the formal dedication were well underway. President Warren G. Harding had agreed to give the keynote address at the unveiling.

On April 19, 1921 the monument was formally unveiled and dedicated before a crowd of thousands in New York’s Central Park. By all accounts the work was deemed a critical success. Dr. Esteban Gil-Borges, Minister of Foreign Relations for Venezuela, stated in his dedication speech, “A woman’s hand molded this statue…a woman’s hand gave it eternal form in bronze to that life that was a prodigious dream of heroism, beauty and love.

In giving to you one of your women the privilege of that motherhood of glory, my country wished to enhance the significance of this token of friendship.” So honored, Farnham would come to say that it was “the greatest day of my life.” Critic Alexander Woollcott would claim the “towering monument enters the annals of American sculpture at the largest work by a woman which history anywhere records.” Others would label it the only equestrian monument of a man ever created by a woman.

That evening during a special banquet in her honor, the Venezuelan government bestowed on Sally James Farnham the highest honor its country can give, the Order of the Liberator. Farnham cherished the honor and the respect of the South American republics until her death.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Equestrian Monument of Simon Bolivar
Author/Contributor Michael Reed


Permission to use granted by Michael Reed, Director of  the Sally James Farnham Catalogue Raisonne Project
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