Ulysses S. Grant Memorial

The lions of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial were the inspiration for this site.  They had made an impression on me, long before they gained prominence in the opening credits of “House of Cards” on Netflix.  I have walked by these great cats, rendered in blue-green bronze, nearly every day for over a decade and they have become old friends that greet me warmly each morning.  They have always stood out as my favorite feature of the sprawling memorial though the intricate and extensive battle scenes that sit to either side of them, and the towering statue of Grant on horseback get more attention.  There are four recumbent lions on four separate pedestals that surround the larger statue of President Grant. In the context of the memorial, they are understated, having been separated from the statue of Grant and dwarfed in size by the battle scenes.  To me they represent a lion-ness that I have not seen in any other sculpture.  The narrowed muzzle and layered framing of the face by the mane lend a sleekness that contrasts with the hoary visage of many other lions.  I especially like the lion on the south-east corner of the memorial which seems to be pondering the need to head up the Hill and institute some kind of lionish political reform. But for the most part, they seem like an architectural afterthought as they wait patiently with a guarding paw on flags of the US Army and the United States.

Trafalgar Lion: by Anthony O'Neil via Wikimedia Commons

Grant Memorial Lion by Flickr user Mr_Mayer, Some Rights Reserved

Grant Memorial Lion by Flickr user Mr_Mayer, Some Rights Reserved

The lions have not been given much attention or appreciation.  In its final report on the monument the Fine Arts Commission said, “The sculptor’s only departure from realism is found in the four bronze lions, frankly decorative, that guard the base of the pedestal.  They are like no lions that ever came out of Africa.  And yet there is about them a suggestion of superleonine strength and majesty.”  In his book, “From Christ to Coke.” Martin Kemp describes them as having a “snooty air of invincible superiority reminiscent of the bronze lions that populate Paris.”  The lions briefly courted controversy when they were compared to the lions of Trafalgar Square.  In 1916 the Washington Post reported, “The fact that the lions are copies of the British lions on the Trafalgar Square monument in England and the sight of the flag stretched under their bodies have caused many tourists and other observers to wonder just what the motif of the group is intended to express.  To an artist perhaps the proud attitude of the crouching figures might convey an air of heroic protection, but to the ordinary mind this same proud appearance might mean haughty possession, and it is this latter impression, probably, which has caused the inquiries raised.”  However, despite the conjecture of the Post and tourists, the Grant Memorial lions (Which look nothing like the Trafalgar Square lions), owe their distinctive lion-ness and their unusual appeal to a zoo in New York and the experience of, and pressures on, the artist who created them.

The sculpture was designed by the firm of Shrady and Casey and cast by the Roman Bronze Works in White Plains, New York.  Sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady was an up-and-coming, but mostly self-taught, artist with far less experience than those who championed the 34 rival proposals for the monument.  When he was awarded the commission in 1902, his youth and inexperience made the award very controversial.  His critics claimed he had bought the competition by proposing a design that would cost more than was budgeted, and promising to make up any overage out of his own pocket.  There were also repeated charges of favoritism since Shrady’s father had been a personal physician of Grants’ in his final battle with cancer and the family of Shrady's wife was wealthy and well connected.

Shrady would spend over 20 years completing the monument and would die only a few days before the dedication with many obituaries claiming the worry and toil over the monument had killed him.  He labored over the battle scenes and carefully studied horses in action and mock battle drills.  His personal papers are full of sketches of men and horses marching and engaged in struggle.  He spent four years in the US Army Reserves learning every detail of artillery.  He wrote letters to secure loans of uniforms and dissected horses to gain a thorough understanding of their motion.  And yet, there are almost no lions to be found in the sketches, letters, or in the reminisces of his son in remembering his father’s life's work.  

"Henry M. Shrady and his sons circa 1911" by Ira L. Hill - Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

However, the lions were the first elements to be installed and were complete even as Shrady worked on finishing a previous commission, the equestrian portrait of George Washington for Williamsburg Bridge.  The 2400 pound lions are matched pairs, with the first pair being completed in 1906.   All four were completed and delivered to the site by 1908.  The first lion’s plaster cast was finished even before the final site was selected.  In 1907, the memorial site was changed from a White House location that would have obstructed the view of the Tidal Basin to the foot of the Capitol, where a protracted battle was waged by the Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens to move or alter the monument to prevent the destruction of several old trees.  The lions finally came to rest in January 1909 with the completion of the marble superstructure.  For Shrady, the lions seemed to have come comparatively quickly and easily, and that was almost certainly because Shrady had - what was likely - the best possible access to lions for an artist at that time.

Shrady had spent many hours during a three year recovery (1895-1898) from tuberculosis at the Bronx Zoo observing the animals, sketching them, and later modeling them for his early sculptures.  He was particularly interested in elk and bison and made several small studies early in his career.  He was a regular donor and supporter of the zoo, though not a major financial contributor.  In 1903, the Bronx Zoo opened its state-of-the-Beaux-Arts Lion House which, prior to its opening, was hailed by the New York Times as, “the finest building in the world to be erected for such a purpose”.  One might be tempted to consider that assessment to be typical turn-of-the-century newspaper hyperbole, but in this case the Lion House had a feature that was ideal for Shrady as he looked for subjects to get the monument started.  Getting the monument underway was the key to unlocking further funding which would only be released as finished bronzes were delivered.  This expediency may have played a role in subduing the lions as they changed from snarling on their hind legs in the proposal, to recumbent and alert in the final models.  However, others have suggested that Shrady made these changes to “align the lions more closely with his portrayal of Grant by emphasizing their strength and power rather than their ferocity."  

The Lion House Circa 1903 in Popular Science Monthly Volume 62  via Wikimedia Commons

The Lion House Circa 1903 in Popular Science Monthly Volume 62 via Wikimedia Commons

Shrady appears to have provided some input on making the building friendly to artists and was on the guest list for the grand opening.  The Lion House had a studio at the end of the building specifically designed for artists.  The New York Times described it as a, “large, well lighted room, its floor being step-shaped, to accommodate the easels of artists…on one side of this room there will be a cage partitioned off to which the animals may be brought for the special benefit of the artists, enabling them to work without interference or annoyance from visitors.”  The new Lion House was an ideal work environment for Shrady.  

"Sultan the Barbary Lion" by Nelson Robinson via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to a world class space for art, Shrady had several choices of subjects with two pairs of Barbary lions that had been gifted to the zoo and several new born cubs.  Andrew Carnegie presented the Zoo with a Barbary lion called Hannibal while and Cleveland H. Dodge donated a Nubian lion called Cleopatra.  Nelson Robinson gifted a pair named Sultan (Barbary) and Bedouin Maid who is described as an “Abyssinian lioness” and who gave birth to five cubs just prior to the public opening of the Lion House.  The terms Barbary, Nubian, and Abyssinian come from a time when lion sub-species were determined largely on the basis of physical characteristics, especially the mane, and the location of their capture.  Sultan was described in the Zoological Society Bulletin of November 1914 as having a “particularly fine mane of rather a dark hue, and which pleases the sculptors and painters because it is not too abundant, and does not mask the muscles of the shoulder.”  But in this photograph of Sultan you can see that his features are not nearly as elongated as those in Shrady’s statutes.  Bedouin Maid had given birth to five cubs in December of 1902 (3 male and 2 female) and those, coupled with acquisitions, gave Shrady a number of ages and sizes to work from.  It is possible that there was a Masai lion in the collection that was acquired in Somalia, which would have given additional variety.

While Sultan was probably not the only source of the artist’s inspiration, he was a crowd favorite and frequent news item in newspapers and the New York Zoological Society bulletins.  In January 1914, the aged Sultan still showed a spark as his keepers tried to increase his comfort by giving him a felt mat to lie on.  Immediately on seeing the mat, Sultan attacked it and “...then proudly carried it about in his jaws as he furiously growled…. We have since been unable to induce Sultan to believe that the mat is not some strange type of living intruder, to be subdued only by the vigorous use of teeth and claws.”  Sultan was euthanized at nearly 18 years of age on June, 18th 1915 as he became increasingly disabled.  He was remarkably old for a lion at that time and his skin was in such poor condition that it was “not fit to mount” however, his head was mounted and placed in the zoo's Administration Building.

Shrady appears to have been in a similarly worn condition as he passed away at the age of 50.  The burden to prove his artistry, his perfectionism, an unwillingness to use assistants, and the burden of having $250,000 of his friends and family's money tied up in bonds to insure the completion of the work proved too much. While contesting the award in 1903 George Gray Barnard may have been correct when he wrote, “Twenty years from now, this man you choose may have gone on, mastering and bettering his art.  What a useless twenty years - in just such competition as this where laymen are judges; his labor may go for naught…..If what I contend for here is not a protection, a life and soul necessity for the young man now chosen then it is worthless to us all.”  Shrady’s early works were animals full of life and promise, but in winning the competition he spent his creative genius on a work of war and death.

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Quoted Sources:

Lieut. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, James William Bryan (editor), and Warren G. Harding (fwd.). “The Grant Memorial in Washington” Washington, D.C. GPO, 1924.

Kemp, Martin. Christ to COKE: How Image Becomes Icon. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

“US Flag Under Lions.” Washington Post, April 2, 1916, sec. Society.

“FINEST LION HOUSE IN THE WORLD; Will Be Opened This Week in Bronx Zoological Park. Ornate and Novel Structure the Home of a Fine Collection of Felines Brought from Many Lands.” The New York Times, February 1, 1903. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=990DE3DF1130E733A25752C0A9649C946297D6CF.

“Full Text of ‘Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society.’” Accessed December 12, 2015. https://archive.org/stream/annualreportofne20newyuoft/annualreportofne20newyuoft_djvu.txt.

“Barnard Defends Himslef 4 Sep 1901, Page 5 - at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/50357818/.

Notable Sources:

Goode, James M. The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C. A Comprehensive Historical Guide. 1st ed. Smithsonian Institution Press Publication No. 4829. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press [distributed by G. Braziller], 1974.

A comprehensive guide to sculpture in Washington, DC.

Lieut. Col. Clarence O. Sherrill, James William Bryan (editor), and Warren G. Harding (fwd.). “The Grant Memorial in Washington” Washington, D.C. GPO, 1924.

A great resource for those interested in the full history of the monument.  You can find it in Shrady's papers and in the archives of The Fine Arts Commission.  It includes a long narrative of Shrady's approach to the work, a summary of the legal and procedural struggles, a biography of Grant, and the remarks at the dedication.

Dennis R. Montagna. “Henry Merwin Shrady’s Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington D.C. : A Study in Iconography, Content and Patronage,” 1987.

This work brings in some of the architectural and artistic influences and speculates on meaning based on numerous archival sources.

The Annual Reports of the New York Zoological Society.

These are fun and fascinating read that give great insight into the roots of the modern zoo in the United States.

History Behind Lion Statues in House of Cards Opening Credits

Thanks to the Ghosts of DC folks for finding the Washington Post article comparing the Grant lions to those in Trafalgar Square.