According to MacMonnies, "I had plenty of time and all kinds of ideas. I thought at first I would make a city of New York, a female figure, a creature who was enthroned, and waters and rivers at the side, etc., and then that did not seem to appeal to me, and then I finally thought as I got nearer and nearer, of this idea of local dignity, the genie of the spot—so I thought I would make Civic Virtue." (Bogart, The Politics of Display in Manhattan and Queens)
Brooklyn-born MacMonnies is commonly known as a renowned Beaux-Arts sculptor, he was also a successful painter and portraitist. However, MacMonnies reflected Civic Virtue in the classical style mimicking Michelangelo's "David" stance and muscular tone. The piece's marble female figures of vice and corruption were modeled after demigods and monsters of Greek mythology. "The finished Civic Virtue consisted of a stern-looking male Virtue with a sword resting on its shoulder, standing aside two female figures representing vice and lying amidst sea creatures at Virtue's feet". (Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City) "Like Justice, Virtue is usually personified as an idealized female figure; MacMonnies, however, chose to break with tradition and portrayed Civic Virtue as a sturdy young man, sword on shoulder standing astride two prostate female forms representing Civic Vice." (Fried & Gillon, Jr., New York Civic Sculpture)
Even before its completion, Triumph of Civic Virtue was already stirring up controversy for its depiction of the female figure. In fact, "While MacMonnies thought he had finished his plans successfully, he soon encountered difficulties". (Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City) His original designs were disapproved by the Art Commission several times because of its size and imagery. "Michele Bogart, an art historian and authority on the Triumph of Civic Virtue, notes that MacMonnies’ depictions of women in public works were already controversial. In her words, his 'conflation of the public (municipal) and the personal (psychological) disturbed many people.'" (triumphofcivicvirtue.org/history/)
Many groups found its imagery offensive for Civic Virtue was trampling and stepping over women. In 1941, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided to remove it from City Hall Park to Queens Borough Hall on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike. Women were furious over the representation of the female form, and many women's groups have protested for its removal, led by the National League of Women Voters member, Mary Garrett Hay. She argued, "in this age, woman should be placed not below man but side by side with him in any represention of Civic Virtue." (Bogart, Public Sculpture and the Civic Ideal in New York City) The most notable protest was held on its 50th anniversary in 1972 led by The National Organization of Women.
While the controversy died down after a couple of years, it has recently been revived. Congressman Anthony Weiner decided to call for Civic Virtue's removal from the Queens Borough Hall calling its imagery "sexist" and even going as far as suggesting to put it put for sale on the Craigslist website. '"This is to some degree about whether or not art in public places should keep up with the mores of the time," Weiner said. "Maybe that was appropriate in the 1920s, but today when women's rights are under attack, it simply doesn't reflect where we are today. Clearly, it should not be put on such a prominent pedestal literally and figuratively."' (Bishop, WNYC.org)
Others have made the opposite arguement. "Instead of selling Civic Virtue, we should allow it to serve as a catalyst for civil discussion about gender, representation and the meaning of monuments in urban America. Public monuments like Civic Virtue tell us a good deal about our ideals and our history. We cannot allow them to disintegrate because politicians fail to understand their value." (Bogart, NY Daily News).
For years, the white Georgia marble statue has endured phsycial decay by virtue of weather-related erosion, as well as that of its estimation in public opinion. It has once again been moved, this time to the Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
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"Civic Virtue, Queens Monument, Must Be Saved: Charges of Sexism Are an Insult to Our History." NY Daily News. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2013.
Fried, Frederick, and Edmund Vincent. Gillon. New York Civic Sculpture: A Pictorial Guide. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. Print.
"History." Triumph of Civic Virtue. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2013.
"Inside the Apple: The Fate of Frederick MacMonnies's "Civic Virtue"" Inside the Apple: The Fate of Frederick MacMonnies's "Civic Virtue" N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2013.
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