Public art, politics, and the banishing of Civic Virtue

Frederick MacMonnies (sculptor), Thomas Hastings (architect), Piccirilli Brothers (carvers) Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness, 1922, marble, more than 17 feet high (originally City Hall Park, Manhattan, then Queens Borough Hall, now Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn but without fountain basins)

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Civic Virtue

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Key points

  • Commissioned in 1909 and completed in 1922, the marble sculpture Civic Virtue was produced in a time of transition artistically, socially, and politically. During this period, modern art and abstraction were introduced to viewers in the United States, shifting artistic interests and tastes; the 19th Amendment was passed, granting suffrage to women after years of protest and agitation; and urban beautification initiatives reflected broader progressive efforts to educate the masses as well as eradicate political corruption. 
  • These changes impacted both the immediate reception of the sculpture and the trajectory of its physical presence in the city of New York up to the present day. Initially, negative reaction to the gendered power dynamics—a triumphant male figure standing above female figures—and more traditional style of the sculpture prompted multiple relocations of Civic Virtue. The sculpture was allowed to decay and experienced damage to its surface due to prolonged exposure to industrial pollution.

Go deeper

City Beautiful Movement, New York Preservation Archive Project

The Progressive Era, Khan Academy

Leaving all to younger hands: Why the history of the women’s suffragist movement matters, Susan Ware, The Brookings Institute

Learn about the trajectory of public sculpture in the United States at the turn of the 19th century and the place of the Beaux-Arts style therein. From Model to Monument: American Public Sculpture, 1865–1915 Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Frederick William MacMonnies (1863–1937) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Civic Virtue at Green-Wood

Behind the Scenes: Public Sculpture in New York City, March 19, 2011, WNYC

Michele H. Bogart, The Politics of Urban Beauty: New York and its Art Commission, University of Chicago Press, 2006

More to think about

What does the concept of civic virtue mean to you? How might you represent it as a sculpture and why?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.