Today, the Dallas City Council will vote to determine whether Lee Park's statue of its namesake, Gen. Robert E. Lee, will be removed. But in 1936, at least, the statue was such a source of pride that it drew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to town for its world debut.
The sculpture’s artist, Alexander Phimister Proctor, wrote in his autobiography, Sculptor in Buckskin, that a bugle sounded and Roosevelt pulled a cord to reveal the monument, then uttered “magnificent.” The Dallas Southern Memorial Association had given the statue to the city, and prominent citizens were in attendance, as was D.W. Griffith, producer of Birth of a Nation.
Today, some would rather see the defeated rebel general slumped in his saddle. Others might like to have the Confederate memorial and all of its kin reduced to rubble and moved to the scrap yard. But Proctor’s family says it is willing to help find a home for Lee and his horse, Traveler.
Associate art professor John Phillips, who lives in Dallas and teaches at Tarrant County College, says Proctor was both an artist and a businessman.
“Proctor certainly had no opinion one way or the other about the real Robert E. Lee, apart from the research it took to create a reasonable likeness,” he says. ”In other words, Proctor was not trying to make a statement at all. He was merely supplying a commodity to a patron.”
But Phillips says the patron was definitely trying to make a statement “to promote Robert E. Lee and the failed Confederacy as some noble, all-white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant model for all American society to nurture and support.”
The artwork initially cost around $50,000 — more than $850,000 in today’s dollars — Phillips said. The raw material that the statue is made of is worth about $1.25 a pound. According to Proctor’s book, there’s at least 14,000 pounds of bronze in the sculpture. The bronze was cast at Roman Bronze Works in New York, a company started in 1899 by Ricardo Bertelli, “an Italian immigrant who brought to this country the expertise to create the nation’s first lost wax foundry,” Phillips says.
“The Lee grouping would have been a very complex job involving the lost wax process, only mastered by a handful of American foundries at the time,” he says. “The intricate detail, open spaces and protruding appendages [arms, legs, ears of the horses, etc.] not only required lost wax but was no doubt cast in several pieces and then brazed together.”
Phillips, who studied art in Italy, says that public monuments historically have had a hard time. He points to the Roman Empire, which produced hundreds of monumental artworks. Phillips says only a single equestrian statue, one of Marcus Aurelius, survived into the 21st century.
“What we celebrate today can be called into question tomorrow,” he says, adding that the phenomenon transcends time and culture.
Nonetheless, Proctor was a prominent artist whose career spanned nearly 70 years. His work can be found in art museums such as the Smithsonian, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.
Proctor’s great-granddaughter, Laura Ames, describes the artist as a man who mingled with presidents but preferred to sleep in tents with his Native American “family.” She says Proctor’s monumental works are rare and their value is incalculable. She is unaware of any other Proctor statues in jeopardy.
Ames, who says destruction of the sculpture could someday be viewed as an “unthinkable waste of an irreplaceable, historic treasure,” noted that Western art historian Peter Hassrick has called "Robert E. Lee and Young Soldier" one of Proctor’s top works.
The Mustangs at the University of Texas at Austin is another favorite. While some chapters of history are disgusting, she says, public art, much like textbooks, tells stories and educates people. She says with the right programs it may even promote understanding and healing.
“We recognize the tremendous pressure and public responsibility of the city of Dallas,” she says. But “if we begin destroying these artworks, where does it end?”
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Phillips says he is also a history buff who has found himself in the midst of controversy over Dallas history.
“I’ve had two books published about the deadly crime spree of Bonnie and Clyde,” he says. “And I’ve had charges of glorifying outlaws leveled at me.”
Phillips recalls artist Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that art does not need to exist physically. The idea for it, Duchamp believed, is art in itself.
“This suggests that whether we destroy or otherwise obliterate every racist artwork, if we don’t address the idea behind those art works, we will never move forward," Phillips says.