Some of our city’s most beautiful statues are dedicated to iconic women from the pages of history. Eleanor Roosevelt, Irish immigrant Annie Moore, and Harriet Tubman are among the few real-life women who have been honored with statues. The very first historic female figure to receive such an honor was Joan of Arc. Her memorial stands in Riverside Park, just off Riverside Drive and 93rd Street.
See this memorial, more overlooked monuments, and other hidden gems along Riverside Drive on our upcoming walking tour!
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Born in 1411, Jeanne La Pucelle was a peasant maiden with a divine calling to help banish English rule from France. She gained an audience with King Charles VII, who named her commander-in-chief of a small army. Under her rule, the army was victorious in forcing England to withdraw in 1429. Despite being seated in a place of honor next to the king, Joan was prohibited from marching on Paris. In 1430 she was captured by Burgundian soldiers and sold to the English. In England, she was accused and convicted of witchcraft and heresy. Her long trial ended with her being condemned to death. She was burned at the stake on May 31, 1431.
Twenty years after her trial, an investigation was done that led to the annulment of her sentence. In 1920, she was recognized as Saint Joan by Pope Benedict XV. Since then, she has been honored through many different statues and her story has been taught to people all across the globe.
The Joan of Arc Memorial in New York City was erected thanks to the resilient efforts of a Joan of Arc monument committee that formed in 1909 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Joan’s birth. The commission of the statue was awarded to Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, an artist found because of her impressive statue of the Maiden of Orleans displayed at the Paris Salon of 1910. Though the first female artist to be awarded a public art commission in New York City was Emma Stebbins, for the famous Angel of the Waters sculpture at Bethesda Fountain in 1868, there was still doubt that such a complex sculpture could be created by a woman on her own. Huntington proved them wrong.
The bronze Joan of Arc statue stands over 20 feet tall and rests on a pedestal of Mohegan granite. The base’s arches include some limestone blocks from the dungeon Joan was imprisoned in, as well as stones from the Cathedral of Reims. This juxtaposition is included to represent the high and low points of Joan’s life. Architect John van Pelt planted trees in the landscape surrounding the statue to disguise the buildings and bring attention to the bronze work.
Huntington included an impressive amount of detail in the sculpture that is not seen at first glance. She conducted extensive research at the arms and armory division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accurately depict Joan’s armor for the time period. Huntington also based the horse off of one borrowed from her local Massachusetts fire department, having her niece model as a point of reference for anatomy.
The sculpture was an immediate hit, with the unveiling being attended by thousands of onlookers lining the streets surrounding Riverside Park. Reproductions were even commissioned of the statue in the early 1920s, letting Joan find homes from Massachusetts to Canada. Huntington was awarded France’s highest honor – membership in the Légion d’Honneur – at the unveiling of a replica in Blois, France. Huntington continued to have a long and impactful artistic career. She famously was commissioned to create another bronze sculpture in the courtyard of the Hispanic Society, as well as a statue of Cuban patriot José Martí which was positioned along Central Park South.
Though there have been statues dedicated to more real-life women since the Joan of Arc statue was unveiled over 100 years ago, the disparity between male and female representation in the city’s statuary remains stark. While there are more than 150 statues dedicated to men, there are less than a dozen dedicated to women. Check out all of the statues dedicated to real women here!
See the Joan of Arc statue for yourself and learn more about the other monuments of Riverside Drive on our upcoming walking tour!
Secrets of Riverside Drive Preview