On the night of July 9, 1776, a crowd emboldened by a public reading of the Declaration of Independence pulled a huge equestrian statue of King George III from its pedestal in lower Manhattan. A British officer conveyed the decapitated head to London, intending to demonstrate the rebels’ defiance, and soldiers transported the remaining fragments to Connecticut, where the statue was melted down and recast as ammunition for the American army. En route, loyalists absconded with pieces of the statue, concealing them in fields, swamps, and cellars.
By any reckoning, the statue should have remained beneath the earth. But in the mid-nineteenth century, fragments began turning up; artists began restoring the statue to visibility in paintings and prints; and historical re-enactors began featuring recreations of the lost statue in civic pageants and parades. Recently, the statue has been the subject of digital and sculptural reconstructions at prominent U.S. museums.
This lecture will explore how this act of Revolutionary iconoclasm became an American creation story through texts, images, and performances long after the American Revolution. Iconoclasm mobilized a central paradox of the American national imaginary: it was at once a destructive phenomenon through which Americans enacted their independence and a creative phenomenon through which they continued to enact British cultural identities. By locating the statue’s destruction within a British colonial space of material violence, we can see how American Revolutionary iconoclasm emerged from rituals of protest in the broader Atlantic world.
Wendy Bellion is Professor of Art History and Sewell Biggs Chair in American Art at the University of Delaware and Co-Director of the Center for Material Culture Studies. Her publications include the forthcoming Iconoclasm in New York: Revolution to Reenactment (2019) and Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America (2011), which was awarded the Charles Eldredge Prize by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)