Recently the New York Times and other news outlets reported that a seven-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson will soon be removed from the New York City Council chamber. City officials unanimously voted for its removal, citing Jefferson’s slaveholding history.
Lost in the conversation is the little-known genesis of the statue.
The sculpture was commissioned by the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy— Uriah Phillips Levy — a man who for decades, at his own expense, worked to save Jefferson’s dilapidated historic home Monticello from ruin. Levy, who faced anti-Semitism throughout his naval career, greatly admired Jefferson’s views on religious freedom. The third president wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which serves as the prototype for the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
Levy’s motivation, to celebrate the religious liberty that allowed him a career of military service, is paramount to the sculpture’s intended (and lost) meaning. Levy wrote in a letter, “For his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to personally commission a statue of Jefferson.”
Levy’s desire to recognize Jefferson’s legacy of religious freedom is a vital distinction. It strongly correlates with Levy’s commitment to American values despite the obstacles he faced because of his religio-cultural heritage, and the reciprocal gains America reaped because of Levy’s freedom to serve his country. Levy fought in the War of 1812, where he and his crew were taken prisoner by the British and held in captivity for 16 months. He also spearheaded the banning of flogging in the Navy.
But if a statue of Jefferson is up for relocation then should we rethink the location for the country’s largest equestrian monument, which honors Ulysses S. Grant? In view of the US Capitol building, the statue memorializes the man who issued a deplorable decree that expelled all Jews “as a class” within 24 hours from districts occupied by the Union army in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Grant’s order, the most anti-Semitic ever issued by the American government, erroneously branded Jews as traitors to the Union, accusing them of black-market profiteering in cotton.
Unquestionably, Grant’s success as the commanding Union general merits celebration, alongside important presidential acts — such as signing into law the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting Black men the right to vote.
This commemorative sculpture still stands in its intended location because it has been examined for the context of its creation.
Two proposed locations for Jefferson are the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society. Wherever Jefferson is eventually displayed — likely a public venue where many more people will see it — the sculpture should be accurately contextualized. A plaque near it should explicitly honor Jefferson’s critical and too-often forgotten contributions to religious equality while also pointing out his egregious flaws. Levy, too, should be part of that conversation, offering a potent example of an individual who reaped the rewards of Jefferson’s commitment to religious liberty and a country that equally benefited — worthy of celebration by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Now playing the Cannes Film Festival, the new film from the director of The Square embarks on a luxury cruise that goes to hell.
By enshrining her memories into sculptural form, Juárez celebrates her emotional pilgrimage through the growing pains of childhood to adulthood.
A journey spanning three continents over 1,500 years comes to the National Mall in Washington, DC. On view at the Smithsonian’s NMAA through September 18.
These university museum leaders are bridging cultural chasms through elaborate and generative work with their students.
Curators at the Maidan Museum in Kyiv are sifting through the rubble for items that “tell the story of ordinary people’s lives, of their deaths.”
Graduate student work representing 19 disciplines is featured in a digital publication and returns as an in-person exhibition at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
The cube, which has fallen into disrepair, was strapped in place by supportive metal implements at its base.
Inigo Philbrick misrepresented the ownership of and fraudulently traded in works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yayoi Kusama, and others.
Installations by Jessica Campbell, Yasmine K. Kasem, Suchitra Mattai, Haleigh Nickerson, and Nyugen E. Smith are now on view at JMKAC in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Author M. T. Anderson walks us through a sonic gallery of Vasily Kandinsky’s musical influences, which guided the painter’s pursuit of art that reveals a mystical, inner truth.
In yet another horror movie that’s actually about trauma, writer-director Alex Garland makes his points bluntly, having one actor play many facets of misogyny.
Time is itself a recycling process for Cole, whose freewheeling spirit transcends linearity in his excavations of art and music history.