On December 6, 1915, prior to the U.S. entering World War I, thousands lined the streets to catch the unveiling of Hyatt Huntington’s Joan. Prominent guests in attendance included the French ambassador, who gave a speech, and Mina Miller Edison, wife of Thomas Edison and a high-ranking member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The turnout for such an event seems remarkable, considering the audacity of Hyatt Huntington’s artistic ambitions and the forthright military aspirations of her subject. Not only was this the first public monument in New York by a woman, it was the first-ever monument in the city to honor a real woman, rather than an allegorical figure.
Hyatt Huntington had transformed a historical woman commonly depicted as a humble and pious teenage servant of God into the very image of martial valor. Her Joan of Arc reflects the era’s changing social norms, and fits in perfectly with the increasingly liberated image of Joan that had been gaining popularity at the turn of the century, as women struggled for their rights.
Earlier depictions of Joan, such as
’s Joan of Arc
painting from 1879—in the Met’s collection by the time Hyatt Huntington arrived in the city—play on her meek, saintly nature. Rarely showing the heroine in battle gear, they seem to skirt the issue of her military genius. A plate from Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s popular “Joan of Arc” illustration series, printed in full color on the front page of the December 6, 1914, edition of the New York Times
, shows Joan in armor on her horse, but her hands are bowed in prayer. Instead of a battle scene, friars slowly lead her to Orleans (where, the viewer must know, she will, out of the frame, win a decisive victory).
Meanwhile, suffragettes and women activists called upon Joan as a patron saint, featuring her in rallying posters and magazines. During a 1911 demonstration for women’s right to vote, Marjorie Annan Bryce even dressed up as Joan, riding down the street on a white horse. It could not have been a coincidence that the Times featured the unveiling of Hyatt Huntington’s monument beside an article about delegates of the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, some on horseback; some marching their way to the White House to propose an amendment to the Constitution.
Additionally, during the war, U.S. bonds to spur female participation in war efforts featured an armored Joan, sword raised to the sky, alongside slogans like “Joan of Arc Saved France: Women of America, Save Your Country—Buy War Savings Stamps.”
Hyatt Huntington herself identified with the heroine. In February 1917, she impersonated Joan of Arc at the Fête des Fous, a medieval-themed pageant organized by the Architectural League of New York for the most affluent members of New York society, including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The Times reported in its February 27, 1917, edition that as Hyatt Huntington—clad in full armor—rode into the party on a white horse, “a big American flag was unfurled at the back of the French heroine and saint and as the lights were turned up the notes of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ were sounded and the entire audience, standing, sang the national anthem.”