Why a Virginia Museum Wants to Display a Defaced Sculpture of Jefferson Davis

“Actually bringing that statue back to the spot where it was created has a unique power to it,” says the Valentine’s director

Toppled Jefferson Davis statue
Activists toppled and defaced Edward Valentine's statue of Jefferson Davis during Black Lives Matter protests in Richmond last summer. Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce / AFP via Getty Images

During his lifetime, American sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine was known for his skillful carvings of past presidents, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as busts and monuments that perpetuated the myth of the Lost Cause. Nearly a century after Valentine’s death in 1930, his sculptures continue to garner as much attention as when they were first displayed—albeit for very different reasons.

As Gregory S. Schneider reports for the Washington Post, the Valentine museum in Richmond, Virginia, wants to exhibit the sculptor’s likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which was defaced and pulled down during Black Lives Matter protests last June, in hopes of reckoning with the statue’s difficult legacy. The museum, which was founded by Valentine’s brother, entrepreneur and art collector Mann S. Valentine II, has petitioned the city of Richmond to allow it to exhibit the damaged effigy in the artist’s studio.

“Actually bringing that statue back to the spot where it was created has a unique power to it,” museum director Bill Martin tells the Post. “When you think about the creation of the Lost Cause myth—it was built around this particular spot in this garden at the Valentine.”

The museum hopes to include the statue in a 2022 exhibition exploring Valentine’s life and the consequences of racist symbols like the statues he created. Though curators are still studying the sculptor’s past to discern his personal views, the Post points out that his depictions of African American people, many of whom are shown with exaggerated features or portrayed stereotypically, “seem openly exploitative.” A statue of Henry Page, who was enslaved by the Valentine family, casts him as a kindly “Uncle Tom” figure, for example.

Jefferson Davis statue
The sculptor who made the Davis statue served as the Valentine museum's first president. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to its removal last summer, the Davis sculpture, which depicts the Confederate leader with a stern expression and an outstretched arm, had stood on Richmond’s Confederate statue–lined Monument Avenue since 1907, according to Mark Katkov of NPR. Activists protesting police brutality and systemic racism splattered black and pink paint on the metal figure, rendering its features almost unrecognizable.

“It would’ve been nice to see this stuff come down without having to protest for it,” a protester identified only as Marcus told the Post’s Schneider for a separate June 2020 article. “You shouldn’t have to kill someone and get a riot behind it to have some action.”

Born in 1838, Valentine studied art in France, Germany and Italy alongside such artists as painter Thomas Couture and sculptor August Kiss, notes Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Liscia. After Valentine returned to the United States in 1865, he established himself as a respected sculptor of distinguished Southerners—particularly Confederate leaders associated with the Lost Cause, a pseudo-historical doctrine that “maintains that the Confederacy was based on a noble ideal, the Civil War was not about slavery, and slavery was benign,” as Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.

Speaking with the Post, Josh Epperson, a consultant working with the museum to “rethink its mission,” says that Valentine “literally did some of the work to make these ideas tangible.”

Some of Valentine’s best-known pieces espoused the Lost Cause ideology; one such work—a life-size, marble monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee—is currently housed in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Valentine also created the statue of Lee that was removed from the U.S. Capitol late last year.

Lee memorial
Valentine also designed a memorial housed in the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the artist’s former studio stands on the grounds of the museum that bears his last name. Opened in 1898, with Valentine serving as its first president, the venue evolved from a more generalized art and history museum into an institution dedicated to documenting Richmond’s history, according to its website.

Some Richmond residents have argued against the museum’s plan for the Davis sculpture, which they say venerates Confederate principles even in its defaced state.

As Epperson tells the Post, the response shows “just how much raw feeling and raw pain there is still attached to those objects.”

Recontextualizing Confederate monuments may not be enough to change visitors’ views, wrote Erin Thompson for Smithsonian last month. Laurajane Smith, who spent a decade interviewing visitors to historical sites for her new book, Emotional Heritage, told Smithsonian that the vast majority of people surveyed were “engaged in reinforcing what they knew and believed.” If visitors saw information that seemed to contradict their understanding of an event or historical figure, they simply brushed “it off as irrelevant,” Smith added.

In a 2017 New York Times column, art critic Holland Cotter wrote that many museums would need to undergo major philosophical shifts in order to properly represent Confederate monuments.

“[Monuments] might be placed in the equivalent of open storage, in conditions accessible but controlled, where they can be presented as the propaganda they are,” Cotter wrote. “Museums will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions.”

Referencing the Valentine’s own efforts to confront its painful past, Martin says, “What this place proves is that people and institutions can change. We haven’t changed enough. We have lots of change ahead of us. But we have this particular opportunity in this particular moment, and these stories need to be told.”

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