A Small Masterpiece in Park Slope
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Park Slope is often called a brownstone neighborhood, which is a misnomer.There are brownstones and brownstone streets, to be sure, but the visitor takes away an image composed in equal parts of 1880s Romanesque and of the Beaux Arts classicism of the 1890s and later. As to the latter, many people think only of grand productions like Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza with its Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch. Yet Beaux Arts scenic effects were often inserted into neighborhoods in a more intimate or, at least, less grand manner, and in such a way as to lend a note of monumentality into the more quotidian parts of the city.
An outstanding example is Park Slope’s 9th Street between Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West. On both sides are stately, white-limestone row houses with sober Renaissance detailing. Note nos. 519 to 543, on the north side. These houses, built in 1908-09, were designed by Thomas Bennett, one of the architects whose works form Park Slope’s lovely background against which more significant works gain strength. The two sides of 9th Street create a fine frame for the eastward vista toward Prospect Park.
As you approach the park from 9th Street, you see that dead-on axis is a framed picture, a granite stele enclosing bronze figures. It does not read clearly from a distance, but it wasn’t designed to. Rather, it was meant to pique the walker’s curiosity, to beckon him forth to a visual reward.
This memorial to the Marquis de Lafayette was dedicated in 1917, in the presence of Marshal Joffre. American intervention in World War I was played up as our repaying Lafayette for helping us to win the Revolution. This memorial was seen as a testament to American-French friendship. Beyond that, it is one of the best small memorials in the city. As well it might be, given that it is the work of the architect Henry Bacon and the sculptor Daniel Chester French – the team that five years later produced the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Bacon’s stele frames a standing figure of Lafayette, looking both honorable and foppish. He is executed in such high relief as to seem a fully modeled statue. Behind him his expertly rendered horse, in shallower relief, faces north.The horse almost fills the frame. Behind the horse’s head is a black man, whom we may presume to be a slave, holding the horse’s bridle. Rising over the rear of the horse and arching over its back is a leafy tree, partly cut off by the frame.
This is a highly complex composition, even a tour de force, with human, animal, and plant features, in varying degrees of relief and squeezed into a small compass. French achieves at once a memorial and a full genre scene. He also creates a picture that is at once monumental, never flinching from the boldness of its conception, yet also intimate, and approachable, in a way the grand monument seldom is. It is a small masterpiece.