Marius Jean Antonin Mercié was a French sculptor and painter.  I doubt many people know of him, but if they don’t know of him, they may know of or have seen his work.

He has pieces in Paris and other parts of France, but he has works in the United States as well.

So, who was this guy, and why is he important today.

He entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and studied under some of the greats.  He gained the Grand Prix de Rome at the age of 23 in 1868.  The prestigious scholarship dating back to 1663 and French King Louis XIV, allowed the student to live in Rome for five years at the expense of the state!

Mercié was quite the artist and a French hero and icon.  He received the Medal of Honour as well.

His most popular work in France is his Bronze David.  The Biblical hero and shepherd boy who would become King of Israel is shown nude, standing on the head of Goliath.

He later became Professor of Drawing and Sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, and was honored with membership in the Academie francaise in 1891.

The awards go on and on, I’ll not belabor his accolades.

In 1891, the statue he created along with Alexandre Falguiere of The Marquis de Lafayette was dedicated in Washington D.C.

Baltimore’s memorial to Francis Scott Key was the work of Mercie as well.

But, his most famous work is one that is at the center of controversy today.  His serene sculpture of Robert E. Lee on horseback towers 60 feet above Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.  Mercie won the commission and to assure a realistic result, he was allowed access to Lee’s spurs, hat, boots, and death mask.

It was unveiled in front of a crowd of nearly 100,000 on May 29, 1890.

Robert Winthrop, a Richmond architect who is one of the authors of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, said, “The South lost the Civil War in a spectacular and total fashion.  A good portion of the women in Richmond were widows at the end of the war.  It was very much an effort to remember them (their husbands), to treat them as gallant men who fought for a cause.”

Winthrop went on to compare the Lee monument to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC.  The Vietnam Memorial went UP before the World War II Memorial.

Winthrop said, “When you lose, you need to put the memorial UP fast. Victors have the victory.  Vietnam was more tragic than World II, we fought a long war for no return, it is similar to the situation the South was in.”

The site was offered in 1886; many were opposed as it was outside the city limits of Richmond.  The $20,000 raised to pay for the land and the work came from across the nation.  Richmond annexed the land in 1892, and it was to be part of a grand real estate development.

Hard times delayed that and the Lee Monument stood alone in a tobacco field until development resumed for Richmond’s Grand Avenue in the early 1900s.

The statue, with exquisite detail and artistic value stands today a symbol of a city which is truly a Phoenix risen from the ashes and is the focal point of not only controversy, but one of the most beautiful streets in America.