Earlier this week I was thinking about the statue of Archbishop John Hughes located on the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University. This led to thoughts of the man who sculpted the statue. Oddly, he was a Confederate soldier from Virginia who had relocated to the Bronx after the Civil War. Although he was not trained as a sculptor, he became somewhat renowned in that field and was welcomed into the ranks of the Society of American Sculptors and the Architectural League. As his fame grew, he was also inducted as an associate of the National Academy of Design.
His name was William Rudolf O’Donovan and he was born on March 28, 1844 in Preston County, Virginia. He enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 and served in Staunton’s Artillery. He was a very literate man and a prolific letter writer. Many of his letters home on diverse subjects have been saved and catalogued as has his letters to the editor of the New York Times. One of the letters from 1899 deserves quoting to show his versatility with the written word. Writing about art and artists he says: … I think it will be found that our art will pass also from its tentative and exotic period into a vitalized expression of our National life and mission to the world.
Like many other artists, he had a fascination with George Washington and made a complete study of his features even examining his death mask. He sculpted a 13 foot statue of Washington in 1893 as a tribute to the father of our country. It can be found atop the huge marble pillar in the Trenton Battle Monument. The huge pillar was donated to the city of Trenton by the State of New York and gives the bronze statue a commanding view from its 150 foot height. A New York Times story of October 1, 1893 states that President Grover Cleveland was expected at the grand unveiling of October 19th of that year.
Another of his statues of Washington can be found in Caracas and he did a memorial tablet to Bayard Taylor that went to Cornell University. His rendering of the captors of Major Andre can be found in Tarrytown. Locally his images of Presidents Lincoln and Grant can be seen at the famous arch at the Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and, of course, his rendering of Archbishop John Hughes is right here in the Bronx. The eight-foot statue stands in front of the Administration Building at the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University.
O’Donovan passed away in April of 1920 at his Bronx home located at 590 Eagle Avenue. Think of this Confederate soldier whenever you pass beneath the Memorial Arch when entering Prospect Park or when visiting the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University. Although he had no formal training, he left this world a little richer than he found it and shouldn’t we all?