January 6 is Joan of Arc’s 602nd birthday. Not many historical figures, very few of them women, are celebrated 600 years after their birth. But the French teenager who led her country to victory after a century of war, changed its history, and was captured and killed by her enemies is an exception. Inspired by angels and saints, she has become an inspiration to many others, and New Yorkers are no exception.
When New York suffragist Inez Milholland, for example, led the women’s March for the Vote in Washington, DC in March 1913, clad all in white and astride a white horse, she didn’t overtly claim to be impersonating Joan of Arc. The electrifying figure she presented was called “the Herald” or simply “the Woman on a Horse,” an evocation of women in the West who already had the vote or a nod to the moral purity of American temperance leaders who frequently dressed in white. But everyone knew who she really was.
Hadn’t the militant wing of the British suffrage movement claimed the warrior Maid of France as its patron saint? Didn’t the Joans who led British protest parades, such as the Women’s Coronation Procession in 1911, wear armor, making it plain they were prepared to fight for their cause? Indeed, it may have been the perceived radicalism of some aspects of the British suffrage movement that led its American sisters to opt for a softer image.
But Joan was also in the news. In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, the Roman Catholic Church had beatified her in 1909, leaving her only one step away from full-fledged sainthood, and her 500th birthday was in 1912. Call her what you will: In 1913, a woman on horseback clad in white at the head of a column of determined marchers in the nation’s capitol evoked in her beholders the spirit of Joan of Arc.
Inez Milholland, then 27, was strikingly beautiful, and her career to that point only emphasized how well cast she was as Joan. Born in Brooklyn in 1886, the oldest child of wealthy parents who had a taste for progressive causes, Milholland was an educated firebrand devoted to pacifism, the rights of minorities and, most of all, to the cause of women’s equality. As an undergraduate at Vassar College, where she received a degree in 1909, Milholland had a reputation as an “active radical” and was once suspended for her activities at Vassar on behalf of the suffrage movement.
Denied admission to Oxford and Cambridge because of her gender, she earned her law degree at New York University Law School, was admitted to the bar, and practiced with the New York firm of Osborne, Lamb and Garvan, specializing in divorce and criminal cases. An early assignment led her to investigate the conditions of prisoners at Sing Sing, and the rights of prisoners was added to the list of issues for which she was an advocate. In 1913, not long after her appearance in the Washington suffrage parade, Milholland married Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutch importer, to whom she had proposed, an act that she said affirmed woman’s “new freedom.”
Milholland’s association with Joan of Arc was cemented by her own early death in Los Angeles, in November 1916 at the age of 30, in the middle of giving a suffrage speech. Lionized as a martyr to women’s liberty, she was explicitly portrayed thereafter as the embodiment of Joan of Arc in works of art and suffrage promotions.
Inez Milholland may have been in Europe as a war correspondent when another embodiment of Joan, the bronze equestrian statue that stands in a corner of Riverside Park at 93rd Street in Manhattan, was unveiled in December 1915, to the accompaniment of a cannon salute from the USS Pennsylvania and the USS Utah, in the Hudson River.
According to independent researcher Valerie Thaler, a group of wealthy male New Yorkers who admired Joan had been raising funds for a memorial to mark her 500th birthday. Their number included “copper king” William A. Clark, whom Mark Twain described as a “rotten human being” and the embodiment of Gilded Age excess and corruption, but—like Twain himself—an admirer of Joan, who had decorated the billiard room of his 5th Avenue mansion with paintings of her; “modern romantic” and numismatist John Sanford Saltus, who later contributed to the financing of several other Joan statues, in New Orleans, Blois and Rouen in France, and Winchester, England; and Tiffany’s chief gemologist George F. Kunz, who founded the Joan statue committee in New York.
In 1910, at the Paris Salon, they found the perfect sculptor in Anna Vaughn Hyatt (later Huntington after her marriage to philanthropist Archer Huntington), an artist as feisty and opinionated in her field as Milholland and Joan in theirs. Dismissed from classes with Boston master Henry Hudson Kitson when she found anatomical deficiencies in his equine models, she completed her formal education at the Art Students League in New York. She was originally awarded the first prize at the Paris Salon for her submission, a model for an equestrian Joan of Arc, but the prize was reduced to honorable mention because the judges believed it couldn’t be executed by a woman.
The New York committee disagreed, and Huntington set to work in the autumn of 1914, using her niece as a nude model on a borrowed firehouse horse in her studio in Gloucester, Mass. The result is unique in a number of ways. It’s the only New York City equestrian statue of a woman and the first accurate depiction of 15th-century armor, thanks to the expertise of the Metropolitan Museum’s honorary curator of arms and armor Bashford Dean. John Van Pelt’s pedestal includes stones from the turret of the Rouen castle where Joan was imprisoned —and a vase for flowers, should anyone choose to leave a floral tribute and birthday wishes.
Her Joan of Arc launched Huntington’s professional career, and she went on to create such New York City sculptural landmarks as the Jose Marti on Central Park South and the El Cid at the entrance to the Hispanic Society of America, which was founded by her husband, whom she met at the New York City Beaux Arts Ball in 1920. She attended costumed as Joan of Arc.
Photos, from above: Poster from the suffrage movement showing Inez as Joan of Arc in parade after Inez became a martyr for the American suffrage movement in 1916; Photo of Inez Milholland; Inez at head of 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Library of Congress; the NYC statue of Joan.