“The Commodore’s acts have touched the public, more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender.”
All of Mr. Vanderbilt’s acts have been in a sense private acts; which consideration has not, however, exempted all of them from public criticism–some of it, certainly, not gracious. The fact is that many of “the Commodore’s” acts have touched the public, more or less nearly, in a spot which is tender. When a gentleman’s hand is discovered to be pretty regularly in the general pocket, he will inevitably find himself the subject of public remarks; and this though it be his own proper good that he seeks, and seeks with energy and industry and admirable consistency. So, then, though he may have paid for it himself, and has set it up on his own railroad station, got by his own hand, we do not apologize for saying an abusive word or two about the “Vanderbilt Memorial Bronze,” which henceforth charms the eye at the Hudson River Railroad Depot in St. John’s Park.
There is about it in general and in particulars a curious appropriateness, a fitness to the exploits and fame it is to celebrate; this at least the artist may claim as an advantage that his work has over most modern sculpture of the memorial or any other kind. It crowns with monumental incongruousness one of the most vulgar-looking of all staring brick buildings. The brute utilitarianism–not without its own perfection–which is expressed by the big brick-and-mortar freight-depot, is made the more obvious by the attempt–abortive though it be–to crown the ignoble substructure with something noble and fine. But it merely suggests the noble and fine, without being such in any degree; and the attempt makes ridiculous what before was at worst only disagreeable. Thus unfortunate in its position and general effect, our bronze is equally so in its detail and if it is not on that account less happy in its appropriateness, it certainly is not therefore more to be admired. Audaciously or ignorantly, it disregards all laws–of harmony, of grace, of perspective, or of anything else. ”The Commodore” himself, larger than life, stands in a niche in the centre of the work. The figure, stiff and without dignity, is dressed in the fur-lined or fur-lapelled overcoat, which is understood to be the usual wear of the original. At either side, extending for a rod or two, is a sheet of bronze, filled up in what may be called the higgledy-piggledy manner of grouping, with the simulacra in bronze of various objects representing symbolically facts and events in Mr. Vanderbilt’s career, There is the image of the humble boat in which, in the years when he was poor but honest, he carried passengers from the Battery over to Staten Island. There, near it, under a head of steam that she never knew in life, is one of the vessels of the Pacific Mail line, in which, in later years, he transported many more passengers, with much less comfort and much less safety, from this city to the Isthmus and California. There, also, may be seen the vessel which he magnificently gave the Federal Government when the rebellion broke out, and when it was rather more unprofitable to keep a vessel in her deck than it was to give her away to anybody who would take her. There, too, are the figures of bee-hives, which ingeniously typify the industry and devotion to business of a man who never served the country at large, nor the State, nor the city, in any public office; nor ever spent the time which is money in advancing the cause of any charity; nor in promoting education, which the self-made man may despise; nor in fostering the arts, which can always wait. There are the railroads and the river boats, which are witnesses to an energy and a business sagacity which before now have bought whole legislatures, debauched courts, crushed out rivals, richer or poorer, as the unmoral, unsentimental forces of nature grind down whatever opposes their blind force, and which have given Mr. Fisk and other gentlemen a lesson, which even they have not yet wholly mastered, in watering stock to the discomfiture of small stockholders of all ages and both sexes. In short, there, in the glory of brass, are portrayed, in a fashion quite good enough, the trophies of a lineal successor of the medieval baron that we read about, who may have been illiterate indeed; and who was not humanitarian and not finished in his morals; and not, for his manners, the delight of the refined society of his neighborhood; nor yet beloved by his dependents; but who knew how to take advantage of lines of travel; who had a keen eye for roads, and had the heart and hand to levy contribution on all who passed by his way.