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Iconic Paradox

Clay, not clay

In rummaging through some old memorabilia, a yellowed postcard captured my attention. The face of the card bore the image of the Clay Statue on Canal Street.

There is no shortage of statuary in New Orleans, particularly along the river. The Malcolm Woldenberg statue graces the park that bears his name, as does a tall Muse, serving as a welcome roost for pigeons and gulls alike. Then there’s Bienville and the Monk on Decatur, the ubiquitous Andrew Jackson in the Square, and the gauche gilded Joan of Arc near the French Market. All are bronze. A clay statue would certainly be a rarity.

My interest was immediately piqued, because I could not recall a statue at the river end of Canal Street, whether clay or otherwise. This absence set me upon a mission to retrieve the facts of the missing figure, if not the icon itself. Where resides the elusive effigy?

First, would come my personal examination of the lower end of Canal Street to confirm that no such statue has escaped my recognition. I walked toward the river, carefully perusing the neutral ground for a clay statue. No such figure being apparent, I began questioning folks along the street. After several fruitless inquiries a sidewalk vendor told me to check the ticket booth near the ferry entrance.

A familiar figure, the colorful, life-sized representation of a jester, captured in a medium of unknown composition, did not in any way resemble my quest, the monument on the postcard.

Looking elsewhere for the answer, at The Historic New Orleans Collection, the most authoritative historical archive, would provide the answer. There, an attendant advised that the statue, first erected in 1860, had been removed to Lafayette Park in 1901. Quickly, I set my destination to Lafayette Park where I would expect to find the subject of my search.

Thus upon St. Charles Avenue, directly across the street from Gallier Hall, stood a monument topped with a statue, the obvious figurehead of Lafayette Park. To my surprise, the sculpture, expected to be crafted in an earthen fired medium, was wrought in bronze. The importance of proper capitalization now becomes duly evident.

Reasonably, one would expect the rendering to be that of the Marquis de la Lafayette, but it was in fact, Clay — Henry Clay, the statesman and orator. Two other statues, neither of clay, Clay, nor Lafayette, memorialize philanthropist John McDonough and Benjamin Franklin, statesman and inventor.

Puzzling, the Marquis de la Lafayette, for whom the park is named, is not represented in likeness of any sort.

Okay, let’s review the facts. The Clay statue, the welcoming feature of Lafayette Square, is neither of clay, nor of Lafayette. Lafayette exists only in reference in the park so named. Contradictory indeed, but then neither is Canal Street an inland waterway.

The nuance of the Jester now gains meaning, perhaps with a wink, evoking the playful spirit of the city.


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