Image of Joan of Arc statue by Emmanuel Frémiet

Joan of Arc / Jeanne d’Arc, Emmanuel Frémiet (1824-1910). Cast commissioned from Frémiet in 1905 by the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, under the Felton Bequest.

‘An almost inconceivable stupidity’ was one response to news in 1906 that the National Gallery of Victoria was purchasing a statue of Joan of Arc to place outside the Gallery and Public Library, alongside St. George.  This came from an editorial in the Melbourne Age which questioned the wisdom of erecting a monument to the legendary heroine of France in what was still culturally a British city.

The Age’s editorial writer predicted that the statue would ‘make us a mock and laughing stock to every foreigner who hears of it’.  Joan, after all, had driven the English out of Orleans in 1429 during the Hundred Years’ War.  Two years later the English and their Burgundian allies had captured her and burned her at the stake after convicting her of witchcraft, all at the age of 19.  But the Melbourne Joan of Arc, by the French sculptor Emmanuel Frémiet, had been selected for its artistic qualities rather than as anyone’s national symbol, and this opposition to it was short-lived.

Frémiet had already erected two successive versions of the Jeanne d’Arc in Paris (1874 and 1899), as well as replicas in Philadelphia (1889) and Nancy (1889).

Image of the statue Joan of Arc in studio

Emmanuel Frémiet at work in his Paris studio, on a different equestrian monument
The Booklover’s Magazine, February 1904

The statue, in a gigantic crate, arrived by the French mail steamer Dumbéa from Marseilles on 28 January 1907 and was offloaded at the Port Melbourne pier. From here it was to be transported by train to Spencer Street station, but it was soon found that the crate on its railway car would not fit under the bridges along the route. Although the statue had been consigned with strict instructions for the case to remain upright at all times, the Chief Librarian Edmund La Touche Armstrong authorised it being laid on its side for the rail journey. From Spencer Street station it was hauled to the Library on a wagon drawn by four horses and finally lifted onto its plinth by crane on 1 February 1907.

Once in place, Joan did not have to wait long before becoming a rallying point for the French and Francophile community in Melbourne. On Bastille Day, 14 July 1917, during the dark days of the First World War, the citizens of Melbourne organised a series of public events in solidarity with their French allies, centred on the Joan of Arc monument.

Image

Melbourne Punch, 19 July 1917

In 1944, as France lay again under enemy occupation, members of the French community and Free French forces in Melbourne commemorated Bastille Day by laying flowers at the statue.  In subsequent years, 11 May, the date of Joan’s great victory at Orleans, was also commemorated at the statue.  This custom continued into the 1960s and in more recent years the local French community have continued to mark Bastille Day in this fashion. Days after the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, flowers again appeared at the base of the statue.

Marking Bastille Day, 14 July 1944 H2000.200/3176

Marking Bastille Day, 14 July 1944. H2000.200/3176

When first installed in 1907, the Melbourne Joan was described as being of a ‘golden bronze’ colour. Bronze naturally darkens over time and may develop a green patina depending on environmental factors. Already by the 1920s letters were being written to the newspapers complaining about the statue’s weathered appearance. Photographs from the 1950s and 1960s show it badly streaked and stained by environmental exposure but conservation in more recent times has stabilized the surface appearance of the statue.

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Detail of photograph by Mark Strizic. Showing the badly weather-stained statue in 1954. H2008.11/833

Early photographs show that Joan had a crown of laurel leaves fixed behind her head. This was in place at least until 1967 but at some time between then and 1972 the crown was removed, under circumstances yet to be determined.

Image

Joan of Arc’s laurel crown as it was in 1941. Detail of H2000.200/3176

Crowned or uncrowned, Joan still rises in heroic splendour above the relaxed denizens of the World’s Most Liveable City.  The contrast is not lost on artist Oslo Davis who celebrates it in his design for the Readings bookstore paper bag and a cartoon:

Image of a brown paper bag with an illustration of Joan of Arc

Readings bag, with illustration by Oslo Davis

Untitled cartoon by Oslo Davis. H2010.182

Untitled cartoon by Oslo Davis, 2010. H2010.182

Readers interested in a fuller account of Frémiet and the Joan of Arc statue are directed to Dr. Ted Gott’s article ‘An iron maiden for Melbourne’, published in the Autumn 2008 La Trobe Journal.

This article has 16 comments

  1. a great story recognising a strong woman of history.

  2. Canonized by Benedict XV on 16 May 1920. It took a while!

  3. Fascinating story, thank you. I sat near Joan many lunchtimes as a student but never realised the story behind the statue and the connections she forged with the French community.

  4. So wonderful to read a story about a statue I have grown up with and taken for granted.

  5. Very interesting story about the statue, I have also grown up with Joan. Many thanks.

  6. A wonderful read, thanks Gerard – worthy of a corona triumphalis! 🙂

  7. My family came from a town in northern Italy named after Joan of Arc. Villa D’Arco was aptly named when the Bishop came to consecrate the new church built by my forefathers after WW2. Wonderful to know we have a connection with her here as well.

  8. An illuminating and thoroughly engaging account of the statue and its historical and contemporary connections with Melbourne. I really enjoyed reading it and will now see the statue anew – thanks Gerard.

  9. Great to see a moment in Australian history where the “inconceivable stupidity” of proponents for Imperial Britain are shunned. Beautiful statue.

  10. In mid 1960s I was at art school (National Galley School) in the basement and 1st floor of what is now the library. I passed these sculptures most days but never knew anything about them. To my shame we thought them awfully old fashioned and rather pretended they didn’t exist. Ignorant young whipper snappers that we were.

    • Dear Wendy

      I am a Senior Lecturer at the VCA Art School and read your comment with interest as I am currently putting together an art project for the VCA Art Schools 150th celebrations. My work is drawing on the National Gallery School’s time at the State Library. I would love to make contact and hear more about your art school experiences as part of my research. Please let me know if you are interested and we can go from there. Best wishes, Kim

  11. 1904 was the Entente Cordiale with the French and part of the picking of sides pre WW1. How significant therefore, is the fact that St George, representing England, in a similarly heroic statue, is set at the left hand side of the apron of the library? When was it placed there?

    • St. George was acquired and put in place in 1889. Interestingly, the sculptor Jacob Boehm was not English but Austrian although most of his working life was in Britain.

  12. Merci Gerard pour l’histoire. C’est interessant!

  13. Gerard, is there some kind of left over from the missing laurel wreath? Like little bronze nubs at the back of her head, or a hole of something? Totally fascinating to know that she used to have the wreath, and no idea how they got up there to nick it!

  14. Oh! I suddenly realised that it was one of multiple statues made by Frémiet, therefore the wreath should be able to be seen on at least one of the other ones.

    The statues can be found in Nancy (France), New Orleans (US), Philadelphia,(US)
    Portland, Oregon (US), and of course Melbourne. You can do an image search to find them, at least some of them still have their laurel wreaths.

    Fremiet also made smaller copies of the statue (this one sits in the President’s office in Paris) and you can clearly see the wreath on her head too https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jeanne_dArc_Fremiet_bureau_directeur_ENC.jpg

    Super interesting, thank you for sharing this article!

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