Larger Type
Smaller Type

Press Room

9/17/03

Smithsonian American Art Museum Commemorates 200th Anniversary of the Death of Robert Emmet, Irish Patriot

Media only: Laura Baptiste (202) 275-1595


The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the completed restoration of "Robert Emmet" (1916), a recently cleaned bronze sculpture of the Irish patriot by Jerome Stanley Connor (1876–1943). The sculpture, part of the museum's permanent collection, is located in Emmet Park, two blocks from the Embassy of Ireland at Massachusetts Avenue and 24th Streets N.W. in Washington.

This September marks the 200th anniversary of Robert Emmet's death. Connor depicts Emmet, the "boy martyr of Erin," making an impassioned speech at his trial in front of a British special court in 1803. A bronze plaque on the pedestal is inscribed with excerpts from the speech Emmet delivered the day before his execution: "I wished to procure for my country the guarantee which Washington procured for America. … I have parted from everything that was dear to me in this life for my country's cause. … When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then let my epitaph be written." Emmet is shown with an open right hand in a persuasive rhetorical gesture, while his left hand is clenched as an expression of his revolutionary spirit.

Emmet came from a family of Irish patriots; his father instilled a passion for Irish independence in his sons, and Emmet's older brother Thomas was imprisoned for his revolutionary activities. Emmet was expelled from the University of Dublin for his involvement in the 1798 rebellion. A member of the United Irishmen's Party, Emmet traveled to France in 1802 to appeal, unsuccessfully, to Napoleon and Talleyrand for French aid in his quest for Irish independence. The following July he led an uprising outside of Dublin that was quickly crushed by the British. He was hanged on Sept. 20, 1803 at the age of 25.

"It is fitting that a statue of the courageous patriot Robert Emmet should stand here in Washington, D.C.," said Noel Fahey, ambassador of Ireland. "Emmet through his struggle for Irish independence, only a quarter of a century after the creation of the United States, admired and sought for Ireland the guarantees of freedom and liberty that George Washington had procured for America."

"The Smithsonian American Art Museum has long understood the importance of preserving the nation's public sculptures that illuminate the rich collective history of America," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's Margaret and Terry Stent Director. "The Robert Emmet sculpture was donated by passionate Irish Americans in 1917 to commemorate their struggle for freedom, and still today it holds special meaning for our country's 40 million citizens of Irish descent."

Connor was commissioned in 1916 by American citizens of Irish ancestry to create a sculpture that commemorated Irish independence. In 1917, the Robert Emmet Statue Committee presented it to the Smithsonian as a gift to the American people. "We should see that the heroes of the world … should find a place within the Nation's capital," said James D. Phelan, senator from California at the 1917 dedication that was attended by President Woodrow Wilson. The sculpture was placed on view in the rotunda of the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), which also housed the Smithsonian's art collection. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence of the Irish Republic, the sculpture was moved to its present site on April 22, 1966, on long-term loan to the National Park Service.

Jerome Connor, born in Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland, emigrated to the United States as a teen-ager. In 1910, he established a sculpture studio in Washington, D.C. Connor based his likeness of Emmet on sketches done at the trial and from Emmet's death mask. The 7-foot-tall sculpture was cast at the Washington Navy Yard. Connor's sculpture of Emmet proved to be so popular that a copy was cast and placed in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1919; in 1922 the U.S. Congress authorized a replica as a gift to the National Gallery of Ireland which now stands in St. Stephen's Green in Dublin.

The Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!) initiative, jointly sponsored by the museum and Heritage Preservation, a group founded to ensure the preservation of America's collective heritage that is based in Washington, D.C., provided a conservation assessment of the Emmet sculpture in spring 2002 to determine the treatment needed. Conservation of the sculpture was completed this past June by local conservator Nick Veloz, who specializes in outdoor sculpture. The treatment consisted of washing the sculpture, applying a corrosion inhibitor and then brushing on a protective hot wax coating. Maintenance included trimming overgrown branches near the sculpture. The sculpture will be monitored regularly, and annually it will be washed and waxed to maintain its stable condition.

The conservation and ongoing maintenance of the sculpture is generously supported by Radwan and Allan J. Riley, and Tim Haley and Ethna McGourty through the American Ireland Fund.

The assessment and treatment of this sculpture are part of the museum's long-standing commitment to documenting and preserving America's public sculptures through SOS! This program provides conservation assessment and maintenance training and confers achievement awards to individuals, nonprofit organizations, and state and local agencies supporting preservation of their local sculptures.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and has evolved into the world's most important American art holdings with approximately 40,000 artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries.

While the renovation of the museum's historic building continues, American Art offers a full program of exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.). For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call (202) 357-2700 or visit the museum's award-winning Web site at AmericanArt.si.edu.

Co-host an Event at the Renwick
Share This Page