Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Moses Ezekiel: Forgotten Master Artist

Moses Jacob Ezekiel (October 28, 1844 – March 27, 1917)

Virginians should know his name. His works grace the lawns and corners of universities, Arlington National Cemetery, and numerous museums. Between 1879 and 1884, he created eleven statues of artists, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Dyke, and others that first filled the niches of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the District of Columbia, but now stand in the Statuary Vista of the Norfolk, Virginia Botanical Garden. His Bust of Thomas Jefferson (1888) graces our United States Capitol building and his Jefferson Monument (1901) is at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Ezekiel should be better known for his amazing sculpture entitled Virginia Mourning Her Dead (1903) which dominates the small cemetery at Virginia Military Institute. Every year, at the foot of this statue, roll call is conducted for the brave cadets who fought—and those who died—at the Battle of New Market. Moses Ezekiel was one of those cadets.

Born in Richmond, Ezekiel was one of fourteen children of the impoverished Jewish family of Jacob and Catherine de Castro Ezekiel. In 1862, he was the first Jewish cadet to ever enter VMI, and he lost his shoes in the Battle of New Market in 1864. He continued to serve with the cadets in the trenches as they defended Richmond. After the war, he returned to VMI and graduated in 1866. The story is oft repeated that Robert E. Lee, then President of Washington College, told him:
I hope you will be an artist as it seems to me you were cut out for one. But whatever you do, try to prove to the world that if we did not succeed in our struggle we were worthy of success; and do earn a reputation in whatever profession you undertake.1
Ezekiel took his advice, and like many artists of that time period, went abroad to study. He did “carve out a reputation”2 for himself as one of America’s greatest sculptors. He received numerous European awards: Michel-Beer Prix of Rome; Crosses for Merit and Art from both the Emperor of Germany and from the Grand Duke of Saxe-Meiningen; Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Palmero; and the Raphael Medal from the Art Society of Urbino. King Victor Emmanuel, of Italy, gave Ezekiel the titles of “Chevalier,” Officer of the Crown of Italy, and a knighthood.3

Virginia Mourning Her Dead
Ezekiel only returned to Virginia—to America—three times. The first was in 1903, when he dedicated his Virginia Mourning Her Dead statue at VMI. The second time was in 1914. He returned to New Market and participated in the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. The third time was when he was laid to rest at the foot of his most famous statue, the Confederate Memorial (1914) in Arlington National Cemetery, which had been commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Although he died in 1917, because of the Great War in Europe, his remains were first interred in Rome, then returned to Arlington four years later as he had requested.

His headstone expresses his love for VMI and his fellow cadet soldiers. It shows his modesty as an artist and as an honored man and reads simply:

Moses J. Ezekiel
Sergeant of Company C,
Battalion of Cadets
of the
Virginia Military Institute

Jefferson Monument
Statue of Stonewall Jackson
Confederate Soldiers Memorial

by Cheryl L. Metz

  1. Short, James. “Sir Moses Ezekiel: A Virginia Expatriate Sculptor.” Virginia Cavalcade. Vol.III; Summer1953-Spring 1954, pp.36-7.
  2. Short, James. p36.

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