Angels in the City

Walking around Ottawa, with eyes directed only towards the city’s 70-plus statues and monuments the heroism of Canada, can seem overwhelming. A knight, Sir Galahad, welcomes visitors at the gates of Parliament Hill while countless Fathers of Confederation populate the lawn. Twenty-two figures of gallant bravery charge through the arch of the National War Memorial, while just down Sussex Drive, three more contemporary soldiers stand (and kneel) on the Peacekeepers’ Memorial.

What is striking about this parade of heroes is its unquestionable masculinity. Sure, there is a woman in the Peacekeepers’ Memorial despite the protests of the Department of National Defense who argued, at the time of its designing, that no woman had performed that role making the design not historically accurate. There are also two female nurses at the end of the charge of soldiers through the National War Memorial.  However, what is celebrated in Ottawa are male leaders and heroes, though there are a few women celebrated in Ottawa: the Famous Five, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, and Laura Secord. However, women more commonly are featured as allegorical figures representing a virtue or the nation.

On Parliament Hill, Queen Victoria, John A. MacDonald, D’arcy McGee, and Alexander McKenzie are all accompanied by young, toga-adorning female figures at the base of their statues.  There are some key characteristics of allegorical figures that differentiate them from Ottawa’s other statuary.  Allegorical figures are nameless; they are complementary, and they are decidedly on a different plane of engagement than the principle figure being commemorated — either elevated into the clouds, or decidedly accessible at the base of monuments, the crawl-upon figures for visiting children.

The statue of John A. MacDonald has been described as emphasizing MacDonald’s quickness of mind and personal warmth. At the base of this monument is an allegorical female figure, intended to emphasize with her firm, young body, the youth of the nation. She is also wearing a wreath of maple leaves, and holds a shield of arms and a flag. Feminist geographer Gillian Rose suggests that using women to represent the ‘nation’ is common in the Western imagination, as women are similarly understood to represent ‘the land’ and Nature. Rose writes,

“The female figure represents landscape, and landscape a female torso, visually in part through their pose: paintings of Woman and Nature often share the same topography of passivity and stillness. The comparison is also made through the association of both land and Woman with reproduction, fertility, and sexuality, free from the constraints of Culture”

Continuing, Rose argues, “Incorporating all of these associations, both Woman and Nature are vulnerable to the desires of men.”  The female angels and allegories in Ottawa have been accused of arousing too much desire.  In 1911, a Senator complained that MacDonald’s allegorical female figure was distracting the younger male MPs from their work with her ‘charms.’

Female allegorical figures also feature prominently in the monument to Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine on Parliament Hill. The monument, designed by Walter Allward (a renowned sculptor who also designed Canada’s Vimy Ridge memorial in France), takes the form of an arched wall-pedestal, with figures of Baldwin and Lafontaine standing together on its top.  On the wall, 1848-1851 the dates of their second “Great Ministry” are carved and a fleur de lis and a British crown are etched.

Two, lounging female nudes are also etched in to the wall, one at Upper and one at Lower Canada. Art historian C. M. Armstrong suggests, “The female nude, when free of narrative situations, is most often constituted frontally and horizontally — as a kind of landscape.” In this moment, Baldwin and Lafontaine, in all of their figurative glory literally stand on the landscape they are presumed to have created— a united Upper and Lower Canada; integrated into this landscape, visible, desirable, and indistinguishable from the landscape itself are Women.

Attending to the nameless in the city and the many women that serve as decoration is integral to understanding how marginalizing the taken-for-granted built environment can be.  The Victorian woman was exulted and presumed to be the ‘angel in the house’. It seems that women are also presumed to be the angels in the capital. They are out-of-reach, or in their womanly charms representative of the Nation, Upper and Lower Canada, or any abstract virtue.

Photo by Tonya Davidson

One comment

  1. This is awesome…got a list of must sees?

Comments are closed.