Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844–1917)


Moses Jacob Ezekiel was one of the most celebrated sculptors of his day, his works appearing in civic spaces, art museums, and universities across the world. Born in Richmond to a family of Spanish-Jewish origin, Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet to attend the Virginia Military Institute, and he fought at the Battle of New Market (1864) during the American Civil War (1861–1865). He later considered a career in medicine but studied sculpture instead. In 1869 Ezekiel relocated to Berlin and won admittance to the royal academy there; four years later he became the first non-German to win the school’s prestigious art competition. For the rest of his life, working out of a studio in Rome, Ezekiel created sculpture, often by commission and for public display. He generally modeled in clay and either sculpted from marble or cast in bronze, creating heroic lifelike portraits that meditated on such themes as religion, religious freedom, and patriotism for both the United States and the Confederacy. He fashioned a bronze of Thomas Jefferson for the city of Louisville, Kentucky, that was replicated for the University of Virginia. He also created a memorial to his fellow cadets who fought at New Market as well as a memorial to the Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Ezekiel was buried beneath it after his death in 1917.

Early Years

Virginia Mourning Her Dead

Ezekiel was born on October 28, 1844, in Richmond and was the son of Catharine De Castro Ezekiel and Jacob Ezekiel, a dry goods merchant who had settled in the city a decade earlier. His family was of Spanish-Jewish origin. As a result of his parents’ financial problems, he grew up primarily in the household of his maternal grandmother and a stepgrandfather. Ezekiel attended local academies, but by the age of twelve he had begun working as a bookkeeper in his stepgrandfather’s store. Interested in drawing and painting from a young age, he attempted his first sculpture, a clay bust of his father, when he was about thirteen. As a young man he may have had a liaison with Isabella Johnson, a free African American who worked in the Ezekiel home and whose daughter was born in 1859. Ezekiel entered the Virginia Military Institute in 1862, the first cadet of Jewish descent. During the Civil War he fought alongside his fellow cadets at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, and the following year he served with the corps of cadets in the defenses around Richmond. In 1866 he graduated from VMI last in his class of ten.

Ezekiel returned to Richmond to work in his father’s dry goods store. With some thoughts of becoming a physician, in 1867 he began attending anatomy classes at the Medical College of Virginia. That year his father moved some of the family to Cincinnati, Ohio, and Ezekiel soon joined them. There he began a serious study of sculpture. Ezekiel’s small clay figure Industry (1868), portraying a girl knitting socks while studying her lessons from a book in her lap, won notice in the Cincinnati press when displayed in the window of an art store.

Art Career

Religious Liberty

In 1869 Ezekiel sailed for Berlin, Prussia, where the sculptor Rudolf Siemering offered him a place in his studio. After gaining admission to the prestigious royal academy, Ezekiel studied life-modeling under Albert Wolff. In 1873 Ezekiel entered his bas-relief Israel in the prestigious Michel Beer Prix de Rome competition at the academy. He was the first non-German to win the award, which provided a stipend for a year’s study in Rome. Later that year the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith commissioned Ezekiel to sculpt a piece for display in Philadelphia during the United States centennial celebration in 1876. Religious Liberty depicts a woman representing Liberty flanked on one side by an American eagle crushing Intolerance and on the other by Faith, a youth holding an eternal flame. After arriving in Rome in 1874, Ezekiel carved the work from a solid block of Carrara marble.

In 1879 Ezekiel established his studio in Rome at the ancient Baths of Diocletian. It quickly became a meeting place for other artists, political figures, and members of the Italian royal family. Ezekiel’s close friends included the composer Franz Liszt and Gustav Cardinal von Hohenlohe, both of whom sat for portrait busts. Ulysses S. Grant, the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, and the Virginia writer and diplomat Thomas Nelson Page numbered among Ezekiel’s many American visitors, for some of whom he created portrait busts or funerary effigies.

Ezekiel’s sculptures follow the classical lines of his early German training—a romantic, elaborate, and ornate style dependent on heavy lines and bold mass. He modeled his works in clay, usually from living models, formed them into plaster, and then carved the sculptures from blocks of marble or sent them to a foundry for casting in bronze. Most of his more than two hundred surviving pieces were portraits of individuals. Some of Ezekiel’s works employed religious themes, including a bronze head of David (1893) and the recumbent marble Christ in the Tomb (1896). In 1899 he completed a bronze bust of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, an advocate of Reform Judaism in the United States. Always proud of his heritage, Ezekiel considered himself an artist who was also Jewish, but he did not want to be labeled a Jewish sculptor.

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Ezekiel secured enduring fame as a sculptor through his heroic lifelike portraits. In 1877 he accepted a commission from W. W. Corcoran for eleven marble statues of famous artists through the ages, including Phidias, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Crawford, for display in the exterior niches of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. The museum moved to a new location in 1897, and Ezekiel’s sculptures were later installed at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. In 1899 Ezekiel completed for the city of Louisville, Kentucky, a large-scale bronze of Thomas Jefferson standing atop the Liberty Bell and reading the Declaration of Independence, a statue he replicated for the University of Virginia and unveiled eleven years later. His other public commissions include bronzes of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1909) for the Charleston, West Virginia, chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (a copy of which was installed at VMI in 1912); John Warwick Daniel (1913), a U.S. congressman and senator from Lynchburg; and Edgar Allan Poe (1915) for the Poe Memorial Association, in Baltimore.

Confederate Memorial in Arlington Cemetery

Ezekiel retained his love of Virginia and the Confederate cause all his life and expressed disappointment when his designs for monuments in Richmond honoring Robert E. Lee and Confederate soldiers and sailors were rejected. In 1903 VMI installed Virginia Mourning Her Dead as a memorial to the cadets who had fought at New Market. Ezekiel had molded the figure while a student in Berlin, and he completed and cast it in bronze in 1900. His statue of a soldier, entitled Southern, was unveiled in 1910 at the cemetery for Confederate prisoners of war at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. Ezekiel returned to the United States on several occasions for unveilings and to visit family and friends in Virginia. His last such visit occurred in 1914, when he attended the dedication of his monumental bronze memorial to the Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Moses ("Moe") Ezekiel

Throughout his career Ezekiel received numerous honors, including the Cross of Merit for Art and Science from the grand duke of Saxe-Meiningen in 1887 and the Golden Cross of the House of Hohenzollern from the German emperor in 1893. King Victor Emanuel III declared Ezekiel a Cavaliere Ufficiale della Corana d’Italia (Officer of the Crown of Italy) in 1906. The sculptor was known as Sir Moses Ezekiel as early as 1892. The origin of the title is unclear, and sources cite variously a knighthood bestowed by the king of Italy and by the German emperor. Ezekiel may have adopted the title himself after receiving one of his prestigious awards.

Later Years

World War I Red Cross Poster

In 1909 the Italian government reclaimed the Baths of Diocletian, and Ezekiel moved to a new studio in the Tower of Belisarius. During World War I he served on a committee that distributed American Red Cross funds to Italians in need, and he also helped coordinate shipments of supplies to soldiers at the front. Overworked during the cold, damp winter of 1916–1917, Ezekiel developed pneumonia and died at his studio on March 27, 1917. He left incomplete his final work, a statue of VMI’s first superintendent, Francis Henney Smith. Ezekiel was interred temporarily in the city cemetery near the San Lorenzo neighborhood in Rome. In accordance with his wishes, on March 31, 1921, he was buried among his Confederate comrades in Arlington National Cemetery at the base of his towering monument.

The permanent collections of many institutions, including the VMI Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Skirball Cultural Center at Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, feature examples of Ezekiel’s work. In 1985 the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, organized a major traveling exhibition.

October 28, 1844
Moses Jacob Ezekiel is born in Richmond.
By this year Moses Jacob Ezekiel is working as a bookkeeper in his stepgrandfather's store in Richmond.
Isabella Johnson, a free black woman working in the Ezekiel home in Richmond gives birth to a daughter. The father may be Moses Jacob Ezekiel.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel matriculates at the Virginia Military Institute, the first cadet of Jewish descent.
May 15, 1864
Moses Jacob Ezekiel fights alongside other VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel graduates from the Virginia Military Institute. He is last in a class of ten.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel attends anatomy classes at the Medical College of Virginia, in Richmond.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel sails for Berlin, Prussia, to study sculpting.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel becomes the first non-German to win the prestigious Michel Beer Prix de Rome.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel travels to Rome to work on Religious Liberty, a sculpture commissioned for the United States centennial celebration.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel accepts a commission from W. W. Corcoran for eleven marble statues of famous artists through the ages.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel establishes a studio in Rome at the ancient Baths of Diocletian.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel receives the Cross of Merit for Art and Science from the grand duke of Saxe-Meiningen.
Moses Jacob Ezekiel receives the Golden Cross of the House of Hohenzollern from the German emperor.
The Virginia Military Institute installs Virginia Mourning Her Dead, a sculpture by Moses Jacob Ezekiel in honor of the cadets, including Ezekiel, who fought at the Battle of New Market.
King Victor Emanuel III declares Moses Jacob Ezekiel a Cavaliere Ufficiale della Corana d'Italia (Officer of the Crown of Italy).
Moses Jacob Ezekiel moves his studio in Rome to the Tower of Belisarius.
March 27, 1917
Moses Jacob Ezekiel dies of pneumonia at his studio in Rome.
March 31, 1921
Moses Jacob Ezekiel is buried with fellow Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Cohen, Stan and Keith Gibson. Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 2007.
  • Greenwald, Alice M. and Roberta K. Tarbell. Ezekiel’s Vision: Moses Jacob Ezekiel and the Classical Tradition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1985.
  • Gutmann, Joseph and Stanley F. Chyet, eds. Moses Jacob Ezekiel: Memoirs from the Baths of Diocletian. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1975.
APA Citation:
Gibson, Keith & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844–1917). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ezekiel-moses-jacob-1844-1917.
MLA Citation:
Gibson, Keith, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Moses Jacob Ezekiel (1844–1917)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 15 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.