Art: Houdon’s Sculpture of Washington

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Art: Houdons Sculpture of Washington


Background. The prominence of sculpture among the ancient Greeks and Romans made sculpture appealing as an ideal way to commemorate the achievements of American Revolutionary heroes. Yet America was slow to develop sculptors, and European artists filled the demand for sculpture well into the nineteenth century. In 1784 the Virginia legislature voted to commission a marble statue of George Washington for the state capitol and appointed Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to choose an artist. They recommended Jean-Antoine Houdon, a leading French sculptor, whose works included portrait busts of other prominent Americans, including themselves. Houdon initially planned to execute the commission in Paris, using Charles Willson Peales portrait of Washington as a model. Although Peale sent Houdon the portrait, Houdon ended up coming to the United States to take the bust of Washington from life. He worked with Washington at Mount Vernon in 1785 and completed the statue in 1791. It was installed in the Virginia capitol in 1796.

Antique or Modern Dress? Houdon faced a major dilemma: whether to portray Washington in antique or modern dress. Traditionally, artists depicted their subjects in classical garb, but historical painter Benjamin West had established the precedent of using historically accurate contemporary costume instead. Houdon ultimately decided to follow Wests lead. Jefferson approved this decision, finding Houdons Washington strongly reminiscent of West, Copley, Trumbull, and Brown. I think a modern in antique dress as just an object of ridicule as a Hercules or Marius with a periweg and chapeau-bras. Horatio Greenoughs statue of Washington, completed in 1841, later became such an object of ridicule because he portrayed Washington as a classical deity, bare-chested and draped in ancient robes.

Cincinnatus. Though Houdon clothed his statue in modern costume, he modeled his Washington on a classical herothe Roman general Cincinnatus, who was widely regarded as the ideal republican leader. After leading his army to military victory, Cincinnatus had turned down the opportunity to become a dictator and returned to his civilian life as a farmer. For many Americans Washingtons greatest act was his decision to relinquish power after the American Revolution. In doing so, they believed, he had made possible the preservation of republicanism in America. Houdons Washington is wearing military garb, but he also has a plow, representing his decision to give up military power for the life of a

gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon. Since republican ideology glorified farming as an occupation uniquely favorable to virtue, Houdons plow helped to fix Washingtons image as the embodiment of republican ideals.


Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York: Crowell, 1968);

John S. Hallam, Houdons Richmond Statue of Washington, American Art Journal, 10 (November 1978): 7380;

Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984).