- Historic Sites
George Washington Sat Here … And Here …
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
The marble Washington’s magnificent gestures, intended to convey at once the resigning of his commission and the taking of the oath of office, were waggishly interpreted as sign language meaning “my body is at Mount Vernon, my clothes are in the Patent Office.”
At this juncture Charles Bulfinch wrote frankly, “… if I should give my advice it would be to send the statue to Athens, a present to King Otho, to be placed in the Parthenon with other naked great men.”
All in all, it would be 121 years from the time it arrived in Washington until Greenough’s creation finally found a completely suitable resting place. During that time foul weather and foul epithets made their inroads, and today the scars of exile are still plainly visible on the proud Roman brow.
Greenough, America’s first real professional sculptor, is best known today as one of the prophets of the notion that “form follows function.” He admired the dashing cut of the great close-hauled yachts and the honesty of a building that says what it is and is what it says.
His own artistic creations were something else again. Not only was the long-heralded George Washington instantly recognized as a form without a function, it was a constant problem to those who, over the years, have had the unhappy job of protecting it from the devastations of vandals and amateur comedians. What was to be done with “that thing in the East Yard”? As long as he lived, Greenough labored for a dignified solution; possibly he came to regret thrusting aside Emerson’s suggestion to leave well enough alone after that wild night in 1843. “I had rather,” Emerson told the sculptor, “have it in this Rotunda, in the worst light, than any where else in the best. …”
In 1854, two years after Greenough died of brain fever, the statue was still enduring the freezings and thawings of Washington’s fickle weather, and though a singularly ugly “Carpenter Gothic” wintertime shack was erected over it each year, the fine-pored Carrara marble had already begun to wear away. In that year Capitol engineer Montgomery C. Meigs reported that “the belt fell from the sword of Greenough’s Washington the other day” as casually as if he had been talking about the falling of autumn leaves —a sad but familiar episode in the cycle of the seasons.
Sometime during 1845 the monument had been placed on a little floral island in the middle of East Capitol Street, and in 1846 a railing and four lamps were added. Greenough was horrified. “The statue of Washington is surrounded,” he protested, “by dwarf cypress and clumps of rose bush. These are impertinent and obstruct the view of the inscription, thus overlaying the intention of the monument, and that for the mere display of ephemeral vegetation, a phenomenon, however attractive, not here in place—ridiculous, because they seem as if intended in some way to help and eke out the sculpture; which, when a statue of this class requires it, must be done by replacing it with something worthy to stand alone. The grass within the railing, if cut close, destroys the monumental effect, by the exhibition of frequent care; if neglected, offends by its rank growth and decay. … Four lamps have been placed around the statue of Washington; by night they light only the feet of the figure, by day they exactly hide two of the principal views of it.”
Regardless of its setting, some observers were staunch partisans of the statue. A prominent admirer of Greenough’s overheard a woman tourist remark that “it produced upon her mind a stronger impression of sublimity and grandeur than she had received from the cataract of Niagara,” and Emerson himself had been pleasantly surprised; “I was afraid it would be feeble,” he confessed, but “the statue itself greatly contents me.”
More frequently, however, visitors took away a different sort of impression. “The last time I saw Greenough’s colossal Washington,” wrote S. T. Wallis in 1847, “some irreverent heathen had taken the pains to climb up and insert a large ‘plantation’ cigar between the lips of the pater patriae , while another had amused himself with writing some stanzas of poetry, in a style rather more popular than elegant, upon a prominent part of the body of the infant Hercules, who is strangling serpents, in relief, upon the lower part of the work.”
As time crawled on for the unhappy misfit, Congress realized that the statue had lost any place it might have had in the hearts of its countrymen. That realization, plus clear and mounting evidence of the brittleness of Carrara marble, caused the statue to be brought indoors at last. Late in 1908 the Olympian Washington was pulled by draft horses down the hill to the Smithsonian Institution. Documents were exchanged between the old custodians and the new. The official papers informed the Smithsonian, in effect, “He’s your problem now.”
Gaining entrance into the Smithsonian’s steam-heated precincts necessitated tearing a sizable window out of the brownstone building, but after the masons went home, everyone agreed that the diffused light of the Great Hall and the eclectic details of the apse were becoming to the statue. (Greenough must have whirled in his grave that day because to him, prophetically, the turreted Smithsonian had always “seemed to threaten. … It seemed to say, I bide my time!”)