George Washington Sat Here … And Here …

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James Fenimore Cooper told him; Charles Sumner and Ralph Waldo Emerson told him; even Charles Bulfinch, one of the architects of the Capitol, told him; but Horatio Greenough knew his own mind. The gigantic monument to George Washington taking shape in Greenough’s Florentine studio was to be “the birth of my thought. I have sacrificed to it the flower of my days and the freshness of my strength; its every lineament has been moistened by the sweat of my toil and the tears of my exile.” Nobody could persuade the headstrong young American expatriate that the people back home just might not appreciate his sacrifice. “The loungers in the Rotunda,” warned Senator Sumner, “many never before having seen a statue in marble, will want the necessary knowledge to enable them to appreciate your Washington.”

 

On the sweltering last day of July, 1841, the great effigy of America’s first President, nobly bared to the waist and swirled in classical drapery below, arrived at the Navy Yard in Washington, along with a stupendous bill for its transportation from Leghorn, Italy, by merchant ship. No vessel in the United States Navy had proved capable of accommodating the colossus belowdecks.

And then the fun really began.

Washington City was scandalized to discover how skimpy Horatio Greenoughhad been with “the product of the distaff and the loom.” It was a “violation of decency” and an insult to the sacred memory of the Father of His Country, so recently departed. “Washington was too prudent,” said Philip Hone in his juicy diary, “and careful of his health to expose himself thus in a climate so uncertain as ours, to say nothing of the indecency of such an exposure—a subject on which he was known to be exceedingly fastidious.”

The sculptor’s explanations came too late to undo the damage. It seemed to Greenough that “the inspired writer meant not merely the face, when he declared that God had made man after his own image.” And, being well-born and a Harvard man, he knew how quickly fashion in men’s street wear could become obsolete: he didn’t want his Washington to be out-of-date.

Congress had commissioned the statue in 1832 with an eye to filling up the place of honor below the Capitol dome. The commission price was $20,000, but there turned out to be added expenses of $21,000, including, among other things, charges for “damage done to trees on the road from Florence to Leghorn.” Money, however, was a small matter compared to the logistic problems that were to follow.

As modern engineers will agree, there was reason to suspect that the foundations under the Rotunda might prove to be a poor match for the statue’s twenty tons of Carrara marble, to say nothing of an appropriate granite pedestal. Besides, as Greenough himself recognized, the lighting, or absence of it, was “fatal to the effect of the figure.” So to all intents Greenough’s masterpiece was in serious trouble even before the public got its first peek.

Robert Mills, architect of public buildings, shored up the floor in the middle of the Rotunda, and on December 1, 1841, the statue was wrestled into place. Alas, although it was over 10 feet high, more than 10 feet long, and 6| feet wide, it proved to be all but invisible in the semi-darkness. Two months later it was pulled a few yards off-center, where, on a temporary wooden pedestal, there was a hope of catching the slightly better light near the doorway to the Library. Clearly the effect was little better than before, and by the end of the year Greenough himself made the journey from Italy to see with his own eyes the tragicomic result of his exalted ambition.

Greenough was still in town in January, 1843, and Ralph Waldo Emerson spent a bizarre evening in the Rotunda while Greenough experimented with the idea of artificial illumination. ”… now in the daylight it is a statue in a cave,” Emerson wrote to Margaret Fuller; but at night, as Greenough directed the placement of flickering torches, the sight must have been spectacular. “It happened that night that our sconce did not succeed very well for it soon set on fire the wooden case which held the lamps & was let down rapidly, lamps melting & exploding & brilliant balls of light falling on the floor. By the time it was fairly down it was a brilliant bonfire & it was necessary in order not to fill the rotunda (picture hung) with smoke to drag it out of the doors on to the piazza where it drew together a rabble from all parts. … But the two hours I spent here were very pleasant. …”

 
 

Realizing that it would not advance his cause to burn down the Capitol, Greenough placed himself and his chef-d’oeuvre at the mercy of Congress. On the tenth and eleventh of January, 1843, he put an eloquent petition before the Senate and House, humbly begging that the monument be removed to the grounds outside the West Front, where it would command the greatest vista in all the city. In February, Congress did its best to make good on its investment—but in its wisdom it chose to dispatch the statue to the East Front, where for sixty-four years the first President appeared to amuse himself playing catch with Persico’s statue of Columbus.