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George Washington Sat Here … And Here …

May 2024
7min read

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man, he knew how quickly fashion in men’s street wear could become obsolete: he didn’t want his Washington to be out-of-date.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.

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!”)

But as a permanent setting the apse still left something to be desired; changing uses of the hall again deprived the statue of dignity and eventually led to semioblivion.

Over the decades the outrage of the public smoldered and died. Ridicule was gradually replaced by a grudging kind of respect—after all, “Greenough’s George” was prime Americana. In 1962, when the vast new history and technology building was nearing completion, the statue made its last journey. Without fanfare it was put into a great wooden crate to be trucked across the Mall to a specially designed gleaming marble shrine. The lighting at last is faultless—and as a functionalist Horatio Greenough would have approved the building. Finally the flower of Greenough’s days commands a place of great honor. There will be no more wandering for the scantily clad George. It would take at least an earthquake.


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