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Horatio Greenough's statute of George Washington on the Capitol grounds, around 1866 (Library of Congress)

–by Maggie Esteves

The year 1832 marked the centennial celebration of George Washington’s birth. Congress, increasingly divided by tensions between northern and southern states, came together long enough to commission a statue of our first president by sculptor Horatio Greenough. In 1841 it became the first commemorative statue ordered by the federal government to be completed, but it would last less than two years inside the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda.

After living outside the east front of the U.S. Capitol and then being moved to the Patent Office grounds, the statue was donated to the Smithsonian in 1908. Today Greenough’s Washington resides on the second floor of the National Museum of American History and serves as a “Landmark Object” symbolizing the theme of American life for that particular wing. That is where I saw the statue a few weekends ago and became interested in its story.

The Washington statue housed in the National Museum of American History (courtesy of author)

Sure, I thought this depiction of Washington was a far cry from all other images I’d seen of the great Revolutionary War general who defeated the redcoats and humbly served as the first president of the United States, but I chalked it up to my distance from the time period in which it was created. It turns out that even at its unveiling the statue received heavy criticism and did not mesh with Americans’ perception of their first president, thus its quick removal from the rotunda. One visitor in 1844 wrote, “It is a ridiculous affair, and instead of demanding admiration, excites only laughter.” Another described the statue as “that marble absurdity.”

In defense of Greenough, his task of creating a national tribute to the Hero of the Revolution would be a daunting one for any artist. He took his inspiration from one of the most highly acclaimed statues of all time, Zeus at Olympia, depicting the immortal god on a throne in ancient Greece, which also happens to be the birthplace of democracy. Greenough places Washington in a similar style — seated and wearing ancient Greek garb — with one hand pointed to the heavens and the other resigning his sword, symbolizing the handing over of the government to the people after the American Revolution. Flanking his seat are depictions of Native Americans and Christopher Columbus, placing Washington between the old and new world. So while Americans may not want to see the great George Washington half-clothed and wearing sandals, Greenough’s depiction of Washington as the epitome of a citizen leader is not one to be undervalued.

Crowds attending Rutherford B. Hayes' 1877 inauguration surround Greenough's Washington on the grounds of the Capitol. (Library of Congress)

What do you think of Greenough’s Washington? Do you find it absurd, funny, offensive, or inspiring?

Works Consulted:
National Museum of American History fact sheet
How Stuff Works on the Wonders of the Ancient World
Colonial Williamsburg publication: CW Journal
Savage, Kirk. Monument Wars: Washington, D.C. the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. University of California Press: 2005.

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