Houdon’s Washington: Sublime artistry

Houdon's Washington

The most valuable piece of marble in the United States is said to rest in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va.

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington, completed in the early 1790s, is insured for $50 million.

Carved from Carrara marble, it depicts a life-sized Washington. Standing 6-foot-2-1/2 inches, Washington’s right hand is on a cane while his left arm rests on a fasces, on which is slung his cape and sword. At Washington’s back is a plow.

He is shown wearing his military uniform; Washington wished to be depicted in contemporary attire, rather than that of antiquity popular in Neo-classical sculpture.

Chief Justice John Marshall, a contemporary of Washington, said of Houdon’s work, “Nothing in bronze or stone could be a more perfect image than this statue of the living Washington.”

The statue is so realistic that Washington’s uniform is shown missing a button toward the bottom of his waistcoat, just as his real-life uniform appeared at the time.

“Houdon’s statue alludes to the similarities between Washington and the ancient Roman General Cincinnatus who, when Rome no longer needed him, gave up his military power and returned to the simple life of a farmer,” according to the website of Virginia General Assembly. “The artist carefully balanced the military and civilian elements of Washington’s career: his sword is by his side, and he rests his left hand on a fasces (a bundle of rods, which was a Roman symbol of power), but he carries a civilian walking cane and stands next to a plow.

“Washington wears his Revolutionary uniform, but his head is uncovered and his facial expression is fatherly,” the site continued. “Houdon’s monument to America’s foremost hero recalls Washington’s life as a soldier, statesman, and virtuous private citizen.”

Copy of Houdon's statue of Washington, done in bronze, showing walking cane broken off by Union troops in 1865.

Copy of Houdon’s statue of Washington, done in bronze, showing walking cane broken off by Union troops in 1865.

The statue came about shortly after the end of the American Revolution. In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly commissioned a statue of Washington, its most famous native son.

Responsibility for selecting an artist fell to Thomas Jefferson, then-ambassador to France, who together with Benjamin Franklin recommended that Houdon, the most famous sculptor of the day, execute the work.

Houdon agreed to travel to the United States to work directly with Washington.

In October 1785, Houdon, along with three assistants, stayed at Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon, taking detailed measurements of Washington’s arms, legs, hands and chest and making a life mask of his face, according to the 1911 work Memoirs of the life and works of Jean Antoine Houdon: the sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington.

Houdon, who would create his masterpiece in his native land, was back in France by year-end.

The 18-ton work was completed in the early 1790s, even though it is inscribed with the date 1788. It was delivered to Richmond in 1796 and placed in the rotunda on May 14, 1796.

It was viewed by many of Washington’s contemporaries, all of whom attested that it was a perfect likeness, according to the website of Virginia General Assembly.

The statue is the only one that Washington ever agreed to sit for, but it was with initial reluctance.

He wrote a friend in 1785, “At first I was as impatient at the request and as restive under the operation, as a colt is of the saddle. The next time I submitted very reluctantly but with less flouncing. Now, no dray horse moves more readily to the shills than I to the painter’s chair.”

During the 1850s, the Virginia General Assembly authorized the casting of 11 bronze copies of the monument. Six bronzes were produced by the foundry of Richmond artist William James Hubard.

One of these sits in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. It was installed in 1858 and was battered by Union troops when they ravaged Columbia in 1865 at the end of the War Between the States.

Among other indignities, Yankee soldiers took brickbats to the statue and knocked off the lower part Washington’s walking cane.

It remains disfigured today, yet still retains the evident beauty of Houdon’s sublime skills as a magnificent artist.

6 thoughts on “Houdon’s Washington: Sublime artistry

  1. Another interesting post, Cotton. A few years ago I went to the opening session at a Teaching American History Grant convention in which the main speaker was a teacher who taught a high school history class about statues. He had his students study the artists, the materials, and all the history that surrounded the making of the statues. In addition they researched why the towns decided on the people they chose the subjects of their statues. They also included details, like you did, about the props included with the historic figure, and why the artist chose them. Even the facial expression had meaning in your explanation. Your article would be the perfect example of what his students were supposed to discover about each statue. His speech has made me much more aware of statues. Thanks for this great article! 🙂

  2. So beautiful. I would need to have tissues ready. I can’t read anything about Washington without enduring a great big lump in my throat. Thanks for another enjoyable post, Cotton.

    • Much obliged, Onoir. Washington was a great president and even greater man. Anyone who, when offered the chance to be king, as Washington was at the end of the Revolutionary War, and instead walks away to return to his farm, is a remarkable individual.

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