Reception of Greenough’s Statue of George Washington

Posted in the 18th century in the news, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on February 20, 2023

Stereo card view of the crowd at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, on the east front grounds of the U.S. Capitol, surrounding Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington, in 1877 (Brady’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C./Library of Congress). Commissioned in 1832 to mark Washington’s 100th birthday, Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of the first president was installed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1841. Two years later the 12-ton statue was moved outside to the building’s East Plaza, where it stood until 1908, when it was moved to the Smithsonian Institution castle on the National Mall.

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An interesting article from The Washington Post for the wider context of contested public sculpture (here presented for a large, general audience). Unfortunately, it doesn’t address this particular controversy in terms of people’s expectations of how a historic figure (in 1841, still a recent historic figure) should have been represented and thus might reinforce persistent misconceptions of nineteenth-century attitudes toward nudity in art generally. The larger question of monumentalizing the lives of real people could bring the history of Greenough’s work into conversation with the initial reception of Hank Willis Thomas’s recently installed memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, The Embrace, at Boston’s 1965 Freedom Plaza. For the latter, there has, of course, been lots of coverage, but I like this article by Jessica Shearer, “What Do Bostonians Think of the New MLK Monument?,” HyperAllergic (25 January 2023). CH

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Marble statue of Washington seated with raised right arm and bare torso, holding a sheathed sword in his left hand.

Horatio Greenough, President George Washington, completed in 1840, marble (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution).

Ronald G. Shafer, “The First Statue Removed from the Capitol: George Washington in a Toga,” The Washington Post (22 January 2023).

Slowly, some of the U.S. Capitol’s many statues and other artworks honoring enslavers have been slated for removal, most recently a bust of Roger B. Taney, the chief justice who wrote the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision denying Black people citizenship. But the first statue Congress voted to remove from the Capitol was one of George Washington [in 1908]—not because Washington was an enslaver, but because the statue was scandalous. The first president was portrayed naked to the waist in a toga with his right finger pointing toward the sky and his left hand clasping a sheathed sword. . . .

The full article is available here»

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