Greenough's Washington.

Horatio Greenough (1805-1852) was a prominent sculptor of the early American republic chiefly known for his critically-damned statue of George Washington (1833-1841) which currently resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (see URLs below).

Greenough, like many aspiring artists of his day, felt the lure of classical models and spent time in Rome in the late 1820s. In 1832 he was commissioned by Congress to create a statue of Washington for the US Capitol Rotunda. He dug deeply into the classics to find a model suitably grand for the revered first president. Almost from the moment of his death (in 1799) legends had been accreting around Washington, not least because of parson Mason Locke Weems' hagiographic biography of 1800. Weems' influence, through his wholesale fictions like the cherry tree incident, cannot be overestimated.

He found a model in the description of Phidias' great chryselephantine statue of Zeus from Olympia (see URL below); the king of the gods was shown enthroned, with his left arm raised and holding a scepter, and the other holding an orb with a winged victory upon it. It showed Zeus semi-draped in typical fashion (though there are important exceptions, full nudity was more associated with heroes and demigods). The statue, which was taken to Constantinople in the late Roman period, eventually perished in a fire, but we have artist's representations of the statue on coins and pots. This was quite possibly the single most famous statue in ancient Greece, and it was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Phidias' Zeus was a fitting model by many standards. Zeus, king of the gods, matched Washington, first man of the young republic. By 1832 most of the founders were dead and they seemed like a pantheon clustered around the central figure of Washington. Phidias' statue dominated the temple to Zeus at Olympia, while Greenough's Washington was to give that president a signal honor in the rotunda of the capitol, a temple to democracy modelled consciously on Rome's astonishing and impressive Pantheon, another temple with a vast rotunda.

Indeed, everything about the Capitol in Washington, D.C. evokes classical precedents, and again, from this point of view, it was fitting that Washington should be modelled upon the greatest statue of antiquity. It should also be noted that Greek antiquity, in particular, was in vogue (Greek democracy - new American republic), and 1840 is about the high water mark of the so-called Greek Revival style of US architecture.

Despite all of this, the statue was a flop. Greenough's Washington is enthroned, like Zeus, though he raises his right hand. Rather than holding a royal (divine) scepter (problematic in a republic), Washington confidently extends his index finger to point heavenward as an affirmation of God and the source of his virtues. Period documents reveal that his nudity (even though draped) was shocking, however. Partly, I suppose, that is because of the dissonance between nudity in a sculpture and taboos against it in Greenough's time. (Think of the fig leaves attached in an earlier era to (or painted on) the groins of male nudes.)

Nudity brings a lot of baggage along with it in art which has little to do with sexual mores. Granted there are areas of life where near nudity (or even frank eroticism) doesn't excite much comment from anyone but conservatives; I am not conservative in this area but can remember my own shock at seeing Greenough's statue for the first time. Washington just seems wrong in anything but 18th century male costume. Greenough exposes too much to our view.

The very idea of Washington as a god (and this is the implication of his draped nudity) is disquieting and upsets democratic principles. Greenough's Washington can hardly be anything but stern (people who dress like that really can't be expected to smile, can they?)--the effect is detached and otherworldly. If you remember the movie Amadeus, you'll recall that Mozart argues against classicizing models for opera because you'd think stuffy classical characters "shit marble." The way classical nudity offends not only morality, perhaps, but more importantly democratic ideals is suggested (in a Roman context) by Paul Zanker in his Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (38-39). (There is also the ridiculousness of Washington depicted with a Schwarzeneggerian build. No way!)

The failed statue was quickly moved outside to the Capitol grounds, and much later to the Smithsonian, where it lives today.

URLs for images referenced.

Washington again:


Andronicos, Manoulis. Olympia. The Archeological Site and the Museum. 1990.
Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (translated by Alan Shapiro). 1990.