George Washington Wearing a Toga?

George Washing Sculpture

Horotio Greenough’s statue of George Washington on the Capitol grounds (photographer and date unknown) is from the American Sculpture Photograph Study Collection, Photograph Archives (S0001154).

July 29, 2010

Before construction began in 1848 on the world's tallest stone structure, the Washington Monument, commemorating our first president, Horatio Greenough had already created the first Washington monument on the National Mall honoring him. The statue was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1841 and moved several times after that. In 1963 the statue was moved to its current location in the National Museum of American History (on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum).

Recently American Art awarded the 2010 Charles C. Eldredge Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Art to Kirk Savage for his 2009 book Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape. Savage writes: "Greenough's soon-to-be-infamous statue of a semi-nude Washington, seated rigidly on a huge throne in the posture of Jupiter, has gone down in the annals of American art history as the most reviled public statue ever erected."

Savage explains that allegorical depictions were not as popular in the United States as in Europe. He adds, “Although the works had some eloquent defenders, more often than not they became the butt of deliberate misreadings: Washington with his loincloth slipping down was waiting for his clothes. . . ” Although made fun of, the statue at the time bore testament to the struggling ideals of the nation when it was seeking to define its place in history and its vision for the future.

In the July 4th issue of the Washington Post ("What would you do to change America's front yard?"), four Washington leaders share their vision of the future of the National Mall. James P. Clark, chairman of the steering committee for the National Ideas Competition of the Washington Monument, comments: "The Washington Monument continues to be . . . the centerpiece of the nation's most symbolic open space. . . No matter what, this significant space and what it can teach us cannot be forgotten."

What does the future hold for the National Mall? To understand a little of its past, be sure to see Greenough's Washington monument in the National Museum of American History and also that better-known Washington Monument on the National Mall.


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