Jean-Antoine Houdon vs. Horatio Greenough: George Washington

Throughout history, artists often sculpt the statue of significant historical figures, such as leaders, generals, heroes, etc. One such example is George Washington, the first president of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army during America’s Revolutionary War. There are two particular George Washington statues that I want to talk about. They are very different aesthetically, although both statues were rendered in the Neoclassical style. One statue is by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), and the other is American artist by Horatio Greenough (1805-1852).

After the Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century, Neoclassicism became the preferred style of art for the new American republic because this style embodied all the Classical and Enlightenment ideals that America stood by. So, the eighteenth-century Neoclassic sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon was when the Virginia legislature wanted to commission a life-size statue of one of their most famous and most significant natives, George Washington.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1791-1792

Although Washington is dressed in contemporary attire, Houdon deliberately included several references to the Roman Republic. The “column” that Washington leans on is actually what is known as a fasces, made up of a bundle of thirteen rods with an attached axe. The fasces was an ancient Roman symbol of authority. The fasces is made up of thirteen rods, representing each of the original thirteen states in America. There is also a plow behind Washington, an allusion to a Roman patrician, Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was elected a dictator during a period of war in the Roman Republic and when the war was over, he chose to resign and return to his farm life. Washington also wears a badge of the Society of Cincinnati, a group founded for officers in America’s revolutionary army who resumed and returned to their peacetime roles, right below the bottom of his waistcoat.

The other sculpture of Washington is that by Horatio Greenough.

Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1840

Although the two renditions of Washington look drastically different, both are done in the Neoclassical style. After Washington’s death, his contributions and significance to his country led him to acquire an almost god-like stature. In 1840, the United States Congress commission American sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a statue of “the father of the country.” Greenough used Houdon’s Washington as a model for his statue’s face, but that is where the similarities end. Greenough depicts Washington, with a bare chest in ancient Greek attire. His version of Washington is reminiscent of the lost statue of Zeus made by Phidias for the temple at Olympia in ancient Greece.*

The public did not respond positively to Greenough’s enthroned Washington. Not even Congress liked it. In fact, one congressman even suggested that the statue be thrown in the Potomac River! Although the statue was never thrown in the river (thankfully! …or unfortunately, depending on how you see it…!), it was also never place in its intended spot under the Capitol dome.

Between these two versions, I prefer Houdon’s more traditional sculpture. Although I commend Greenough for his creativity and originality, I personally could never picture a president in this kind of attire! I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously and I can understand Congress’ disapproval of it. Although both sculptures are skillfully rendered, I much prefer the more traditional, more serious, and more valiant version of America’s leader.

* Notice the resemblance between Greenough’s sculpture of Washington and the lost sculpture of Zeus…(this sculpture is taken from the Disney movie Hercules)

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