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Monday, October 31, 2011

Horatio Greenough

The year was 1840.  The place was the center of the center of the adolescent American democracy.  Beneath the Capitol dome in the center of the rotunda in Washington, DC, sat an enormous mass of white marble covered with a large piece of canvas while all around were the legislative movers and shakers of the time, their wives, their children, and their children's children. All were waiting breathlessly for the moment when the shroud would be removed and before them would stand a monumental tribute to the father of their country. It was the first piece of sculpture ever commissioned by the US government and the most expensive piece of art in the whole country. There were speeches praising President Washington, speeches praising what he stood for, speeches praising the sculptor. The moment arrived, a hush fell over the crowd, the cord was cut and the drapery fell gracefully to the floor. There was silence, then a sort of collective gasp, then a quiet murmuring that gradually rose to something approaching a din. There, before hundreds of eyes representing the entire country, was a half-naked statue of a Greek god with some basic resemblance to their beloved first President.

Photo by Mark Pellegrini
George Washington, 1840,
Horation Greenough
Reactions ranged from outright anger to ridicule and laughter. The politicians had been taken for a ride. Some saw it as the biggest art fraud in the history of the world. All they wanted was a simple, dignified, statue of Mr. Washington being...well...Mr. Washington. What they got was more like Zeus. It was probably fortunate that the sculptor, Horatio Greenough, was half a world away in Florence, where he'd been studying for fifteen years and had the good sense to remain for another eight years before returning to this country to face the music. By that time his eleven-foot-tall statue had been laboriously and unceremoniously banished to the Capitol lawn where it sat unprotected from the elements for another fifty years. The thing was not ugly. In fact it was quite noble by classical standards, but to say the least it was very undemocratic and far, far from what the people expected. It wasn't that they didn't try to understand it either. The problem was they had no visual basis for that understanding. Nothing in this country had ever been seen like it.

Ironically, Greenhough's Washington may have
seemed far less out of place ornamenting the nation's
front lawn than under the Capitol dome.
Horatio Greenough was born in 1805 to a prominent Boston family. While at Harvard, he became interested in sculpting and was advised that only in Italy could he hope to learn his craft. Until then, the only sculptures done in the United States were weathervanes, wooden Indians, and figureheads for the lively shipbuilding industry. In 1825 Greenhough set sail for Rome where he studied for a few years, before returning to the U.S. because of illness. In 1828, he returned to Italy, this time to Florence. His first commission came in 1830 from the writer, James Fenimore Cooper for a small grouping known as the Chanting Cherubs (since lost). Greenough should not have been surprised by the reception his Washington received some ten years later, for when his fellow countrymen saw Cooper's marble grouping, they immediately jumped on the fact that the figures were nude. It was the first nude sculpture figures to be seen on these shores. Based upon a painting of two angels by Raphael, Americans were so unfamiliar with its source, they were profoundly shocked by the two naked little musical moppets. Worse than that, it seems they were so in love with gadgetry that they actually expected the marble figures to sing. In reading some headlines recently, it would seem Americans haven't changed all that much.
Surprisingly, Greenhough's Washington wasn't his only sculpture to
grace the U.S. Capitol grounds. His 1850s vintage, The Rescue,
once flanked the Capitol steps. It patronizingly depicted a truly monumental
 Daniel Boone "rescuing" a native American "savage" from his own savagery,
while coincidentally making the wilderness safe for white settlers. By that
time, "Savage" (almost) nudity seems to have become socially acceptable.

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