The Strange Saga of America’s Most Reviled Statue, Nude George Washington
It’s a story with a dismembered Harvard professor, catty congressmen, and a bit of madness. It was meant to herald the future of American art—instead it was an embarrassing flop.
Have you ever imagined what George Washington looked like with his shirt off?
Neither had I. And neither, it turns out, had prudish 19th-century Americans. But on July 31, 1841, a ship from Livorno, Italy, unloaded the highly anticipated monumental statue of the Founding Father that was to be the centerpiece in the Rotunda of the Capitol—and he was half-naked.
The tale of America’s first major national monument to Washington is astonishing—and largely forgotten. Also forgotten is its artist, Horatio Greenough, who, depending on how you define it, was America’s first professional sculptor. Just two years after being dragged up into the Capitol, the 12-ton, 10-foot-tall statue was dragged back out and plopped down outside. Over the years, wind, snow, and rain took their toll until it was moved into the Smithsonian Castle. Today, it humbly presides in the recently reopened American History Museum.
When you finally see it yourself, it induces a giggle. It’s George Washington as Zeus, sitting on a throne half-naked with his drapery looking more like a towel and pointing pompously to the heavens. In the 19th century, it mostly elicited gasps. After a while, nobody cared to react at all.
But the statue’s tale is a terrific window into the period from the turn of the century until the Civil War, as America the weak, new nation scrambled to form a coherent identity. This era in American history is not as glamorous or well-known as the big wars, Gilded Age, or later cultural battles. But it’s the era that set the course for everything to come. And Greenough and his work were at the center of this raging battle about a nascent nation—so much so that Andrew Jackson got involved with the design approval.
It’s also a fun, if tragic, tale. One of a man with a remarkable vision for the arts in America and of functionalist architecture, but who was stymied in his vision for his own work. Of a man who broke free of the constraints of conservative Boston society, but whose art's place in the public sphere was doomed because of his failure to break free of his racist views. Greenough was one of the most biting and clear wits of his time, yet suffered multiple mental breakdowns—the last of which led to his death. He was a man around whom the current of American history eddied just a little, and yet because the stream rushes forgetfully on, it’s hard to see how much he changed it.
In the summer of 1825, the tall, handsome, 19-year-old Horatio Greenough was on his first trip to Europe—and sobbing behind a pile of garbage in a palace courtyard.
The ebullient and cocky recent Harvard grad had been traversing the artistic riches of Marseilles and Genoa for weeks—del Sarto, Bernini, Rembrandt, Murillo, and Van Dyck. But the artist-to-be was brought to tears by a statue of little renown in a Genoese church. It was the most beautiful he’d ever seen, but nobody seemed to give it even a second glance. Surrounded as it was by numerous other statues from talented sculptors, why should they? Such “perfection” was quotidian over here, Greenough realized, and suddenly, the historian Henry T. Tuckerman recounts, “the distance between himself and [fame] widened” and he broke down.
Up until that point, Greenough had every reason to think he had it all figured out.
Born into a relatively prominent Boston real-estate family on Sept. 6, 1805, Greenough was the fourth of nine children (a number of whom also pursued creative careers). While provided with a classical education, his interest in sculpture was stimulated by a copy of the Vatican’s statue of Phocion that his father kept in the garden. The young boy apparently couldn’t be stopped—carving knives, casting pistols, building carriages of beeswax, and making copies in chalk of statues he saw. At about 12 or 13, a family friend saw his chalk copy of French sculptor J.B. Binon’s bust of John Adams and was so impressed he whisked him off to the Boston Athenaeum to meet its head, William S. Shaw.
Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum is one of the oldest libraries in the U.S. and had a large collection of statuary, including copies of the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, and the Venus de’ Medici. In terms of access to art in the U.S. at the time, it was a veritable gold mine. (For some perspective on the state of things, at the most prominent art museum of the time, the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the elderly founder Charles Wilson Peale himself would sometimes have to pose nude for students due to a lack of models.)
His good looks endeared him to many, and Greenough suddenly had access to Boston’s cultural elite. He fell under the tutelage of Solomon Willard (Bunker Hill Monument), stone-carver Alpheus Carey, and Binon himself. Binon should have been a warning to the possible fate that awaited Greenough and other young artists in the uptight artistic wasteland of America—frustrated, he ended up turning his plaster into fertilizer and selling it before leaving Boston.
Most importantly, Greenough cultivated a friendship with the painter Washington Allston, who was not only the most prominent landscape painter at the time, but also connected politically. From Allston, writes Nathalia Wright in her seminal biography of the artist, Horatio Greenough: The First American Sculptor, he learned “that the greatest art was more an expression of the mind than an imitation of the forms of nature, and that the masterpieces of the past were the best teachers of art.”
Greenough’s father, however, wanted a formal education and so off to Harvard Horatio went. It wasn’t a total waste, as he befriended the famed Dr. George Parkman while there, who lent him anatomical books and skeletons, and subsequently funded Greenough’s studies in Europe. (Years later, Parkman was the victim in one of the most sensational murder mysteries in early American history. Owed money by a fellow lecturer, Parkman went to collect. The professor freaked out and killed him, dismembering Parkman and attempting to burn the body. It was later found by the janitor and identified by the dentures—an early use of forensics.)
When Greenough was 19 he got his first taste of thwarted glory—the Bunker Hill Monument. An association created to build it held a competition for a 220-foot column in honor of the battle (despite earlier awarding Greenough’s mentor Solomon Willard the project). Horatio was one of a number who tossed aside the column idea and instead put forth a plan for a 100-foot obelisk with proportions akin to the famed one at Thebes, a 20-foot plinth, and an internal spiral staircase.
In explaining his disregard for their guidelines, he gave a taste of what would later become his greatest legacy—architectural theory. The obelisk is, he wrote to the judges (Gilbert Stuart and Daniel Webster among their number), “the most purely monumental form of structure. The column grand and beautiful as it is in its place… considered as a monument seems liable to unanswerable objections. It steps forth from that body of which it has been made a harmonious part to take a situation which of all others requires unity of form.” That is, a column is great when part of something, but standing by itself it looks stupid.
Stuart and the other judges picked the teen’s submission as the winner (over another obelisk proposal by none other than Robert Mills, who would later design the Washington Monument). For some reason the association decided not to go with Greenough and instead handed the project back to Solomon Willard, but kept Greenough’s obelisk idea.
And while he had biting words for Willard’s work (removing his plinth “made the shaft start sheer from the dirt like a spear of asparagus” and the angle chosen for the point gave it a “broken-chimney-like effect”), Greenough didn’t fight the loss. You see, he had already departed—before graduation—for Italy to become the first professional American sculptor trained by masters in Europe.
Despite being just a teenager and having created no works of significance, Greenough sailed full of ambition and dreams. And there was one very good reason why he had a chance to succeed—the state of sculpture in America in 1825.
“It is difficult to realize,” intones Lorado Taft in his magisterial yet biting 1903 classic, The History of American Sculpture, “that our actual achievement from the very kindergarten stage of an unknown art to the proud position held by American sculpture in the Paris Exposition of 1900 has been the work of threescore years and ten—has been seen in its entirety by not a few men now living.” Augustus Saint-Gaudens had just won the Grand Prix for sculpture, but just a few decades before, there’d been no American professional sculptors at all.
Sure, there had been immensely talented wood-carvers like William Rush of Philadelphia (whose ship figureheads were apparently masterpieces) and stone-cutters. But perhaps the most famous sculptor of 18th-century America didn’t sculpt in stone at all.
Patience Wright was born in 1725 to a wealthy Quaker family and became famous in 1769 when her husband died (leaving her with children to support) and she found financial success making wax models. Yes, decades before Madame Tussauds, Wright became renowned for her true-to-life wax heads and hands as well as models of famous people. In 1772 she moved to London, where the British press referred to her as the “Promethean modeller” and claimed “had a liberal and extensive education been added to her intimate qualities, she would have been a prodigy.” One of her works, a portrait of Lord Chatham, was put in Westminster Abbey. Due to her success at court, she also was allegedly a source of military intelligence for the American Revolution (though to what degree is debated). She was popular at court until apparently in an audience with George III she scolded him over his actions in the war.
However, when she died she left behind no real artistic legacy to be continued. And, yes, around the time of Greenough there were the self-taught wonders of Hezekiah Augur in New Haven and John Frazee in New York. Frazee completed the first bust by an American in marble in 1824 or 1825. (Frazee was famously on the receiving end of painter John Trumbull’s barb that sculpture would not be wanted in America for another 100 years.) But neither really pursued monumental works or groups and had other work that was their focus. Unfortunately some of the most talented carvers and cutters were likely low-wage laborers or enslaved people (see the incredible story of Philip Reed, who was enslaved by sculptor Clark Mills and saved the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome.)
Instead, the major works done in the States had been done by Europeans. The most notable work was probably by the French sculptor Houdon, who actually came stateside, and the Italian master Canova, who both made a statue of Washington. Plus, the newly minted post-War of 1812 Capitol building was being decorated with sculptures by Italian disciples of Canova.
For whatever reason—Taft, for one, blames a lack of interest on the part of the British in sculpture, which was passed to the colonists, who were of a religious bent that often saw art as the work of the devil—sculpture wasn’t seen as something of widespread importance in America.
Greenough thought he would change that. He thought he would play a role for sculpture that Benjamin West had for American painting (who, it was spuriously reported, shocked society when he declared, upon seeing the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican, “how like a Mohawk warrior he seems”). Horatio was the first American to devote his life professionally to sculpture, and had to go to Europe to accomplish that.
“I came abroad to make myself known and respected in my country,” he declared.
Surrounded by Gilded Age palaces-turned-embassies, the vice president’s residence is rarely on tourists’ to-do list when visiting D.C.—in large part because you can’t see it from the street. But if Benjamin Latrobe (architect of the Capitol and parts of the White House) and the Federalists had had their way, standing in that spot today would have been a 150-foot-tall pyramid mausoleum—with the remains of George Washington inside.
For a variety of reasons detailed in Kirk Savage’s fantastic Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, the mausoleum never went anywhere. (Fascinatingly enough, the issue of whether Washington was buried in the federal capital or on his plantation in his home state became a proxy for pro- and anti-slavery forces.) When the family refused to have his remains moved, Congress decided on the next best thing for their somewhat deified leader—a monumental statue in the center of the Rotunda.
For nearly three decades, however, nobody could reach an agreement. Finally, in 1832, the centennial of Washington’s birth, politicians were sufficiently embarrassed that there was still no national monument to the U.S. founder that on February 14, the House passed a resolution, “that the President of the United States be authorized to employ Horatio Greenough… to execute, in marble, a full-length pedestrian statue of Washington, to be placed in the centre of the rotundo of the Capitol; the head to be a copy of Houdon’s Washington.”
This was it! Just 26 years old and Greenough now had his shot to not only achieve fame, but also convince Americans of the value in having sculptures made by their countrymen.
“What an opportunity for an artist,” wrote painter Thomas Cole to Samuel F.B. Morse, “to immortalize himself to make the statue of the greatest man to be placed in the most conspicuous situation in the country or where it will be gazed upon by thousands unborn.”
The journey had not been an easy one for Greenough. When Horatio first went to Italy, he studied in Rome under one of the two greatest sculptors alive, Bertel Thorvaldsen. His roommate was Robert Weir (later mentor to Whistler) and they took Rome by storm. They spent all day modeling and learning and by night, after hanging at Caffe Greco, they would walk the Roman ruins in moonlight. But, just two years in, Greenough lost his marbles so to speak and was nearly institutionalized. His time in Europe was cut short and he packed his bags for America.
Back home, it was a whirlwind of hustling, both networking in the art world (mainly through Allston, Peale, and Morse) and attempting to get a breakthrough by bust-work of public figures. He got it in his bust of John Quincy Adams, and he found his first patron in Robert Gilmore of Baltimore. A year later, he was back in Italy, but this time he set up shop in Florence, becoming in many respects the founder of the American colony there. He wanted to be closer to Carrara for quality control; he even learned to stone cut himself, which was unusual.
While in Florence, Greenough built up a solid reputation in the West. He became the first American to sculpt a group work (his Chanting Cherubs for James Fenimore Cooper, who became another patron and close friend) and got the stamp of approval from the other giant of sculpture, Bartolini. He modeled Lafayette for a bust, palled around with Ingres, and his workshop was visited by luminaries like the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a variety of European nobility, and prominent Americans like Rembrandt Peale (who wrote that in order to keep his clay model from drying up overnight, Greenough would “take a mouthful of water, and eject it by a peculiar practice, in a fine shower or spray over his work”). He took American artists under his wing, most notably his eventual usurper, Hiram Powers. Greenough also completed what I think is his finest work, the Medora (a reclining woman), for Gilmore.
He also started to live large, marrying Louisa Gore (for her money and her silence, family later said) and living in ritzy addresses like the Palazzo Pucci. His mouth also got large, too.
Dinging naturalism, Greenough declared, “I love reality dearly, and when I want to enjoy it I go into the marketplace, the church, the wharf.” His Medora would “attempt to interest and charm the eye and mind with a female form without appealing to the baser passions, what has not been done in Italy for many years.” Or, he snorted, the French were “not a people of genius in art… [but] slaves of fashion” and Paris filled with “clever men employed in twiddle-twaddle.” Jacques-Louis David’s figures were “nauseous” and Canova “a most barefaced misrepresenter of Nature” who would “fall very low very shortly.”
“No man since Canova has undertaken more,” he breathlessly claimed about himself. Most notably, he wrote to Allston, declaring, “I would fain to be one of the small band of American ‘Old Masters.’”
If Greenough was a bit bitter while at the height of his career, it’s because the very thing that provided him opportunity (dearth of sculpture in America) also was his biggest challenge. When he completed his cherubs for Cooper—no small task evidently, as how Italians swaddled their babies affected their limbs, thus finding infant models in Italy was difficult—the group was supposed to go on a multi-city tour in the U.S. (which would be a way for both patron and artist to make money). While critics and artists loved them, the public wasn’t always enthusiastic.
They started in Boston, despite Cooper warning him he’d “be covered with twaddling criticism in Boston, which is no better… than a gossiping country town though it has so many clever people.” And Cooper proved right. Crowds were unhappy that given the name, the cherubs didn’t actually sing. Others covered their nudity with an apron. The same thing happened in New York, and so the tour ended there (the statue today is missing).
“If we wish to compete as artisans with the manufacturers of Europe, we must get taste,” Horatio harrumphed.
So given that Americans had trouble with naked babies—why on earth did Greenough sculpt their idol and founder half nude?!
It’s not like he hadn’t been warned.
Cooper told him to make the monument “as servant and simple as possible” because that’s how Americans saw Washington and to “aim rather at the natural than the classical; this can always preserve the dignity of the man and his stature.”
Sen. Edward Everett told him “a figure as naked as your Washington appears to our people just as an Apollo would be to the Ancient Grecians if draped in Persian pantaloons” and that Jefferson had said Washington preferred contemporary dress in statues of him. When he saw the design, Andrew Jackson’s go-between, Congressman Leonard Jarvis, flipped out, writing, “It is not our Washington that he has represented… As a work of art the design is worthy of praise… But I object to the absence of drapery on the upper part of the figure.” Sen. John P. King objected to the dress and the sword, saying instead Washington’s hand should be on the Constitution and “that the artist be given a suit of Washington’s clothes from which to model the costume.” Jackson asked for changes, but none of that reached Greenough.
Horatio apparently did have some misgivings. He suggested, to no avail, that a plaster model be put in the rotunda for a year to see how the public reacted. When the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and the Duke of Parma visited his studio (with an American engraver) and found the statue “weak in conception... theatrical in its upraised arm and pointed finger,” Horatio responded that they might be right, “but it is too late to alter it.”
And so this 10-foot, half-nude, Zeus-like statue of a seated George Washington left his studio, pulled by 11 yoke of cattle and 15 men to Livorno, knocking down trees along the way and drawing crowds who thought it was a statue of a saint. From Livorno, it would sail to Washington.
“Did anybody ever see Washington nude?” breathlessly asked Nathaniel Hawthorne in his French and Italian Notebooks. “It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.” The pearl-clutching writer was visiting the studio of Greenough’s frenemy, Hiram Powers, who had expressed frustration about having to clothe his statue of George Washington. (Powers used nudity to make a statement and would become world-famous for his nude Greek Slave statue. Later, when Henry James reviewed Hawthorne’s travel writing, he snarked that The Scarlet Letter author’s prudery was a sign of his lack of taste.)
The idea of Washington semi-nude proved too much for the American public as well. Four months after arriving, the statue was unveiled in the Capitol rotunda (on top of a way taller plinth than planned) in front of President John Tyler, and the reaction was almost universally vicious.
Philip Hone, the former mayor of New York, declared it looked “like Venus of the bath, a grand Martial Magog—undraped, with a huge napkin lying on his lap and covering his lower extremities and he is preparing to perform his ablutions in the act of consigning his sword to the care of the attendant.” Sen. William Preston declared it “the most horrid phantasmagoria I have ever beheld.” A piece in the New York Herald said the statue was a man rising up from the grave “with his winding sheet about him.”
It didn’t help that Washington himself was seen as a prude, with Hone claiming Washington would never have “expose[d] himself” in such a way publicly and Rep. Henry Wise said that no human had ever looked upon the general’s skin (sorry, Martha!) and so to keep the head but throw the rest in the Potomac. Architect Charles Bullfinch summed it up, pointing out it would “only give the idea of entering or leaving a bath.” (The best explanation I read for why Greenough’s statue conceptually was just so wrong is this essay by none other than Garry Wills.) As Savage notes in Monument Wars, it went "down in the annals of American art history as the most reviled public statue ever erected."
Greenough finally arrived to see it for himself in the fall of 1842. Seeing it on the giant pedestal that left much of it in shadow, he “wondered why the public had shewn so much forbearance & had not turned… their sculpture… out of the Hall long ago.” Greenough would mostly blame the lighting and the height of the plinth rather than his actual work for the public reaction.
While his close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson advised him not to, Greenough pushed for the statue to be moved outside where it could get better light.
Congress readily obliged—and moved it out front. But it didn’t get the fancy fence and covering Greenough asked for, and instead was exposed to both the elements and the general public. Horatio immediately regretted his choice. Both conceptually (seated instead of equestrian) and in terms of details (folded robes as opposed to contemporary dress) the statue was vulnerable outdoors. It also looked ridiculous.
Over the next few decades it sat there, declaring, as one critic wrote, “My body is at Mount Vernon, my clothes are in the Patent Office.” (Washington’s clothes were on display there.) In 1908, it was moved into the Smithsonian Castle, a building Greenough hated. In 1963 it was moved again, this time to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where it remains today.
Greenough’s other major work for the Capitol, The Rescue, had a worse fate. Commissioned in 1837 it was to decorate the eastern front of the Capitol and depicted a white settler preventing a Native American from murdering his family. It presided there (seen in numerous Inauguration photos) until 1958 when it was in poor condition and removed, never to be made public again. Why? Well it depicted, in his own words, “the idea of the triumph of the whites over the savage tribes.” Greenough, despite pleas from friends like Cooper and Emerson, could never shed his racism, which doomed his most prominent statue. He was obsessed with depicting the subjugation of Native Americans, and was no better on Black Americans, writing, “I am not partial to negroes. I dislike their neighborhood even in a menial capacity. I prefer doing many tiresome, and very disagreeable things for myself rather than be very near a black man … Black slavery was morally justified at its institution.”
As part of his attempts to defend and promote his work, Greenough became a prolific writer, particularly around nascent attempts to form a truly American art and architecture. Ironically, for a man who aped so much of the Greeks in his own work, he was horrified by the spread of Greek Revival architecture in the U.S.
“Instead of forcing the functions of every sort of building into one general form,” he famously wrote, “adopting an outward shape for the sake of the eye or of association, without reference to the inner distribution, let us begin from the heart as the nucleus, and work outward.” Decades before Louis Sullivan coined “form follows function” (a quote often misattributed to Greenough), Horatio was cogently and forcefully outlining the principles of functionalist architecture. And, argues Nathalia Wright, there was a line between him and Sullivan. Emerson became obsessed with Greenough’s theories, including them in his essays and lectures and may have introduced them to my favorite early American architect Frank Furness (whose brother knew Greenough). Furness was none other than the first employer of Sullivan.
On Dec. 4, 1852, Horatio Greenough was taken to an institution in a straitjacket. He had suffered from a “violent mania” of some sort due to a brain fever. While there, this early giant of American sculpture died.
Frankly, he’d failed in what he set out to do as a teenager sailing to Europe. Yes, the American public clearly was not ready. But Horatio also proved unable to realize the very things he set out to achieve in his work. His major works tell us nothing about the artist, and reflect little about him except his obsession with antiquity. He was not skilled enough to bridge the old world and the tastes of his audience.
But, as Taft haughtily wrote, “The fact that he did is more important than what he did.” And so Greenough’s plaintive plea for his artistic legacy is bittersweet. Writing about his Washington, he asked, “When in future time the true sculptors of America have filled the metropolis with beauty and grandeur, will it not be worth $30,000 to be able to point to the figure and say, ‘There was the first struggle of our infant art’?”