In seeking to immortalize Washington, most artists have actually dehumanized him. Glance at a Washington portrait and you will see how true this is. Done after Washington acquired his poorly-fitting wooden false teeth, most of them picture a dour man with a letter-box mouth.
No one knows how many people have come to think of Washington as looking like the Gilbert Stuart likeness, but their number must run into the millions. His Lansdowne and Athenaeum portraits stare out at us from books, stamps, tablets, advertisements, even bills. The former work, done for the Marquis of Lansdowne, represents Washington standing by a table, his right hand extended. The latter, purchased for the Boston Athenaeum in 1832, depicts only the head. Stuart copied it so many times when he needed money that he called it his hundred dollar bill. If his copies showed signs of haste, they were not admired any the less. Seeing one in England, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "I am proud to see that noblest face and figure here in England; any English nobleman would look like common beef or clay beside him." Stuart's portrait, Emerson insisted, showed an Allegheny-like calm which contrasted sharply with the hysteria of later politicians. In 1932 the Athenaeum portrait was given over to the assembly line; the Washington Bicentennial Commission set out to place a poster-size reproduction in every American school. Hardly a child could have avoided seeing it several times a day. During the Bicentennial, Stuart's Washington was the official portrait; Congress authorized 750,000 reproductions. For better or worse, it is the one most Americans know.
The French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon devoted much of his long creative life to heroic statues. None had more effect than that of George Washington. Statues of Europeans like Rousseau, Diderot, Moliére, Napoleon, and Lafayette, or of Americans like Franklin, Fulton, Jones and Jefferson may be better as art; but Houdon's Washington has made a more enduring popular impression.
In 1784 the State of Virginia voted to have a Washington statue made. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, then in Europe, selected Houdon to execute it. He traveled to Mount Vernon to study Washington. Like everyone else, he was deeply impressed by the man's qualities. Patiently he watched for the right moment, to catch it in stone; it came one day when Washington, like an aging defiant eagle, scornfully dismissed a horse trader who suggested a dishonorable advantage. Completed in Paris and returned to Virginia in 1796, the statue has an inscription in keeping with the nobility of the work: "Fait par Houdon, citoyen Français, 1788."
Houdon realized that the Washington idolized by the people was a modern Cincinnatus. So he showed him with a civilian's cane in his right hand, a column of thirteen rods under his left hand, and the mold board of a plow under the column. The forthrightness gave it a strength found only in great sculpture. Virginia eventually insured the statue for a million dollars and put an iron fence around it.
As with Stuart's portrait, reproductions help explain the Houdon vogue. A private company and a public committee--the Gorham Manufacturing Company and the Washington Bicentennial Commission--motivated many of them. The former secured permission to make bronze copies, which now appear in museums and cities around the world. Thanks to Gorham enterprise, visitors to London's Trafalgar Square, Chicago's Art Institute, and Tokyo's Embassy Gardens daily encounter Houdon's Washington. Countless reproductions were made during the 1932 celebrations. As one of its schemes, the Bicentennial Commission distributed plaster copies to public schools from coast to coast. Here was a threedimensional Washington to see, admire, and carry away in one's memory. Reproductions in books and on posters defy counting. Small wonder that it is one of the best-known statues of modern times.
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