Our First President, in Three Dimensions ….
In the fall of 1785, the great French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) crossed the Atlantic to take a likeness, along with the necessary measurements, for a life-size marble statue of George Washington commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, the American minister in Paris, had recommended Houdon to Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison. The Frenchman’s real ambition, however, was to make an equestrian statue of the hero of the American Revolution. This would allow him to vie with Étienne-Maurice Falconet, sculptor of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg (1782), for immortal fame.
During a two-week stay at Mount Vernon, Houdon modeled a bust of Washington and made a life-mask. He and his three assistants returned to Paris with the mask (now in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York) as well as molds of the bust, which remained at Mount Vernon.
Houdon’s equestrian ambition went unfulfilled. But his statue of Washington, which was installed in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Richmond in 1796, is a masterpiece of monumental sculpture, richly complemented by the Mount Vernon bust. The various Houdon portrait busts of Washington, not to mention the head on the statue, all derive from this bust and the life-mask.
In its subtle yet powerful characterization of Washington, the clay bust presents us with an unsurpassed likeness. (The bust is unusually fragile because it was fired at too low a temperature. In spite of a major restoration in 1998-99, minor damage remains evident.) Cut off inside the shoulders, with Washington unclothed, the bust exhibits an unperturbed continuity in its gently curvilinear, undulating, and largely unwrinkled topography. In line with Houdon’s mastery of anatomy, subcutaneous structure is emphasized, as with the forehead’s somewhat more faceted, angular planes, which express the bony skull beneath. Supple folds behind the chin and around the Adam’s apple reflect the displacement of flesh by the turn of Washington’s head to the side and slightly upward.
Unlike the brilliance of the modeling, the import of Washington’s gaze doesn’t register immediately. Washington is taking something in, but this is no moment of sublime philosophical apprehension, as with Houdon’s superb clay Louvre bust of Denis Diderot (1771). Rather, Washington’s raised right eyebrow, flared nostrils and unsmiling lips lead the viewer to the realization that he is quietly fuming in indignation. But he has his temper on a leash, which is why the bust’s distinctive topography is undistorted by anger. It’s been noted that Houdon portrayed Washington as a man locked in unending struggle with his passions. The technique the sculptor employed to make that characterization resonate is truly exemplary, and comparison of the Mount Vernon bust with the Morgan’s expressionless life-mask amply confirms the depth of his artistry.
As befits its setting and purpose, the Richmond statue offers a more public and distant Washington, with the elegant pose and sober facial expression emphasizing dignity and gravitas rather than personal psychology. The statue is raised on a pedestal bearing a lengthy inscription by James Madison. The figure is not massive; the Washington we have before us is in fact rather slender, his modest paunch notwithstanding. In completely dominating the rotunda at whose center he stands, however, he seems larger than life. It is the inspiring sense of monumental scale the statue conveys that, as much as anything, defines it as a masterpiece.
Washington is shown standing, weight on his straight right leg, his left leg extended forward and cocked at the knee. He is garbed in his “boots and regimentals.” His gloved right hand clasps the tasseled walking stick at his side. His left rests on a cloak which is itself slung over a cylindrical shaft bound with 13 Roman fasces, or rods, symbolizing the republican liberty of the 13 original United States. The fasces rest on a horizontal plowshare, which links Washington to the Roman hero Cincinnatus, who returned to his farm after saving the Republic.
The artifical pose rotates the figure of Washington on its vertical axis. This compositional technique, employed by both ancient and modern Classicists, helps account for the statue’s monumental effect. Washington’s head and forward leg are turned to his left, the torso faces straight out, and the foot of the weightbearing leg angles to his right. This axial rotation makes the pose read as both static and dynamic. It also leads the viewer to walk around the statue instead of just standing in front of it. The figure’s torsion and its slenderness are deftly reiterated by the border of Washington’s open coat, which guides the eye from the back of his legs, up his right side, along his chest, and around the back of his neck. The statue is thus endowed with the expansive, spatially active presence that allows it to dominate rather than be diminished by its environment.
Houdon was also heir to the classical tradition of highly specific, articulated form. Accordingly, Washington’s clothing and also his hair, apart from the area where it is gathered into an elegantly beribboned pigtail, function like an organic membrane beneath which the informing body is readily legible. Knuckles and kneecaps are clearly defined beneath gloves and breeches. In short, the man wears his boots and regimentals, they don’t wear him.
In both bust and statue, then, Houdon marshaled his mastery of form and composition, realism and artifice in bringing Washington into incomparably vivid focus, an achievement worth celebrating on the eve of Presidents’ Day.
—Mr. Leigh writes about public art and architecture for the Journal.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal
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