George Washington Statue by Hubard After Houdon

Hubard statue of George Washington
The 19th-century plaster statue of George Washington by William James Hubard, now in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, recently underwent conservation.

 

This life-size cast plaster statue of George Washington once stood in the Hall of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol.  It is an exact replica of the marble statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon that resides in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, a building designed by Thomas Jefferson.  Crafted by the artist William James Hubard, the plaster statue has had a long and tumultuous life.

In 1786, three years after Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to return to private life, the Virginia General Assembly resolved to honor him with a “monument of affection and gratitude” by commissioning a statue of the “finest marble and best workmanship” to be exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda.  American ambassador to Paris, Thomas Jefferson, recommended Houdon, a French neoclassical sculptor, and Houdon insisted upon traveling to Virginia to study George Washington for the statue.

At Mount Vernon, Houdon executed wet clay life models and a plaster life mask.  These served as models for the statue, created between 1786 and 1795.  Houdon portrayed Washington as a modern Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who left his land to fight for his country and, after victory as a general, returned to his farm as a man of simplicity and peace.  He wears his military uniform but carries a civilian walking stick.  This statue was considered by contemporaries to be the best living likeness of George Washington.

In 1853 the Virginia General Assembly approved a request from sculptor William James Hubard to make castings of Houdon’s statue.  Hubard was a British-born artist who began his career as a silhouette portrait cutter and later worked in Boston and New York as a portrait painter.  By mid-century he was operating a foundry in Richmond, Virginia.  Hubard took castings directly from Houdon’s masterpiece and then made a mold from these castings.  Holding the exclusive right to make copies over a term of seven years, the artist created bronze and plaster statues from this mold.  The end result was a faithful copy of Houdon’s work and a remarkable life portrait of Washington in uniform.

Six of Hubard’s bronze copies are known today, but this may be the only surviving plaster rendition.  This plaster copy was manufactured in Hubard’s Richmond studio between 1856 and1860.  The U.S. government ordered a copy in 1860, but the Civil War broke out before it could be delivered.  The statue remained in Hubard’s possession, even after the artist converted his studio from statue casting to ammunition manufacturing.   In 1862 Hubard died in an accident while serving in the war, but his widow finally sold the statue for $2,000 to the U.S. government in 1870.

Hubard’s statue stood in the Hall of Representatives for 80 years, gradually suffering the ravages of time, including losses to its base and sword hilt.  In 1950 the Architect of the U.S. Capitol transferred it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was stored for more than a half century.  In 2007 it was rescued by the intervention of the Library of Virginia and was later given to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which has had the piece conserved and will prominently display it in the new museum replacing the Yorktown Victory Center.

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