George Washington – Conserving an American Idol

February 22, 2013, marks the 281st anniversary George Washington’s birth. As an icon of American history, Washington symbolizes many things to many people, and for well over 200 years, he has been represented in paintings, prints, sculpture, decorative objects and other artistic media. 

In 1786, three years after George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the Virginia General Assembly resolved to honor him with a “monument of affection and gratitude” by commissioning a life-size statue of the “finest marble and best workmanship” to be exhibited in the new state Capitol Rotunda in Richmond. 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 and1795. 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.

Washington wears his military uniform but carries a civilian walking stick. Behind him is a farmer’s plowshare, but his left hand rests on a bundle of rods called fasces, a Roman symbol for unity and government authority. In Roman iconography the fasces rods surrounded an ax, but Houdon adapted this for American usage by forming the bundle from 13 rods, representing the 13 unified states, and adding arrows in between that likely refer to American Indians or the idea of America as a frontier.  Colonial leaders looked back to ancient Rome as a model of democracy and virtue.  Thus, Houdon brought to life the idea of great power existing in harmony with democracy.

 Considered by contemporaries to be the best living likeness of George Washington, there was a great demand for copies of the statue, especially in other public locations. The Virginia General Assembly decided that reproduction of the likeness would allow them to share it with other institutions. In 1853 the Assembly granted William James Hubard the exclusive right to make copies of Houdon’s masterpiece. Six of Hubard’s bronze copies are known today, but this may be the only surviving plaster rendition. This rare plaster version was bought for $2,000 from Hubard’s widow to grace the Hall of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol, where it stood for 80 years, from 1870 to 1950.

Newly conserved, this rare icon in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection can be seen in the “Jamestown’s Legacy to the American Revolution” special exhibition at Jamestown Settlement from March 1, 2013, through January 20, 2014.  Ultimately the statue will be placed at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016.  The amazing conservation process is documented in a short video.

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