On President’s Day, it’s always appropriate to talk about our nation’s first- George Washington. The statue that we have become so accustomed to on the east end of the Lawn is actually a bronze replica of a marble work by Jean Houdon that stands in Virginia’s Capitol, pictured at right.
Houdon’s work, capturing all of Washington’s six foot two inch frame, is regarded as the authoritative statue of the man. Thomas Jefferson was actually the one to contact Houdon while serving as minister in France. The artist expressed great interest in the project, insisting he study Washington himself. Where other works had portrayed the first president in overtly classical settings, Houdon balanced his work between the modern and the ancient. Washington’s pose is certainly reminiscent of Greek and Roman statues; he strikingly leans upon a fasces, Roman symbol of authority, of thirteen sticks, symbolizing the original thirteen states. The rest of his accoutrements are far more contemporary. In his right hand is a civilian walking cane, behind him a plowshare, and he wears his soldier’s uniform. Washington is not a god but simply a great man in Houdon’s piece. The work was installed in Richmond’s Capitol rotunda in 1796, the year of Washington’s farewell address.
This powerful piece has been copied in bronze 33 times and traveled as far as London. In 1921, the Commonwealth of Virginia sent a bronze statue to the British and Irish peoples. With the statue came another gift- Virginia soil. Being a great patriot, George Washington allegedly declared”I will never set foot in London again!” and so the statue rests to this day on the dirt of his homeland. The piece is pictured on the left in its home in Trafalgar Square, in front of the National Gallery.
So Happy Presidents Day from the Historian. I’ll leave you with a passage from George Washington’s farewell address, marking the day he released the fasces and picked up his plowshare.
“Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied, that, if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that, while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.”