If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington

The Virginia State Capitol houses a marble sculpture of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Based on a life mask, it's the most accurate representation of Washington. The sculpture, showing Washington in his military uniform, leans on a bundle of sticks, symbolizing state authority. It reflects Washington's decision to give up military power for a peaceful life, setting a precedent for future presidents. The sculpture and its surroundings draw heavily from ancient Greek and Roman architecture and symbolism. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Male tutor] We're in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, a building that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. But we're looking at a sculpture of George Washington, the dates to the very end of the 18th century. - [Female tutor] This is a sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon, who was recruited by Thomas Jefferson to create the statue at a time when there weren't too many Americans who would have been ready to take on a marble sculpture like this. - [Male tutor] It's not surprising that the state of Virginia wanted to honor the general who was associated with the victory of the United States over Britain and who was the first president of the United States. - [Female tutor] Jefferson and Franklin brought Houdon into the project in 1784. At first Houdon was going to work from a painting by Charles Wilson Peale. But of course this is a three-dimensional sculpture, and he did not feel that he was gonna be able to capture Washington just from that reference. So in the summer of 1785, he came over to the United States, went to Mount Vernon, and visited George Washington, where he made a life mask, or a cast of George Washington's face and took measurements of his body. - [Male tutor] The fact that Houdon actually was able to spend time at Mount Vernon with Washington to take a life mask is important because Washington, famously, did not like to sit for artists. - [Female tutor] There's so much debate when you're thinking about the painted portraits of George Washington, the one by Gilbert Stewart, the ones by Charles Wilson Peale or Rembrandt Peale. Which one looks the most like him? Which one embodied him as a statesman the best? But really, the Houdon is the one that looks the most like him because it's based on a life mask, and the sculpture becomes a model for anyone who's going to make a statue of George Washington later on. - [Male tutor] This is a sculpture that's made in marble. And large scale marble sculptures have a very long history. In this case, because we're in the early years of the United States, we know that these artists were thinking back to classicism, they were thinking back to Greece, and especially to ancient Rome. - [Female tutor] To us, looking at George Washington here in his military uniform, his 18th century clothing, that looks completely normal and natural to us. But at that point, this would have been a radical decision. One of the real hot button questions at the end of the 18th century was whether or not statesmen of the time should be represented in their modern clothing. - [Male tutor] And so it was a real choice we might well have seen Washington in the flowing robes of the ancient Romans, but instead we see him in contemporary fashion. But beyond the choice of clothing, there are so many other key symbols here. - [Female tutor] When you're looking at a neoclassical sculpture from the late 18th century or through the 19th century, you have to look at all the details. Of course, any marble sculpture is going to need something to lean against because marble is not strong enough to hold itself up. And what George Washington is leaning against here is a bundle of sticks called the fasces, a symbol in ancient Rome of the authority of the state. Draped over that is his military-grade coat and his sword that he is giving up in order to return to Mount Vernon after the revolutionary war is over. - [Male tutor] There really is a contrast that's being drawn by his sword, which is no longer being worn versus the walking stick on the opposite side, which he is engaging, which he is holding, and which shows him as a country gentlemen, a very clear signal that this is a man who has given up the greatest military power in the United States to go back to his plantation, Mount Vernon, and to become again, a private citizen. - [Female tutor] And we're seeing him right in the midst of that transition. The other detail that you don't wanna miss here is walking around the back of the sculpture. You see that not only is he hanging up his sword but he's also standing in front of a plow, a symbol reminding us that what he's doing is going back to becoming, once again, a gentleman farmer. - [Male tutor] And these things taken together would have reminded well-educated statesman of the day of a general whose name was Cincinnatus, an ancient Roman. - [Female tutor] Cincinnatus was a Roman general who in a time of peril for ancient Rome when they were being attacked by a foreign enemy was given dictatorial powers in order to be able to suppress this invasion. And after the invasion was over, he could have tried to continue to hold on to that power. But instead of doing that, he gave up that power and went back to his Roman farm. - [Male tutor] And this sets a precedent that has been critical to the ongoing democratic tradition in the United States that a duly elected president gives up their power and ensures the peaceful transition of power to the next president. - [Female tutor] And that is one of the important parts of George Washington's mythology, that he was the first American president to model that behavior. - [Male Tutor] So we're seeing an 18th century sculpture, very much in the guise of ancient Rome, but let's broaden our scope for a moment because it's not just the references to Cincinnatus, it's not just the fascia is here, it's not just the white marble that we're seeing, it's the rotunda that this sculpture is seen in, which is a smaller version of the Dome of the Pantheon in Rome. And the exterior of this building, it was designed by Thomas Jefferson, mimics the Parthenon in ancient Greece. - [Female tutor] At this point in the 18th century, trying to figure out what the iconography of a* democratic Republic is going to be, was still brand new. And so people like Jean-Antoine Houdon are helping the founding fathers to figure out what leadership is going to look like and what kind of architectural language and sculptural language is going to be used. - [Male tutor] The heroism that we have accorded to this figure for centuries is being reexamined in light of the fact that George Washington was a slave owner and was brutal at times. - [Female tutor] This is definitely a moment where we need to be thinking about what stories we have told about George Washington and how an icon like this one helped to shape the narratives that we continue to carry forward today. (gentle piano music)