“It is better to be alone than in bad company.”
—George Washington (1732–1799)
A great fan of sculptural art that I am, here is an off-the-beaten path tribute to the man who is called the father of the United States.
In 1884 Mrs. John Falconer made a gift of this bust of George Washington to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Washington looks as if he has followed his own advice; he is perched on a pedestal by himself. He is very much alone, without company of any sort. Sculpted from marble by American Horatio Greenough (1805–1852) the bust is just shy of 26.5 inches tall, and dates from 1832.
Greenough, like other 19th-century American sculptors, used the portrait bust of Washington sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) as his model. The Frenchman based his work on a life mask that he made in 1785 when he was a guest of General Washington at Mount Vernon. To connect the General specifically, and America broadly, to the ideals of Ancient Rome, Greenough uses the blank eyeballs often found in portraiture of Imperial Roman.
It is thought that Greenough modeled and carved the bust in Italy, though it is not known for certain. In 1832 he was given the prestigious commission from the U.S. government for a sculpture of Washington; it would be displayed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol. This monumental work can now be seen in the National Museum of American History at Washington, D.C. This stark and stately bust of America’s leading Founding Father can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.
Greenough spent most of his professional life in Florence, Italy, where he made lasting friendships with Americans taking the Grand Tour, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Cole, and Samuel F. B. Morse. Although Grennough became a leading sculptor of the early 19th century, he is little known today. Among his most important sculpture portraits are those of James Fenimore Cooper, 1831, now in the Boston Public Library; the Marquis de Lafayette, 1832, found in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; John Quincy Adams, 1829, at the Boston Athenaeum.