“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
—George Washington (1732–1799)
By his peers and the public, George Washington was considered such a man, virtuous to a very high standard that he could not be corrupted. He was the overwhelming favorite to be the country’s first president; he twice won the presidency by unanimous vote by the Electoral College. This bust, in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), idealizes the Father of Our Country further, as an ancient Roman emperor.
Happy Birthday to George Washington. According to the Julian calendar, which the British Empire and its colonies were following when Mr. Washington was born, his birth date is February 11, 1731; but the British adopted the Gregorian calendar 21 years later, and his birth date was moved to February 22, 1732.
Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi (1751–1801), who was born on July 4th before it was America’s Fourth of July, traveled to Philadelphia in 1791. The native of Florence Italy hoped the United States Congress would award him a commission for a monument commemorating the American Revolution. He had a plan to display his skill and attract attention. He modeled portraits from life of George Washington and other prominent Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Later he carved them in marble. None of these men would pay for the finished bust, sitting for Signore Ceracchi only to encourage his art.
Sadly, Signore Ceracchi never received the order he had wished for from Congress. Because Signore Ceracchi sculpted in the Neo-Classical style, fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Mr. Washington is shown as a Roman emperor. Carved in 1795, the overall dimensions of the bust, with the base, are 28 7/8 x 22 x 13 inches; the height, without the base, is 24.5 inches.
The provenance of this marble portrait bust, which many of Mr. Washington’s contemporaries considered among the most lifelike to be made, is a fascinating story. This noble-looking work of art was the bequest to the MMA by John L. Cadwalader (1836–1914). Mr. Cadwalader was an avid collector of ornamental English porcelain, bronze Oriental figures, and Chippendale furniture. He had a direct connection with General Washington through his grandfather, Lambert Cadwalader, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army.
General Washington personally arranged for the release of Lieutenant Colonel Cadwalader, after he was taken as a prisoner of war by British General Howe, during the November 1776 Battle of Fort Washington, which had been under the Lieutenant Colonel’s command, in upper Manhattan. General Washington secured Lambert’s quick release by reminding General Howe that the prisoner’s father, Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, treated the British General Richard Prescott when he was a prisoner of war in Philadelphia in 1776. Following his release, he retired to his 240-acre Trenton estate, Greenwood, which he had purchased in February 1776.
Briefly, here is some background on the Cadwalader family. Around 1738, Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, John L. Cadwalader’s great grandfather moved to Trenton from Philadelphia, where he was a prominent and wealthy physician. He was elected Trenton’s first mayor in 1746. Dr. Cadwalader returned to Philadelphia in 1750; but while in Trenton his wife Hannah had given birth to a son, Lambert.
Lambert Cadwalader was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress; and he served two terms in the House of Representatives from New Jersey (1789-91; 1793-95), when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. After Lambert Cadwalader’s death 1823, his son and John L. Cadawalader’s father, Thomas Cadwalader, inherited the estate. After Thomas Cadwalader’s death in 1873, his lawyer sons, John L. Cadwalader of New York City and Richard M. Cadwalader of Philadelphia, inherited and managed the family’s Trenton estate.
John L. Cadwalader had graduated from Princeton College and Harvard Law School and served as the nation’s Assistant Secretary of State in the admiration of Ulysses S. Grant. He was a member of the committee that arranged New York City’s 1889 Centennial Celebration of Mr. Washington’s inauguration.
Give a read to last year’s birthday tribute to George Washington. Two of our guided walking tours have a connection to Mr. Washington. Our Greenwich Village Walking Tour begins at the Washington Arch in Washington Square. Our Five Squares and a Circle Tour also begins there, and includes a monumental equestrian bronze of Mr. Washington as general. The Tours are good fun and greater value!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT © PHIL DESIERE 2016