Friday, November 10, 2006


Part of our national -- or maybe it’s a world's -- or maybe an English-speaking world's -- conversation about leadership lately has been taking a look back at first leaders, like Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, and like George Washington, whose image needed a good refurbishing and reburnishing. This URL is for an NPR story about three recently commissioned portraits of George Washington in wax, using CSI technology to reconstruct what was a tall, athletic, blue-eyed red-head who rode a horse with style. It’s worth reading the whole story. The three portraits cost a million dollars and reveal that in his youth George looked maybe quite a lot like Liam Neeson. He was said to be a wonderful ballroom dancer but a really bad conversationalist. He just didn’t say anything. Maybe it was his teeth which were notoriously terrible. Maybe he just didn’t talk until there was something to say. They say he didn’t like to be casually touched either. He was simply a self-contained man. The most unexpected revelation is that the fashion when he was young was to put boys in corsets, so that he stood and sat on a horse with shoulders sloping back and his stomach slightly stuck out. That posture lasted through his life.

From the very beginning of the United States, the people of the new nation yearned for a big bronze monumental statue of their first president, as was traditional in Europe, but in those days sculpture technology was focussed on Italian marble and you couldn’t make a free-standing heroic-sized horse in marble because its legs would break. (Marble is more fragile than is fortunate.) Houdon was brought from France to make bust portraits of the founders, and his portrait of George was helpful to the CSI crew.

The sculptor Greenough was in Italy and made a seated Washington. In the Greco-Roman conceit of the time, Greenough made his Washington a mock Caesar wearing a toga and making a grand gesture with his index finger. American critics, strictly groundlings, said he was pointing to where he left his clothes. At great effort and expense, the carved marble was bought to its assigned spot but it was too big to go through the door. The door frame was ripped off and the statue struggled in and centered. Then the floor began to creak and sag. A crew quickly ran to the basement to shore it up, then puffed back upstairs to move the statue out onto the sidewalk where it remained for a good long time.

One of the first sculptors to manage a bronze monument of Washington was Henry Kirke Brown. This url will take you to a description and photo, plus the information that after the attack on the World Trade Towers, this statue in New York City became a rallying point for grieving people. He is portrayed giving a benediction:

In time there were a half-dozen equestrian bronze monuments of Washington. But the statue of the man that I like the best -- perhaps the one most in character -- is one that Francis Morrone put me onto. It’s by Henry Shrady (1871-1922), one of those many skillful sculptors who have been neglected by history. Mostly Shrady’s famous for his “Grand Memorial” honoring General Grant, which took him almost two decades because of its extent and complexity. Also he was excellent at animals, heroic or parlor-sized, and is known for “The Empty Saddle,” a horse grazing alone in cavalry gear. His bronzes sometimes show up among “Western sculpture.” It was “The Empty Saddle” that prompted a member of a committee sponsoring a competition for a statue of Washington on horseback for Valley Forge to invite Shrady to compete -- and Shrady won.

In George W. Bush’s Oval Office, clearly seen during many photo ops, is a Remington sculpture of a bronc buster -- the horse rearing. An uncontrolled rearing horse is not a good thing and I’d make more of it except that same bronze has been there through the administrations of many presidents and we’re in conciliation mode.

What I’d rather see in that office is the Shrady portrait of George Washington at Valley Forge. Sombre, dignified, shrouded in cloak, Washington sits his horse easily and what a horse it is! Beautiful, controlled, and powerful. All four feet on the ground. I hope the picture of it will transfer to my blog for Veteran’s Day. Can’t we take up a collection to buy a casting for the Oval Office?


Anonymous said...

Mary--I'm sure that you know and can refresh my memory if I err. Do I remember correctly that a statue of a man on a rearing horse signifies that he died in battle?
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

There is supposedly a code that has a meaning for each number of feet off the ground, but I can never remember what it is and I don't think it's a universal rule or anything -- just an idea. It probably shouldn't overrule considerations of what is right for the particular work of art.

We used to joke about making a bronze with ALL four feet off the ground and Bob did that a couple of times: one was a bucking horse connected to the ground by "dust" or a "bush." One was a horse that had gone over on its back. People have messed around with pieces of glass to make it look like the horse was off the ground. There is a point in some gaits where a moving horse has all four feet off the ground.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes...the number of feet on the ground supposedly has significance. If no feet are on the ground, obviously, the rider died in space. (Oh, man, I couldn't help myself!) Thanks for the reminder and further information.
Cop Car