Landmark Object: George Washington Statue, 1841

When the Museum reopens November 21, 2008, each wing of its three exhibition floors will be anchored by a Landmark object—large, compelling artifacts that will highlight the theme of that wing. The exhibitions in the west wing of the second floor are focused on American lives and include “Within These Walls…” and “Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America.” The George Washington statue is the signature artifact for this section of the museum.

In 1832 the U.S. Congress commissioned sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a statue of George Washington on the occasion of the centennial of the first president’s birthday. Installed in the Capitol Rotunda after its completion, Greenough envisioned the statue to be a symbolic representation of Washington as a great exemplar of liberty.

The completed 12-ton marble statue atop a granite pedestal and base depicted the first president wearing a chest-baring toga. While many viewers appreciated the artist’s attempt to create a timeless masterpiece, others saw only an inappropriately dressed Washington. A friend of the artist noted: “This magnificent production of genius does not seem to be appreciated at its full value in this metropolis.”

Greenough’s sculpture is enriched with symbols: Washington’s figure is modeled on the classic statuary of ancient Greece, seat of the world’s first democracy. Carvings on the sides depict the Greek god Apollo and an infant Hercules. Small flanking figures of an American Indian and Christopher Columbus represent the New and Old Worlds. The most important symbol, however, is the sword in Washington’s outstretched hand: this celebrates the fact that after he led the country to victory in the American Revolution, he selflessly relinquished his power to the people.

The statue was on display in the Capitol Rotunda from 1841 to 1843 when it was relocated to the east lawn. In 1908 Congress transferred the statue to the Smithsonian Institution where it was exhibited in the Smithsonian Castle until its relocation to the new National Museum of American History in 1964. It has resided on the second floor of the Museum ever since.

Stay Tuned
The last of the six Landmark objects will be profiled in an upcoming article. Sign up for our monthly e-mail newsletter to stay informed of the latest news about the Museum’s exciting renovation project.

Previous Articles
Landmark Object: John Bull Locomotive
Landmark Object: Dumbo the Flying Elephant
Landmark Object: Greensboro Lunch Counter
Landmark Object: Clara Barton’s Red Cross Ambulance
Artifact Walls and Landmark Objects: Part I
Artifact Walls and Landmark Objects: Part II