The bronze statue of George Washington in Lafayette Park was cast from a mold of Jean Houdon’s original marble statue that resides in the rotunda of the Virginia State House in Richmond.
The General Assembly of Virginia commissioned the original statue of the pre-presidential Washington in 1784 as “a monument of affection and gratitude.” Governor Benjamin Harrison requested that Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as Minister to France, select a sculptor and award the commission.
Jefferson chose Houdon, one of the foremost sculptors of his age. He was given a full length portrait of Washington as a model. Recognizing the importance of his commission, Houdon traveled to America for detailed measurements of his subject and to make a plaster “life mask” of his face.
At the time Houdon arrived in America in 1785, Washington had been retired for two years, after eight years as Army commander-in-chief. At the age of 53, he anticipated living out his days at Mount Vernon as a private citizen.
The statue was designed to commemorate his retirement and return to private life by adding symbols that classically educated people would recognize. The allusion was to Cincinnatus, a Roman general who left his plow and fields to accept dictatorial powers in a time of great crisis. After saving Rome, he nobly returned to his plow. Washington’s mantle is draped over a fasces, the bundle of rods that symbolized Roman power. A plow lies at his feet and his sword its sheathed at his side.The badge of the Order of the Cincinnati hangs beneath his waistcoat. Washington’s outstretched hand holds his walking stick.
Houdon proceeded slowly with his commission. He signed the statue in 1788 but did not complete it for several years. It was finally shipped to Richmond, for display in Jeffersons newly designed Virginia State House in 1796. A proper home was thus ensured.
The Virginia Assembly feared that the marble statue might be damaged or lost in a fire. They decided in 1853 that a copy of the Carrara marble should be made. A portrait painter, William J. Hubard, was selected to fashion a mold of the statue and cast bronze replicas. He was authorized to create copies for a period of seven years.
Hubard used three of those years learning the art of bronze casting. He eventually hired experienced workmen from the Royal Foundry in Munich to help him.
Six copies were made, including those at the North Carolina State Capitol, near the Capitol of South Carolina in Columbia, at Washington and Lee University, and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one today and so does Lafayette Park in St. Louis. Its base is inscribed, ” W. J. Hubard Foundry, Richmond, Virginia, 1859″.
Hubard was killed in an explosion at a Richmond foundry during the Civil War. It is believed that the Washington molds were lost in the same explosion.
New molds were later made and the Gotham Company was authorized to make additional copies. One is in the Rotunda of the U. S. Capitol and others are found throughout this country and Europe.
There’s more than one story of how the bronze statue made its way to Lafayette Park.
The Missouri Republican newspaper reported that Hubard exhibited the statue in St. Louis in 1860, hoping that the City Council would buy it for $10,000. When they did not, Hubard had to borrow $5,000, using the statue as collateral. When he was unable to repay the note the statue was sold at auction to pay his debt. The story goes that the lenders managed to procure the statue then, at a substantial discount.
Another version, told by George McCue in Sculpture City, states that Hubard’s widow offered the copy for sale to the Missouri Legislature, which declined to purchase it. The statue then somehow became security for a loan and was sold to pay the debt. Charles Gibson, a prominent attorney living directly across from Lafayette Park, bought and installed it in his yard. He later accepted an offer from the city to purchase it,
The 1874 Report of the Board of Improvement of Lafayette Park tells yet another version, stating that the Board bought the statue for the park. The dedication of the statue was held May 15, 1869. Prominent men residing in houses facing the park contributed large sums to enhance it. Charles Gibson was a member of this group, and of the Board from 1866 until 1871. He is considered instrumental in the statue’s acquisition for the park.
Houdon intended for his busts and statues to be viewed at eye level. However, both his marble original in Richmond and our statue in Lafayette Park are mounted on tall pedestals. The pedestal in Lafayette Park was also placed on an artificial mound moving it further from the eye and harder to see Washington’s face as clearly as Houdon intended.
The Cornelia Greene Chapter of Daughters of The American Revolution hosts an annual celebration of President’s Day at the statue.
A regular maintenance schedule exists for both of Lafayette Park’s statues. Please consider a donation to help the LPC keep both George Washington and Thomas Hart Benton statues looking their best.