In 1841 a group of congressmen gathered in Washington Navy Yard to formally receive a sculpture that had been made in honour of the hundredth birthday of the US' first president. The sculpture was unveiled and the congressmen baulked in horror. What they saw before them was their founding father bare-chested, bare foot, one arm raised to the sky, the other holding out a sheaved sword hilt-first. Enthroned Washington.
Enthroned Washington: An Expensive Mistake
Nine years earlier the US government had commissioned young sculptor, Horatio Greenough, to craft Washington's centenary gift. Greenough spent eight years labouring away on the great man's statue until finally, in 1840, the work was finished. There was just one problem: Greenough's studio was in Florence, Italy. The sculpture had a long way to go to get to Washington DC.
After some debate congress agreed to organise its transit. For several days it was hauled by 22 oxen across Italian moutain roads to the port of Genoa. Rumour has it that Italian peasants, mistaking Washington's figure for that of some saint, knelt in reverance as it passed.
When it reached Genoa it was supposed to be loaded onto a US Man Of War and then transported back to Washington. Unfortunately it was too big for the Man Of War's loading hatch and a merchant ship had to be chartered instead.
By the time the sculpture made it to Washington Navy Yard a great deal of money had been spent. The Congressmen baulking before it could hardly send it back. They had reservations over Washington's bare-chest but they were already committed. They organised for the sculpture to be installed in the US Capitol.
Enthroned Washington Becomes A Laughing Stock
'The man does not live and never did live who saw Washington without his shirt,' a Virginia statesman said, on seeing the scuplture. The verdict was unavoidable. It was offensive, maybe even comical. But what could be done? Not only had they paid a pretty sum to have it brought over from Italy, but now they had also had the masonry around the Capitol's doors cut, the statue having been too large to fit through them to begin with.
Enthroned Washington remained in the building for about a year, slowly sinking under its own immense weight until a huge pedestal was installed beneath it. By 1842, Congress couldn't take it anymore. A vote was held and it was moved out to the East lawn.
Here, it became the subject of public ridicule. Some joked the reason Washington was holding his sword hilt-first was that he was offering it in exchange for some clothes.
The total sum the statue had cost the country was calculated in the mid 1880s to be $42,000 dollars. That's roughly $1.2 million in today's money.
Enthroned Washington Today
In 1908 it was found that the statue had cracked in Washington's cold winters. As a result it was once again moved indoors, this time into the original 'castle' of the Smithsonian Institution. Decades later, in 1962, its location was changed one last time, this time to the National Museum of US history, where it can still be seen today complete with the proud and optimistic words Greenbough had inscribed onto its back upon its completion:
'SIMULACRUM ISTUD AD MAGNUM LIBERTATIS EXEMPLUM NEC SINE IPSA DURATURUM HORATIUS GREENOUGH FACIEBAT' or ' Horatio Greenough made this image as a great example of freedom, which will not survive without freedom itself. '
He had modelled the work on Phidias' statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Shirtless sculptures were common in antiquity. He had likely never imagined the controversy that would arise over a pair of marble nipples.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our DC Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Washington DC.
One More Thing...
The sculpture was featured in Dan Brown's best selling novel, The Lost Symbol, where it played an instrumental part in a conspiracy involving the founding fathers covering the US Capitol in occult symbols.
Read about another controversial US statue in our post on the Chicago Picasso.