Washington and Lee University

General Washington and Houdon
R. Walton Moore

Note: The following is taken from the January 1933 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 41), pp. 1–10.

Photograph of the Bust made from life at Mount Vernon in 1785 by
Jean Antoine Houdon.
Courtesy of U.S. George Washington Bicentennial Commission

By R. Walton Moore, Fairfax, Va. *

Soon after the independence of the United States was recognized, people got busy about having statues of General Washington made to represent to posterity the appearance of the hero of the Revolution. And the Bicentennial Commission having coupled with Washington’s fame the name of a gifted Frenchman by adopting the Houdon Bust at Mount Vernon as the truest likeness of Washington which exists, the memory of Jean Antoine Houdon, the most eminent European sculptor of his time, is now to be more closely linked in the public mind with the great man whom he depicted.

The most interesting event of Houdon’s life which covered the long period from 1741 to 1828 was his contact with Washington. When all or many of his other two hundred busts of distinguished Europeans and Americans may be forgotten, he will be remembered for the bust at Mount Vernon which the Commission has photographed, and the full length statue which stands in the Capitol at Richmond. His genius is shown not only in his work with reference to Washington, but in his busts of several of Washington’s contemporaries, among them Jefferson, Franklin and John Paul Jones.

Before Houdon had any thought of coming to this country, the Congress of the Confederation passed a resolution in 1783, drafted by a committee of which Arthur Lee, brother of Richard Henry Lee, was chairman, providing for an equestrian statue of Washington to be erected at the place thereafter to be selected as the residence of Congress. The resolution, which harked back to antiquity, according to the artistic taste of that day, set forth that Washington was to be shown in a Roman dress holding a truncheon in his right hand and his head to be encircled with a laurel wreath. What was Washington’s reaction to this particular proposal we do not know, but we do know that in advance of the Richmond statue being made, when the question of costume was being considered, he said in a letter to Jefferson that while he had no desire to dictate or even scarcely suggest, he believed that “perhaps a servile adherence to the garb of antiquity might not altogether be so expedient as some little direction in the favor of a modern costume,” which was an example of his characteristic common sense. The Richmond statue shows him in the uniform of an officer of the Revolution, resting his right hand on a long cane and his left hand on a cloak thrown over the top of a bundle of fasces, at the other end of which is a ploughshare. Nothing antique in this except the bundle of fasces—thirteen in number—which to the Romans was a symbol of authority as it is to the fascesti party which now controls Italy.

It was not the action of Congress but that of the Virginia Legislature which led to Houdon’s advent here. In June 1784, the Legislature passed a brief resolution requesting the Governor, Benjamin Harrison, “to take measures for providing a statue of General Washington to be of the finest marble and of the best workmanship,” and with a highly eulogistic inscription on the pedestal which was written into the resolution. No restriction of expense or otherwise was imposed on the Governor. This was the genesis of the Houdon masterpiece which is one of the richest possessions of Washington’s own State. Not on the pedestal but on the base beneath the pedestal is cut the inscription which the Legislature prescribed.

It is very doubtful whether Houdon would have visited America to execute the Virginia Commission, except for his sanguine expectation that he would be employed also to make the equestrian statue authorized by Congress. In this he was disappointed, but it is a fact that on his return to France he did model an equestrian statue which, however, has not been preserved.

The Governor, complying with the Legislature’s mandate, took up the matter by correspondence with Jefferson who, along with Franklin, was then in Paris. Not supposing that the artist who would be chosen would come to America, the Governor wrote Jefferson that “to enable the artist to perform his work in the most perfect manner, I have ordered Mr. Peale to send you a full length portrait of the General as soon as possible.” This reference was to Charles Wilson Peale who painted and sent to Europe a portrait which has disappeared. It represented Washington at the surrender of Cornwallis, showing Yorktown and Gloucester Point on opposite sides of the river, and in the words of Peale there were “introduced in a nearer ground French and American officers with their colors displayed, and between them the British with their colors cased.” Governor Harrison’s letter to Jefferson was written on the 20th of July, and a week later he wrote a similar letter to Franklin. Jefferson acted pretty promptly. His first communication was to Washington himself in which he said: “I was unwell when I received the Governor’s letter and have not yet been able to see and confer with Dr. Franklin on the subject. I find that a Monsieur Houdon of this place possesses the reputation of being the first statuary (sic) in the world. I sent for him and had some conversation with him on the subject. He thinks it cannot be perfectly done from a picture and is so enthusiastically fond of being the executor of this work that he offers to go to America for the purpose of forming your bust from life, leaving all of his business here in the meantime * * * . If Dr. Franklin concurs with me we shall send him over, not having time to ask your permission and await your answer * * * . Monsieur is at present engaged in making a statue of the King of France. A bust of Voltaire executed by him is said to be one of the finest in the world.”

It may be noticed in passing that the sculptor who was to have trouble in getting Washington in a satisfactory pose had experienced similar trouble in the case of Voltaire. At a preliminary sitting he found that Voltaire was impatient ; that his brow was clouded and that “the fire of genius died from his eyes,” and therefore he planned another sitting with the understanding that at a given signal, without Voltaire’s knowledge, a friend of Voltaire who was to be present should lay on the latter’s brow a wreath which had been first placed there by an acclaiming throng in Paris. The moment this was done Houdon caught the expression on Voltaire’s face which he reproduced in the bust.

Following his letter to Washington, Jefferson wrote the Governor that there could be no question raised as to the sculptor who should be employed, and that Franklin concurred with him in the opinion that no statue could be made so as to obtain the approval of those to whom the original was known but on a personal view by the artist. “Monsieur Houdon,” said Jefferson, “whose reputation is such as to make it a powerful object, was so anxious to be the person to hand down the figure of the General to future ages, that without hesitating a moment he offered to abandon his business here, to leave the statues of kings unfinished, and to go to America to take the true figure by actual inspection and measurement * * * . Should we agree with Monsieur Houdon he will come on the April packet and of course may be expected in Virginia about the last of May.”

The compensation which the sculptor was to receive was very small compared with present standards, and Washington was dead and a new century had begun before payment was completed. One feature of the agreement about which Houdon was very anxious was that his life should be insured for the benefit of his family. A trip across the ocean in a small and untrustworthy sailing vessel was then hardly less perilous than a trip now in an airplane.

Houdon on the eve of starting in April 1785 was overtaken by a serious illness which prevented him from going at that time. He was then near death and later, during the French Revolution, he was again near death when he barely escaped being beheaded because of his alleged sympathy with the Royalist party, for although of very humble origin, his service as sculptor to many people in high positions placed him under suspicion.

Recovering his health, he sailed from Havre on July 20th, a little more than one year after the action of the Virginia Legislature. With him was Dr. Franklin who for some time had been most anxious to leave Europe. Unhappily for Houdon, his implements and material did not reach Havre in time for the boat’s departure and on his arrival in Philadelphia he had to duplicate them as best he could. His personal belongings also failed to turn up, and on the voyage his fellow passengers had to help him out with shirts and stockings.

Jefferson continued to write letters in regard to the matter which seemed to him no less important than it now seems to us. Writing to Washington about the date Houdon sailed, he said: “I have spoken of him as an artist only; but I can assure you also that as a man he is disinterested, generous, candid and panting for glory; and in every circumstance meriting your good opinion.” In addition he wrote to Monroe, Richard Henry Lee and the other Virginia delegates in Congress that Houdon in consenting to go to America had his eye fixed on the execution of the equestrian statue ordered by Congress and urging that he be employed for that task.

Houdon was at Mount Vernon from the night of October 2, 1785, when he reached there with three young assistants, and an interpreter picked up in Alexandria, until the 17th of October. That he thoroughly enjoyed his sojourn is stated by one of his European biographers who writes that notwithstanding he was obliged to converse with the General by means of an interpreter he always recalled with delight the days he spent there, even in his later years when other memories had faded from his mind.

Except for a reference to Houdon’s arrival at Mount Vernon there are only three entries in Washington’s diary pertaining to him and these are rather casual. One dated October 7th is: “Sat this day as I had done yesterday for Mr. Houdon to form my Bust.” Then on October 10th: “Observed the process for preparing the plaster of Paris and mixing of it according to Mr. Houdon”; and finally on Wednesday, October 19th, “Mr. Houdon having finished his business which brought him hither, went up on Monday with his people, work and implements in my barge to Alexandria to take a passage in the stage to Philadelphia the next morning.” According to the diary, during Houdon’s stay James Madison was Washington’s guest for two or three days but left no record of his visit.

There has been much discussion about the work done by Houdon at Mount Vernon.

It is claimed he made a life mask in plaster which he took back with him to Paris, and that upon his death this was sold as a part of his estate, and after passing through other hands came into the ownership of the American sculptor, W. W. Story, and was sold by Mr. Story’s son to the late J. Pierpont Morgan and is now in New York. There is certainly in the Morgan collection the article to which this claim refers, but there are some who believe it is not really a life mask but an impression taken by Houdon from the original bust which is preserved at Mount Vernon.

Mr. Story argued elaborately that Houdon did nothing more at Mount Vernon than make a life mask. But there is convincing evidence of this being an error. As already seen, Washington stated in his diary that on the 6th and 7th of October he sat for Houdon to form his bust. Furthermore, there is clear and uncontradicted testimony that when Houdon reached Philadelphia, while Congress was in session, he exhibited a plaster bust to prominent public men who were Washington’s friends and to Congress itself. In a very short time after Houdon reached Paris, Lafayette wrote Washington “Houdon has arrived in Paris but has not yet brought your bust which he expects by water from London,” and a little earlier Jefferson wrote Washington that Houdon had brought to Paris with him “the model of the face only, having left the other parts of his work with his workmen to come by some other conveyance.” It is not known what became of the bust which was shown and much admired as well in Paris as in Philadelphia. In the most elaborate biography of Houdon it is mistakenly said that this bust was among the effects of the sculptor sold after his death and by the purchaser given to the Louvre where it now is. But this is impossible since the bust in the Louvre being of terra cotta could not have been made at Mount Vernon and bears Houdon’s signature, dated in 1786, the year after his visit to that place.

Whatever may be said about the plaster “life mask” or about the plaster bust which the sculptor had with him in Philadelphia, there can be no escape from the fact that the clay bust now at Mount Vernon was modeled there and has been preserved there through all of the intervening years. It bears Houdon’s signature as follows: “Houdon F 1785”. While it is not specifically mentioned in Washington’s will, it is listed in the inventory of his personal property as “One Bust of General Washington in Plaster from the Life”. The Fairfax County records do not show that it was sold when the personal property was disposed of following Mrs. Washington’s death. The material is clay and not plaster, but it is easy to understand that the neighborhood gentlemen who compiled the inventory might easily have assumed from its discoloration that it was made of plaster. Nearly forty years ago Colonel Dodge, the Superintendent at Mount Vernon, found that the clay had become a mottled brown and for that reason and because the bust had begun to crumble a little, caused to be applied to it a very thin coat of shellac followed by a thin coat of Chinese white. Experts tell us that the first thing the sculptor was compelled to do was to make a clay model from which plaster busts could be made. In a letter dated October 8, 1859, Colonel John A. Washington, the last member of the Washington family who owned Mount Vernon, replying to inquiries respecting the bust, gave some very interesting information. He said that General Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, to whom Mount Vernon was devised by his uncle, had told Colonel Washington that he regarded the bust as the best representation of the General’s face he had ever seen, and that he had been told the same thing by Major Lawrence Lewis, another nephew of Washington, and his wife who was Nellie Custis. Thus Washington’s relatives and connections knew the clay bust as the work of Houdon and treasured it as a true likeness. The group of artists who guided the Bicentennial Commission in selecting this bust as the best likeness of Washington extant arrived at that conclusion after a most careful study of all the evidence available.

The marble statue in the Capital at Richmond so closely resembles the Mount Vernon Bust that no ordinary observer can detect any difference in the details of the head. As to this, Lorado Taft speaks of “the noble head which is one of the finest examples of simplification to be found in modern art. It has in it the serenity and greatness of all time.” Houdon did not hurry in making the Richmond statue and because of the unfinished condition of the capitol and for other reasons which are rather cloudy, it was not shipped from France until 1796. It then went on the sloop “Planter” under a bill of lading which read: “For account and risk of the Governor and Council of the Town of Richmond, State of Virginia. Three cases, one of which contains the marble pedestal statue of General Washington and two others containing the marble pedestal statues, weighing 36,000 pounds * * * and to be delivered in good order at the aforesaid port of Philadelphia (the danger of the seas only being excepted) unto the order of Mr. William Pennock of Norfolk, Virginia, who is to convey the same to said Governor and Council of Virginia”. It was put in place in the Capitol without any ceremonies on the 17th of May, 1796. The comments of the Philadelphia statesmen on the bust which was exhibited in Philadelphia, apply with equal emphasis to the statue. One of them said: “There is no looking at this bust without admiration and delight. The noble air of sublime expression and faithfulness alike evince the hand of a Master.” Another said: “The artist by elevating the chin and countenance has given it the air of one looking forward into futurity.”

In recent years there has found its way into print a story which was given the writer a long time ago by the late Mr. B. Johnson Barbour who probably had it from his father, James Barbour, who was a very distinguished United States Senator from Virginia and for a time our Minister to Great Britain. According to the story, Houdon had trouble in finding Washington in an attitude which he approved. One morning while he was with the family at breakfast a messenger informed the General that at the western gate a man was waiting for him with a pair of horses which Washington had seen before and thought of buying. When the General rose from the table to go out Houdon went with him. After some talk, the owner, asked to name his price, fixed a pretty extravagant amount and Washington throwing his head back a little uttered a strong exclamation, whereupon Houdon said “I have him! I have him!” Very noticeable in the Houdon Bust and in the Virginia statue is the backward tilt of the head and the resolute expression on the face. It is conceivable that James Barbour may have heard of the incident from Madison who was his near neighbor and close personal friend and who, as before stated, visited Mount Vernon while Houdon was there.

There is another story, the truth of which is beyond doubt. While Houdon was engaged in making the Virginia statue he requested Governeur Morris, then our Minister to France, to assist him by posing for the figure, and this Mr. Morris did after talking with Jefferson. In Theodore Roosevelt’s biography of Morris there is this quotation from the latter’s diary: “Go to Mr. Houdon’s * * * he has been waiting for me a long time. I sit for a statue of General Washington, being the humble employment of a manikin. This is literally taking the advice of St. Paul to be all things to all men.” After the statue reached America Morris wrote a friend: “The press is making great ado over Houdon’s statue of Washington, and I would have you know it is a statue of me with Washington’s head on it.” It is not to be forgotten that Morris was one of Washington’s most devoted personal and political friends, and it is interesting to know that a descendant of his, Mrs. Fairfax Harrison, is the present Virginia Vice-Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, which owns and controls Mount Vernon.


* Mr. Moore sponsored in the House of Representatives the legislation creating the George Washington Bicentennial Commission, on which he served as a member.