Beginning with George Washington, it has been a custom for the President of the United States to have an official portrait sculpted or painted during his time in office.
From the beginning artists were faced with conflicting demands of aesthetics, the need to evoke the significance of the nation’s highest office, and the personal inclination of the sitter (varying from modesty to pomposity). How to reconcile such different strands in a work of art?
The textbook term neoclassicism is used to describe a cultural phenomenon that revived antiquity. The style flourished during the revolutionary periods in France and the United States. Its history goes back to the aesthetics of Johann Joachim Winckelmann at the time of the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His History of the Art of Antiquity (1764) was a reference book for those who undertook the Grand Tour to witness the unearthed Greco-Roman treasures.
European artists exported neoclassicism to the United States where it came to define the nation’s political ideals and dominate its architecture. Politics and aesthetics were intertwined. Government building, stock exchange, or museum – they were all made to look like Greek temples.
Opened in 1910, New York’s Pennsylvania Station (Penn Station) was decorated with stone colonnade facades modeled on the Roman baths at Caracalla. The Lincoln Memorial highlights the merger of art and politics. To pay tribute to the defender of democracy, Henry Bacon designed the building after the Acropolis and included thirty-six exterior columns to symbolize the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865.
It took some time before the realization dawned that columns and porticoes in the streets of London, Paris, or New York are sham decorations in front of constructions made of iron and brick. ‘Oh! qui me délivrera des colonnades!’ Victor Hugo had begged his contemporaries in 1825.
Art and Revolution
Having studied sculpture at Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, Giuseppe Ceracchi moved to London in 1773 where he was employed by fellow Italian Agostini Carlini, a founding member of the Royal Academy.
He returned to Rome in 1781 where he befriended Goethe who commissioned him to make a bust of Winckelmann. In 1785 he was in Amsterdam, having received a request to execute a monument to Baron Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, the Dutch champion of American liberty.
Giuseppe visited the American Republic in 1790/2 and again in 1794. He was in Philadelphia in 1791, but failed to earn a commission from the United States Congress for a monument commemorating the Revolution. Instead, he sculpted portrait busts of its leaders, including Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Ceracchi helped in introducing neoclassicism in America.
Having returned to Paris, he became implicated in a notorious plot against Napoleon’s life. Having taken the idea of the artist’s revolutionary mission too literate, he was guillotined in January 1801.
Hiram Powers grew up on a farm in Woodstock, Vermont, until 1818 when his family moved to Cincinnati. Five years later, he took up a job at the Western Museum (now the Cincinnati Museum Center). In 1828, he began assisting Prussian émigré sculptor Frederick Eckstein. In spite of a lack of formal training, his portraits revealed a talent that drew the attention of local businessman Nicholas Longworth. Acting as his patron, the latter encouraged the artist to travel to Washington to widen his horizon.
In 1835, Hiram modeled a portrait of President Andrew Jackson. The sitter requested an image that was true to nature. The artist’s challenge was to reconcile Jackson’s call for facial realism with his own neoclassical ideals. The result was intriguing: Jackson may be looking wrinkled and toothless, and yet – in spite of decay – he leaves the impression of a determined character. To create an aura of authority, the customary Roman toga was draped around the President’s shoulders. The piece was praised, but in subsequent work the sculptor abandoned the probing naturalism that made Jackson’s bust such a remarkable achievement.
Having settled in Florence, Hiram would stay in Tuscany for the rest of his life, but developments at home remained on his mind. This is illustrated by the bust America, a work conceived in the aftermath of the 1848 uprisings in Europe. The maiden wears a diadem with thirteen stars referring to the number of original colonies. His personification was intended to “embody the political creed” of the nation. The revolutionary idea remained, but its stylistic execution became increasingly conventional.
In 1841/2 Powers executed his Greek Slave, the work that would bring him success. It attracted more than 100,000 viewers when touring America between 1847 and 1849. The sculpture was selected in 1851 as the centerpiece of the American display at London’s Great Exhibition. Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated a sonnet to it. Critics pointed at two particular aspects that drew their attention, the statue’s eroticism and its reference to slavery.
The full-length nude being sold in a slave market alludes to Turkish atrocities during the Greek War of Independence. There is the memory of Lord Byron, but the “mysterious” lure of Cairo and Constantinople also plays a part. Removed from the disquiet of modern urban life, artists had become obsessed with the serenity and “forbidden pleasures” of these ancient cities.
Miner Kellogg, manager of the statue’s organized tour of America, set out to cool any hint of corruption. He stressed the slave’s moral beauty. Her nudity was clothed in piety. The statue was banned in Boston, but a roster of preachers vouched for its purity. Hiram managed to introduce the taboo of nakedness under the sanction of morality.
In the decade preceding the Civil War, the sculpture gained additional meaning as it appeared to conflate the Greek struggle for independence with American abolitionism. Copies appeared in numerous Union-supporting Statehouses. In London, the sculpture engendered anti-slavery demonstrations and sparked press comments on enduring serfdom in the United States.
Having settled in Paris, Heinrich Heine’s first commission was to write an account of the Salon of 1831 for a German journal. Having selected a number of paintings from the approximately 3,000 contributions to the annual exhibition, he concentrated solely on subject matter. As the Salon included forty scenes from the July Revolution, including Eugène Delacroix’s imposing La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), there were plenty of topical matters to be discussed.
In his commentary, Heine declared the demise of neoclassicism as its principles were rooted in an outworn regime. Artists had to direct their attention towards the present. Contemporary dress was a challenge. Heine referred to a group of German painters who depicted “die heutigsten Menschen mit dem heutigsten Gefühlen” (present-day people with present-day emotions) in antiquated costume. Art being a visionary reflection of one’s own time, this contradiction formed an obstacle to creative expression. Significantly, the same issue had been raised across the Atlantic about half a century.
After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Virginia’s General Assembly decided to display a statue in honor of George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, American representative in Paris and a Virginian himself, suggested the name of Jean-Antoine Houdon. In July 1785, the latter left France and traveled to Mount Vernon to produce a classical-looking bust.
Washington disliked the statue’s anachronism. He insisted on contemporary outfit rather than the costume of ancient Greece. Unwittingly, he touched upon a topic that would dominate aesthetics for decades to come. Houdon returned to Paris in December 1785 and started work on a full-length statue. Carved out of Carrara marble, it became the iconic image of the first President of the United States.
In 1840, Horatio Greenough produced a sculpture of George Washington sticking rigidly to neoclassical dogma. Houdon’s sculpture had shown the strength and adaptability of the style in its heyday. Greenough by contrast fell victim of what was becoming a stale philosophy. Neoclassicism had declined into standard forms of marble nymphs and men in Roman togas.
The aesthetic issue of costume became a theme of wider debate when Charles Baudelaire published a series of essays on Le peintre de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life, 1863). In this, the most explicit statement on modernism up to that moment, the poet regretted the inability of painters and sculptors to portray people in contemporary costume.
By the time Baudelaire published his articles, the demand for contemporaneity in art was under scrutiny. Speaking of the Salon of 1868, Émile Zola declared that the reign of neoclassical sculpture had ended. Statuary art as understood in Greece was a ‘dead language’.
As an artist, Hiram Powers got stuck at the crossroads of transition. The bust of Jackson had offered a glimpse of the future, but after that vanguard moment he stepped back and chose to cater to the current taste.
In retrospect, artistic preoccupation with Antiquity in an age that witnessed the rise of the modern state, was an anomaly. To sculpt the President of the United States with Roman haircut and draped in a toga was myth making in a farcical manner.
Photos, from above: Penn Station around the time of its opening in 1910 courtesy Library of Congress; Marble bust of George Washington; America by Hiram Powers; The Greek Slave by Hiram Powers courtesy Yale University Art Gallery; George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon at the Capitol, Richmond, Virginia; and George Washington by Horatio Greenough courtesy National Museum of American History.