Whew–it’s been a while. I was going great guns blog-wise when I came down with the Head Cold of Doom, followed by the Sinus Infection of Despair and the Bronchitis of the Damned. The entire family then proceeded to follow the same course, and when it was all over it was Thanksgiving and my blogging mojo had slipped away.

Just to ease myself back into the groove I’ll pass along a link to the mentalfloss.com blog of my recent story for them on Public Works of Art Gone Terribly Wrong. WHAT a hoot to write–and it features, most importantly, George Washington in a togo. Behold:

George Washington

That is possibly the silliest representation of a great American figure. You can see his nipples! No one should see George Washington’s nipples! I don’t even want to think about him having nipples.

And let us just all pause for a moment in thankfulness that John Adams didn’t get this treatment. Shudders.

It’s odd, really, because this is textbook Neoclassicism, and Neoclassicism is know for giving an aura of seriousness, respectability, gravitas. Traditional banks are Neoclassical, as are government buildings. The Statue of Liberty is Neoclassical. So is the Lincoln Memorial. Yet look at the Horatio Greenough Washington and you just want to giggle.

I think it’s the nakedness. Greenough was trying to evoke ancient depictions of Zeus, but Zeus was a deity:

Roman statue of Zeus

We don’t mind seeing gods in various states of undress, but the idea of Washington, who was a real guy with false teeth, someone who belched and had to clip his toenails, no matter how well he governed, the idea of him naked is just wrong. It’s undignified, and ridiculous. And that’s why everyone says the poor president is holding his hand up asking someone to hand him his pants.

Finally, it occurs to me that “George Washington in a toga!” would make a great saying whenever you don’t want to cuss in front of your kids.

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Update 02/17/2012 — This post remains one of the most popular on my site, and I remain eternally glad that so many of you also appreciate the incongruity that is George Washington in a toga. Should you wish for more juicy details on this work, check out this post, which draws on a new page devoted to the statue.

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7 Responses to George Washington in a toga!

  1. Dick says:

    This statue depicts George Washington depicted as Zeus giving the “As above, so below” sign as he begins his ascension into Heaven. Yes! Early America did try to emulate the ancient Greek fprm of government!!! Google “George Washington Zeus” to find the truth.

  2. Laura says:

    Actually Greenough was stylizing Washington as Jupiter, not Zeus. Roman, not Greek. And actually his pose is depicting him relinquishing the sheathed sword of power to the people, while pointing to the heavens, indicative of returning power to the hands of the many under God. Not a “Babe Ruth-like calling of his shot” into heaven, as Dick (aptly named) seems to think. And if you think this one is bad, check out The Rescue.

  3. Jennifer Lester says:

    Several sources state that Greenough was intending this to be modeled after the statue of Zeus by the Greek sculptor Phidias, but the way he depicts a leader as a God is similar to how Roman Emperors such as Claudius had themselves portrayed. The important thing here is that Greenough thought this was a big compliment, but apparently he forgot American taste while he was across the Atlantic. Washington would not have wanted himself portrayed like a God, or an emperor. Maybe Greenough thought that with the rise of Neoclassical architecture, which, interestingly, he hated, that the American public was ready for this type of sculpture. It’s also interesting that Powers’ The Greek Slave came just 3 years after this, so his thoughts on this type of sculpture weren’t too far off, just used on the wrong figure. American aesthetics is a fascinating subject.

    • Elizabeth says:

      You’re right on, Jennifer. Poor Greenough just completely misjudged his audience as well as his subject. And you’re right about American aesthetics as well–what we’re open to at any given time is dependent on so many factors. Who could have expected, for example, that Maya Lin’s Memorial Wall would have received such an overwhelming emotional response? It was the right work at the right time. Greenough’s was the wrong work at the wrong time.

  4. [...] wrote about this wacky and wonderful sculpture back in 2010, and that one post remains the most popular on my site. I can’t explain it, [...]

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