Monday, September 16, 2013

Featured Artifact: The Origins of the Washington Bust at MNHP

For decades the marble bust of George Washington which resides in Washington’s Headquarters Museum at Morristown National Historical Park has been regarded as the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, “the most famous of all French sculptors of the eighteenth century.”  Yet recent research complicates this assessment of the piece and instead suggests that the sculpture cannot be attributed to Houdon.  In “Houdon, ‘Above All Modern Artists,’” Guilhem Scherf notes that the sculptor closely “attended to the notion of the ownership of his works.”  To distinguish his work from that of his many imitators, Houdon “was the only [sculptor] among his contemporaries to create a red wax seal bearing his name and title as member of the Académie royale and to place it on his sculptures for their authentication.”  While Scherf acknowledged that it is difficult to determine the exact date at which Houdon began to utilize this cachet de l’atelier, the scholar contends that it is likely that the seal was in use by 1782, though works from as early as 1776 bear this marking as well.

Scherf’s observations are particularly insightful because they suggest that all of Houdon’s busts of George Washington would have been marked in this manner if the seal was in use by 1782.  The Frenchman traveled the United States in 1785, to measure Washington for what Houdon believed was the most important commission of his career.  After returning to France in late 1785, Houdon set about creating his portrait of Washington, which was eventually finished in January 1787.  Though he produced several busts of Washington, the first was completed nearly five years after Houdon began using his cachet de l’atelier.  Therefore, it is likely that all the busts should bear Houdon’s distinctive seal.  The bust in Washington’s Headquarters Museum does not bear this seal, thus it can be inferred that Houdon is not its progenitor.  Yet it is obvious that many of the visual elements of the bust located in Washington’s Headquarters Museum are strikingly similar to those of Houdon’s works.  According to Anne L. Poulet, this visual consonance is due to the fact that “Houdon’s portraits established the primary iconography for Washington in Europe and America and were copied and imitated by many sculptors in the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States.”[3]  While it is likely that Houdon did not sculpt the piece at Washington’s Headquarters Museum, his work may have served as the model for the individual who did produce the bust.

Consider, for instance, several of the formal qualities of the Washington bust at Morristown (fig. 1).  Specifically, Washington’s eyes are characterized by a great deal of detail.  The portrait is brought to life, so to speak, by the bowl-like irises carved into the eye, with deeper depressions representing the pupils.  Houdon utilized a similar technique, first implementing it in his work in 1771.  As Scherf notes, “Houdon’s naturalism was given its utmost expression in the attention he paid to his subjects’ eyes.”  Houdon also utilized a distinctive style in the way that he portrayed his subjects’ hair.  According to Scherf, Houdon represented hair in its totality, and did not sculpt individual strands, but rather, masses.[4]  While the hair of the bust of Washington at Morristown National Historical Park is characterized by a degree of detail, individual strands are not represented.  On the contrary, Washington’s hair is represented in large bunches or masses.  For a comparable representation of Washington, one must look no further than the marble bust of Washington produced by Houdon which resides in the collection at Sweden’s National Museum (fig. 2).   
Fig. 1:  Detail of the eyes of the George Washington marble bust on display at
Washington’s Headquarters Museum, Morristown NHP.
Fig. 2: Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, ca. 1787,
National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.

There exists a resemblance between the two Washington busts as both are characterized by detailed eyes and hair.  However, it must be noted that the detailing of the piece which is definitively Houdon’s is not entirely similar to that of the Morristown bust.  This is especially true of the hair.  The hair of both portraits of Washington extends to a length which leaves just a small portion of the ears exposed.  Yet the Morristown piece is defined by larger, more distinctive bunches of hair.  The hair is not merely one totality, but a series of substantive masses which together form a larger whole (fig. 3).  This difference is significant, as it further reinforces that Houdon did not produce the Morristown bust.  In addition, the Morristown bust lacks detailed eyebrows.  Instead, the section of the upper portion of the eye sockets are embellished, but not accentuated with hair.  The Houdon bust, however, is characterized by clearly defined eyebrows.  It is also worth noting that both busts depict Washington gazing off to his left side, with his head turned slightly in that direction.  Moreover, both portraits are characterized by a mouth which is clearly defined, but closed.  This aspect of both sculptures helps to evoke a pensive demeanor.  In this sense, some of the most important of the formal attributes of the Washington bust at Morristown demonstrate that the piece could not have been produced by Houdon.  Nevertheless, the relative consonance between the figures suggests that the individual who produced the Morristown bust was inspired by Houdon’s style.

Fig. 3:  Detail of the hair of the George Washington marble bust on display at
Washington’s Headquarters Museum, Morristown NHP.

Several of the leading American sculptors of the nineteenth century adopted artistic styles inspired by the work of Houdon.  Included amongst this cohort are Hiram Powers, Horatio Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Thomas Ball.  While the work of each one of these artists shared particular affinities with that of Houdon, including the treatment of hair, there is at least one formal quality which differentiates the work of the Frenchman.  As Scherf argues, Houdon’s treatment of eyes within his work was especially unique.  The works produced by Powers, Greenough, Crawford, and Ball serve to reinforce this point.  In other words, each one of the American sculptors neglected to devote as much artistic attention to human eyes within their respective pieces as did Houdon.  Instead, the eyes of their figures are blank, lifeless masses (see fig. 4 and fig. 5).  

Fig. 4: Hiram Powers, George Washington, 1849,
Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ.
Note that the figure’s eyes lack any detail.

Fig. 5: Horatio Greenough, George Washington, ca. 1832,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Note, like the bust produced by Hiram Powers, the eyes of this
bust lack any detail.

Although Hiram Powers has been mentioned as being potentially responsible for the Washington bust at Morristown, his visual style, which closely resembles that of Houdon, with the exception of the eyes, seems to disqualify him.  Powers’ busts portray human hair as a large mass (fig. 4), in a manner that is dissimilar to the more detailed depiction adorning the Morristown bust.  In fact, the hair of the Washington bust at Morristown closely resembles that of Horatio Greenough’s portrait which can be found in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 5).  In addition to this similarity, the quality of marble of both the Greenough piece and the Morristown piece appear to be quite similar.  Both share the same pensive facial expression and lack detailed eyebrows, though the brows of both sculptures appear to be raised.  If it were not for the difference in the manner through which the eyes are portrayed in both pieces, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Greenough sculpted the bust at Morristown.  It seems likely that the individual who produced the bust at Morristown emulated in large part the visual language of Greenough, who had of course modeled his own work on that of Houdon.  Indeed, the bust at Morristown testifies to formal influences from both Houdon and Greenough.  Whether the individual who produced the sculpture at Morristown was a student of Greenough or an imitator remains difficult to determine.  Yet it is likely that he was very familiar with the work of Greenough.  Thus more comprehensive research may demonstrate that the sculptor was a member of Greenough’s immediate intellectual and aesthetic milieu.

[1] Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968), 51.
[2] Guilhem Scherf, “Houdon, ‘Above All Modern Artists’” in Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, edited by Anne L. Poulet (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2003), 22-23.
[3] Anne L. Poulet, “George Washington (1732-1799)” in Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2003), 263-266.
[4] Scherf, “Houdon ‘Above All Modern Artists,’” 21.

This blog entry by Michael King, Drew University.

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