George Washington's Rock-Hard Abs
186 years ago this week, George Washington would’ve turned 100. Congress decided to mark the occasion by commissioning the first official sculpture of the founding father, and it seemed fitting that this initial effigy of the nation’s first president be crafted by the first American-born sculptor.
Horatio Greenough was a typical product of the New England noblesse; the son of a successful real-estate dealer in Boston, educated at the Philips Academy in Andover, and later at Harvard. Blessed from an early age with both artistic skill and the intellectual curiosity needed to guide it, Greenough doggedly pursued the classical arts. His family home in Jamaica Plain was plastered with chalk busts of William Penn and John Adams. While at Harvard, Greenough’s pleasant temperament and faculty for the arts earned him a reputation as a rising star, a status he shared with fellow Harvard students such as the celebrated painter Allston Washington.
For the government, it was to be a metaphor for the nation’s story of independence and growth; for the sculptor, it was to be his magnum opus, his piece de resistance.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
Greenough won the commission while studying sculpting in Italy. He started working on the former president in Florence, where three centuries years prior Michelangelo transformed a hulking mass of marble into a masterpiece of Renaissance art and engineering.
Over the next eight years he drafted, sketched, carved, and chucked various iterations of the daunting task that lay before him. His final creation was a Carrara marble statue that depicted the former president in the classical Grecian style. It was, in every sense of the word, colossal: 12-tons heavy and as many feet high, it took a yoke of twenty-two oxen just to move it. Locals, upon clapping eyes with the gargantuan, deity-like statue, would follow the cart as it went from village to village, leaving a trail of speculation and wonderment across the Italian countryside.
The reception in Washington was different. In fact, it cratered: the floor of the rotunda threatened to give way under the incredible weight of the marble. More importantly, many members of Congress hated the statue which they so lavishly acquired.
It turns out Greenough was more interested in covering the statue with Grecian metaphorical imagery than clothing; his classical training in Florence led him to model his Washington on a statue of Zeus. The two statues look very similar: both depict a man sitting on a throne, one arm outstretched toward the heavens, the other arm cradling a sword. Both statues also show whole lot of chest — they wear nothing but togas and sandals from the waist down. Greenough did not hold back: Washington has got muscles like you wouldn’t believe. The statue’s got pecs, abs, and delts that put even the most earnest gym bros to shame. This early #freethenipple contender shocked a lot people—even infuriating some—at what they perceived as an unseemly representation of a national hero. After only two years, the furor reached a crisis point, and the government did what it usually does when confronted with an issue: they put it somewhere else.
Greenough’s Washington was moved to the East Lawn of the Capitol, and lawmakers breathed a collective sigh of relief. Momentarily: now that the statue was out of the rotunda, Washington’s finely chiseled physique was on display for all the citizens of the city of his namesake to gawk at.
And gawk at they did. The statue sparked similar reactions from the public, albeit this time with a bit more bon homie. Some made fun of his pose, suggesting that he was caught in the midst of reaching for some clothes. Not much attention was given to the elaborate bas-reliefs etched into the sides of Washington’s chair, or the symbolic nature of the sheathed sword—this was a burgeoning 19th Century meme, after all. Congress was getting desperate; Greenough’s statue was becoming a monumental pain in the ass. Its extensive upkeep compounded the annoyance: it had to be covered and attended to for most of the summer and parts of the winter. Even Mother Nature, it seemed, didn’t care for this George Washington.
At long last, in 1908, the statue found a home in the Smithsonian Castle—which, despite its cool-sounding title, is the closest thing the U.S. government has to your parent’s attic. While other Smithsonian buildings house the star-spangled banner flag, dinosaurs, and the Apollo 11 Command Module, the Smithsonian Castle has… administrative offices. For over fifty years, George lived among cubicles and water coolers, seemingly destined to live out his life in obscurity.
It took a time of extraordinary social change to change the statue’s fortune—it took the ‘60s. The effigy was moved to what is now called The National Museum of American History, which is where it remains today. You’ll still have to do some digging to find Greenough’s would-be masterpiece, however. It’s on the second floor, around a corner—the first thing you see when you leave the bathroom.