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Vagabond Statue

July 31, 1841

Statue of George Washington

On July 31, 1841, a sailing vessel from Leghorn, Italy, docked at the Washington Navy Yard. It carried a massive 10-foot-high, 12-ton marble statue of a seated man wearing only a Roman toga. The artist was the noted American sculptor Horatio Greenough; the marble man, modeled after the Greek god Zeus, was George Washington. Several years earlier, Congress had commissioned Greenough to prepare this work for permanent display in the recently completed Capitol Rotunda.

Controversy erupted almost immediately. Capitol officials directed that the piece be placed at the center of the Rotunda. Sculptor Greenough protested. He wanted it moved off to the side so that light coming through the top of the wooden dome, which at that time covered the Rotunda, would strike Washington’s face at a flattering angle. By placing the statue in the center, the nearly vertical light would, he feared, shade the lower portions of the face “and give a false and constrained effect to the whole monument.” He lost that argument.

The second point of controversy related to the work’s design. Despite the era’s neo-classical revival, few on Capitol Hill seemed ready for a half-naked father-of-the-country with well-developed and fully exposed shoulder muscles. His upraised right arm, draped with what appeared to be a towel across his biceps, gave the impression that he was preparing for a bath. Within weeks, incensed members of Congress demanded the work’s removal. Sculptor Greenough seized the opportunity for a better location and suggested a perch on the Capitol’s west front. He also lost that argument.

Two years after workmen had hauled the 12-ton statue up the east-front stairs, they hauled the work back down and placed it in the center of the Capitol’s eastern plaza. During the winter of 1844, carpenters built a small shed to protect the underdressed patriarch from snow and ice. Come spring, the unsightly shed was removed; it was seldom replaced in the winters that followed.

As decades passed, the elements pitted and discolored the marble. Finally, a charitable Congress took pity on the snow-covered president in the parking lot. In 1908, the sculpture made another journey—to the indoor warmth of the Smithsonian Institution. Today, this historical curiosity resides on the second floor of the National Museum of American History. While the setting is less grand than that of the Capitol Rotunda, at least the lighting is perfect.