George Washington

Historical Background

Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1796/1933. Civic Center Mall. 6'8"h x 3'w x 2'8"d
In 1784, the Assembly of the State of Virginia commissioned a statue of George Washington "to be of the finest marble and the best workmanship." Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France, recommended that Jean-Antoine Houdon, the most famous sculptor of the day, execute the work. Beginning in the late summer of 1785, Houdon along with three assistants stayed at Mt. Vernon taking detailed measurements of Washington's arms, legs, hands and chest and making a mold of his face. Although work began after Houdon returned to Paris later that year, the statue was not completed and shipped to the United States until 1796, when it was installed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. During the 1850s, the Virginia State Legislature authorized the casting of 11 bronze copies of the monument. Additional copies were cast in the 20th century, including 22 by the Gorham Company. Bronze copies are located in Northern Ireland, the National Gallery in London, the Corcoran Gallery and Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

One of the 22 cast by the Gorham Company was financed by the Woman's Auxiliary of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and dedicated on February 22, 1933. In 1961, it was moved to its present location in the Civic Center Mall after occupying different sites in the immediate vicinity. The pedestal is made from stone salvaged from the old County Courthouse when it was razed in 1936.

The statue of Washington, who is depicted with his exact life size measurements at age 53, contains symbolic as well as realistic elements. Civilian supremacy over the military is depicted by the placement of Washington's right hand on a cane and his left hand on a fasces, against which a sword hangs. The fasces, made of thirteen rods symbolizing the thirteen states, rests on a plowshare--the agricultural foundation of the nation.

George Washington (1732-99) began his rise to national importance when, at a meeting of the Virginia provincial convention in 1774, he pledged to raise, finance and lead 1000 men to relieve Boston. The following year, the Continental Congress appointed him commander of the army. He steadfastly led the army from the dark days of 1776, when he retreated from New York, through the bitter winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, to final victory at Yorktown in 1783. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington was one of Virginia's five delegates and was unanimously elected president of the Convention. After the Constitution was drafted, he worked for its adoption and later was unanimously elected by the Electoral College to be the nation's first President. His two terms were marked by caution while issues arising out of the wars between France and Great Britain divided his administration. Washington retired in March 1797, and, except for a brief stint as commander-in-chief of the army in 1798, devoted the remaining two and a half years of his life to the affairs of his estate at Mt. Vernon. Upon his death, his slaves were freed.

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1998.

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