America’s Better Bet: The Wooden Washington

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

Statue of George Washington by William Rush. Photographed May 6, 1921 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

William Rush, ship figurehead carver extraordinaire, had done it again. His “bold and striking likeness of the President” on the 250-ton ‘General Washington’” gave “pleasure to every spectator” according to the Pennsylvania Journal. This time, Rush had notched his game up from a tomahawk-wielding “Indian Trader” with a real, life-size, sitting commander-in-chief. So practical, so promising—so distinctly American—here in the 1790s, was a reality show on the prow of a ship. It transformed the busy docks of Philadelphia and London into sculpture galleries.

As a practical patriot, Rush knew what would speak to the American spirit—and what wouldn’t. He deployed his talents in a modest and practical way, scaling to the moment, the American reality.

Giuseppe Ceracchi, on the other hand, that ambitious goldsmith from Rome, was neither aligned nor in synch with that reality.

Ceracchi “burst upon the American scene” in 1791, “fresh from the rabid republican turbulence of Revolutionary Paris, filled with a volcanic enthusiasm for Liberty and the Rights of Man…” Knowing Continental Congress had not yet commissioned the equestrian statue of the Founding Father approved in 1783, he presented Congress with a proposal for a giant, operatic design of extraordinary scale. Ceracchi described it in a letter to Congress and tacked his sketch of it on a wall at Oellers Hotel at 6th and Chestnut Streets.

Ceracchi’s baroque “Monument designed to perpetuate the Memory of American Liberty” would feature a larger-than-life-bronze Washington on his horse atop a rocky summit surrounded by allegorical groups “to be of the finest Italian Marble.” According to the artist’s description, “Liberty arrives on American soil in a chariot driven by Saturn” pulled by four winged horses. Poetry and History welcome her while Philosophy removes the blinding-veil from Policy. Meanwhile, Valor “faces down terror-stricken Despotism.” Each of the allegorical figures, which would include Apollo and Clio, Neptune and Mercury, Nature and Minerva, Genius and Fame, would stand fifteen feet tall. Ceracchi envisioned his entire pompous project at least sixty feet, possibly even one hundred feet tall.

Congress seemed star-struck enough to entertain the idea, no doubt helped by Ceracchi’s offer to take “no pecuniary Reward” willing to be “satisfied with the Glory, which his performance will receive from the Subject itself.” Ceracchi demonstrated his skill and intentions by sculpting a life-sized marble bust of the President as a Roman emperor (with appropriate ancient hair style and toga) and he sculpted in terracotta a portion of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, which would watch over Congress as it deliberated. In the end, however, Congress chose not to fund the commission. (“At the present time it might not be expedient to go into the expenses which the Monument . . . would require, especially with the additional ornaments proposed by the artist.”) And so the Washington bust eventually found its way into the Metropolitan Museum and Minerva came to rest at the Library Company.

An equestrian Washington would take another fifty years in New York and Richmond, and more than another century in Philadelphia.

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photogrpahed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

George Washington by William Rush, rear view. Photographed April 8, 1929 by Wenzel J. Hess. (PhillyHistory.org)

Meanwhile, the modest, earnest Rush, sculptor of pine—never bronze or marble—moved up the creative ranks from ship carver to the “First American Sculptor.” And in 1815, two decades after the collapse of Ceracchi’s proposal, Rush produced “a dramatic and spirited interpretation of the first American president as a statesman.”

Writes Linda Bantell: “Washington wears the costume of the period over which is draped a ‘flowing Grecian mantle’” to use Rush’s own words. It “cascades over the edge of the pedestal. In his right hand, Washington holds an unfurling scroll while leaning on a book (a common symbol for wisdom), on top of a Doric column (for fortitude); his right foot is thrust forward, catching the edge of a second scroll as it too unfurls.”

Rush’s down to earth, full -standing, in-the-moment wooden Washington was everything Ceracchi’s was not. Nowhere was the heavy-duty allegorical narrative. Gone was the imported marble and the imperial posturing. Here stood the man, not in bronze, or in marble, or even in rare imported wood. This wooden, not-even-quite-life-size Washington was carved in plain American pine and placed in Independence Hall to greet the Marquis de Lafayette on his return visit to America in 1824. Lafayette claimed it revived in his memory Washington’s “majesty of countenance, the affability of his manner, and the dignity with which he addressed those about him.”

In 1831, Rush rejected an insultingly low offer of $500 from a potential private buyer. That would only reimburse Rush for his months of labor so many years before, he complained. But when the City of Philadelphia matched the offer, Rush accepted. And so the wooden Washington stood in Independence Hall for the next century and a half, as genuinely presidential a work of art as there might ever be in America.

And Rush’s reputation? It would forever hover somewhere between “inspired artisan” and “sculptural genius”—an appropriately American immortality.

[Sources include: Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1982); “Enclosure: Giuseppe Ceracchi to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; To George Washington from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 31 October 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives; Wayne Craven , “The Origins of Sculpture in America: Philadelphia, 1785-1830,” The American Art Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Nov., 1977); Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, “Fragment of a Lost Monument,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 7 (Mar., 1948).]

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