hereville (hereville) wrote,

Horatio Greenough, America's Most Embarrassing Sculptor

Via Ann at Feministing, I read a good Susan Faludi op-ed about gender and the campaign for the presidency:

...A Barack Obama versus John McCain match-up still has the makings of an epic American gender showdown.

The reason is a gender ethic that has guided American politics since the age of Andrew Jackson. The sentiment was succinctly expressed in a massive marble statue that stood on the steps of the United States Capitol from 1853 to 1958. Named “The Rescue,” but more commonly known as “Daniel Boone Protects His Family,” the monument featured a gigantic white pioneer in a buckskin coat holding a nearly naked Indian in a death’s grip, while off to the side a frail white woman crouched over her infant.

The question asked by this American Sphinx to all who dared enter the halls of leadership was, “Are you man enough?” This year, Senator Obama has notably refused to give the traditional answer.

I agree with what Ann, Faludi and Dana said about gender, but what about that statue?

The statue is by Horatio Greenough, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the most embarrassing of America's great sculptors. He produced two Great Works, and both of them are cringeworthy.

Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of George Washingon.Greenough's most famous statue depicts a musclebound, toga-clad George Washington (inspired by a famous sculpture of Zeus). From the moment it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda ((It had to be moved just a few years later, when it was discovered that the weight of the six-ton marble statue was cracking the Rotunda floor.)), the half-naked Washington was considered a scandal by those who didn't consider it a joke. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "Did anybody ever see Washington naked! It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine, was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."

According to one theory, Greenough originally designed the statue to be sitting on a chariot being drawn by six horses -- the outstretched left hand was to be holding the reigns -- but Congress was unwilling to pay for all that. But looking at the statue now, I can see that the pose -- which I find very awkward, with its slight backwards lean and the outstretched left foot -- would have been better if Washington was leaning back against reigns.

I remember seeing this statue when I was a kid, in the Smithsonian in D.C., and being shushed because I broke out in giggles. But at least I got to see it. Greenough's other great sculpture, described in Faludi's op-ed, started life on the steps of the Capitol building. Now it's hidden away in storage (except for one small piece of it, as we will see), and probably will never see daylight again.

And that's for the best, because it would be hard to find a more blatant piece of racist, sexist propaganda. Take a look at this thing:

Horatio Greenough’s sculpture “The Rescue.” The statue shows a white man wrestling an American Indian; the white man is dressed as a pioneer, the Indian is wearing a loincloth. The white man, who is three heads taller than the Indian, has grabbed the Indian from behind, pinning the Indian’s left arm and holding the Indians hatchet-wielding right arm. The impression given is of a God attacking a ten-year-old. In the background, a white woman, barefoot in a dress, cringes on the ground, holding a baby, her long wavy hair cascading down her back to her waist. On the white guy’s other side, his dog looks on, teeth bared, tail high in the air.

"The Rescue" brings two images from pop culture to my mind:

1) In one of the Harry Potter books, in the Ministry of Magic, there's an enormous statue of a heroic Wizard, surrounded by lesser beings (witches, elves, giants, etc?), which Harry finds embarrassing to look at, because the self-aggrandizing racism is so transparent. In my mind, that statue was sculpted by Horatio Greenough, as well.

2) In the climax of the movie True Lies, the hero, played by monument to unstoppable ambition Arnold Schwarzenegger, winds up facing the Evil Terrorist Mastermind, who is armed only with a knife clenched between his teeth. Arnold is armed with a Harrier Jet. Are we really supposed to find the guy with the frakkin' Harrier Jet to be the brave one? Similarly, Greenough's sculpture makes Boone so huge and dominating that the result looks like God wrestling a ten-year-old.

I imagine that when this statue was installed on the Capitol steps, Greenough thought he had achieved immortal fame. But, instead, it apparently became all too embarrassing by 1959, when it was taken down and put into permanent storage. Four decades later, the only part of this statue that wouldn't make modern viewers cringe -- the dog -- was sent to Middlebury College to join an exhibit of Greenough's drawings.

And as far as I can tell, that's the closest "The Rescue" has come to a public showing in the last half-century.
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