Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Horatio Greenough and the Form Majestic: The Biography of the Nation’s First Washington Monument by Harry Rand

Reviewed by Julia A. Sienkewicz

Harry Rand,
Horatio Greenough and the Form Majestic: The Biography of the Nation’s First Washington Monument.
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2020.
266 pp.; 113 color and b&w illus.; notes; appendices, index.
$35 (hardcover)
ISBN 978–1–944466–29–9

Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) stream by an oddity en route to the entrance floor escalators: the monumental portrait of George Washington, completed by the sculptor Horatio Greenough in 1841 (fig. 1). The statue points commandingly toward the heavens with its right hand, but now this gesture seems to merely direct visitors upward to the next floor of the museum (fig. 2). The sculpture’s white marble and neoclassical aesthetic contrast with the mechanized escalators and the pop-history tone of the surrounding wall text. Though well-known to historians of the art of the United States, the statue receives relatively little attention from the tourists who rush by. A few panels of information offer perfunctory details about the statue’s significant history, presumably satisfying the curiosity of most visitors to the museum. With this book, Harry Rand, senior curator of cultural history at the NMAH, seeks to retell the statue’s “biography,” from its celebrated commission through its eventual presence in the Smithsonian as a “shameful affliction that the Smithsonian endured at the pleasure of Congress” (ix). His intended audience is the educated public who might generally not give the statue a passing second glance. Rand retells the statue’s life story in ten chapters, accompanied by eleven appendices. The first four chapters pertain to the conceptualization, commissioning, and design of the statue. The next three chapters discuss the journey of the statue from Florence, Italy (where it was designed and carved) to Washington, DC, its controversial reception after installation in the United States Capitol, and its removal from the Capitol. The final three chapters of the book engage with the statue’s life after the Capitol, Greenough’s artistic legacy, and the design of the pedestal and base of the statue.

figure 1
Fig. 1, Horatio Greenough, George Washington, completed 1841. Marble. Shown in its current position in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Photograph by the author.
figure 2
Fig. 2, View of tourists interacting with Horatio Greenough’s George Washington. Photograph by the author.
figure 3
Fig. 3, Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1788–95. Carrara marble. Virginia State Capitol, Richmond. Artwork in the public domain; available from Wikipedia, commons.wikimedia.org.

Rand meticulously recounts the arc of the statue’s history, punctuating his narrative with numerous primary source citations—many transcribed in their entirety. The basic arc of the statue’s history can be recounted as follows. After several years of political machinations, Greenough’s George Washington was commissioned via Congressional resolution in February 1832, with the artist’s name written directly into the resolution alongside the requirement that Greenough model Washington’s head on the authoritative portrait by Jean-Antoine Houdon (fig. 3). The statue began its journey from Greenough’s studio in Florence, Italy, in March 1841 and finally reached Washington, DC, on July 31 that summer. The statue was installed in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol in December 1841, albeit on a temporary pedestal. Almost immediately, the statue faced severe criticism from members of the public, as well as members of Congress. Meanwhile, Greenough was displeased with the installation and began to make formal complaints that the lighting was unsuitable to the statue. By February 1843, the sculptor requested the statue’s removal from the Rotunda and relocation to an exterior (covered) location on the Capitol grounds. Congress quickly accepted the sculptor’s request and by May of that year George Washington was relocated. Although Greenough had assumed that the federal government would fund the construction of an appropriate structure to protect the sculpture from the elements and display it in an appealing manner, this was not to be. Thus far, the story of the statue is well known to art historians, if not to the wider reading public, from previous scholarship, including that of Sylvia Crane, Nathalia Wright, and Vivien Green Fryd.‍[1]

Rand’s contributions are more substantial in tracing the history of the statue after its removal from the Capitol. He recounts the many twists of fate that eventually led to the sculpture sitting, fully exposed to the elements, for decades. The narrative sifts through many government records, newspaper articles, and archival sources, providing an incredibly detailed account of the statue’s history, as well as the changing public understanding of the work over the years following its removal from the Capitol. Importantly, Rand credits the sculptor Lorado Taft with setting in motion the rescue and conservation of the sculpture, by including significant coverage of the statue in his History of American Sculpture (1903). Following Taft’s public reminder of the sculpture’s significance, Illinois congressman James R. Mann led the legislative charge to relocate and protect the work. In 1908, legislation passed for the sculpture to be presented to the Smithsonian Institution, though the relocation of the statue and the construction of a “suitable” pedestal for it in the Smithsonian Castle dragged on through the coming year. Only in 1910 was the statue installed and properly accessioned into the Smithsonian’s collections. In 1961, the statue made its final move to what was then the National Museum of History and Technology, into which it was installed before the museum structure was completed. Although Greenough had designed the statue to look down on pedestrians from a pedestal, its remaining pedestal was discarded, leaving it, as Rand concludes, installed in such a way that “nobody could properly see it as it was meant to be viewed” (145). Despite subsequent complaints about the unsatisfactory positioning of the statue, its fate and future are linked to its current location indefinitely, as the museums’ “entrance portals were partially constructed behind it, sealing it in the building” (148).

Horatio Greenough and the Form Majestic takes a tone common among government publications, focusing on the facts of the statue’s history and artistic context, without entering too deeply into political or social criticism. Rand takes as his central concern the task of disambiguating the statue’s factual history from the “fables, myths and outright falsehoods” (xii) that now surround it. The sheer mass of primary sources consulted and reproduced in the volume are testament to Rand’s persistent concern with replacing legend with fact.‍[2] The collection of numerous historical photographs of the statue is delightful. Assembling this history took many years of research and leaned on the resources of both the Smithsonian and the Curator of the Architect of the Capitol. Most readers will find the number of quotations, lengthy transcriptions, and appendices overwhelming and, perhaps, off-putting. For scholars, they are a valuable, though not comprehensive, archive of sources concerning the discourse surrounding the statue and offering a quick resource for compelling commentary on the statue from specific historical moments. Some greater selectivity and editing of these sources would have made a more appealing account. Similarly, while some texts are presented in their entirety, other significant sources are treated with much less attention—such as the legislation for the statue’s commission, which is heavily excerpted and not fully cited. It is unclear why certain documents are highlighted in appendices, while others are transcribed fully within the text, and still others are treated only briefly. Scholars will find similar frustrations in the lack of a bibliography or an illustration list. Images are captioned throughout the text, but they are not given figure numbers.

As well-known as Horatio Greenough’s George Washington is to art historians, it is still a work that could be characterized as under-studied and minimally theorized. The seminal studies by Sylvia Crane and Nathalia Wright were published in the 1970s. Vivien Green Fryd’s chapter on the sculpture in her significant book Art and Empire was nearly thirty years old when Horatio Greenough and the Form Majestic was published. Although Rand largely avoids analysis in favor of factual accounting, his book is surely the most complete narrative concerning the sculpture and its history. Rand’s use of secondary sources, especially those published since the 1990s, is limited, but the depth of primary sources highlights the wealth of information available about the sculpture and emphasizes the opportunities for scholars to revisit its history and interpretation. Importantly, as he follows the contours of the sculpture’s story, Rand also critiques the limitations of its maker. Here, more than in previous biographies of the artist, Greenough comes across as an artist with an over-blown sense of self-worth, impractical expectations concerning finances and government alike, and limited artistic ability that could not match his artistic concepts. While Greenough and his significance to the history of the art of the United States are painstakingly reintroduced here to the reading public, Rand’s critiques invite the viewer to come to terms with the statue’s imperfections while also rediscovering its historical significance.

Rand pays particular attention to explaining Greenough’s neoclassical aesthetic in accessible terms for a non-specialist reader. It has long been understood that Greenough’s contemporary audience argued about the merit of the sculpture in ways that reflected their sympathy, or lack thereof, with neoclassicism. Rand’s explication of Greenough’s sculpture combines a survey-level overview of neoclassicism for the general reader with some fascinating deep dives into technical aspects of Greenough’s specific engagement with the Classical tradition. Rand seems to sympathize with the reader who might struggle to understand neoclassicism, commenting “classicism remains a confusing concept” (12), but also insists that the reader gain familiarity with the idea that the specific visual languages of neoclassicism could allow an artist to convey widely varying moral and political convictions depending on the classical ideals captured within a work. While some of Greenough’s contemporaries would highlight his use of the semi-nude figure in the statue of Washington as indecent, Rand points out that Greenough also misbalanced the political visualizations of neoclassicism in the work. Greenough’s friend and mentor, the renowned painter Washington Allston, instructed the young sculptor to “make the figure as severe and simple as possible—for these qualities contain the essence of the imaginative in such a man,”‍[3] but Rand rightly observes that this austerity “contested with Greenough’s ambitions for grandeur” (13). Although Rand does not offer many contemporary sculptural comparisons alongside which to consider Greenough’s George Washington, his historical anecdotes deepen our understanding of the cultural and linguistic contexts of neoclassicism with which Greenough was engaged. One such fascinating discussion is Rand’s analysis of the Latin inscription that Greenough wrote for the rear panel of the statue’s base. Focusing in on the sculptor’s use of the word faciebat instead of the simpler fecit, Rand argues that Greenough deliberately positioned himself within “an august lineage, the masters who used faciebat, artists of the classical age, the Renaissance, and the neoclassical—an ageless tradition he wanted to recognize as his heritage” (73). Yet, like many of Greenough’s more academic ideas, this was misunderstood and ridiculed by his audience. As Rand concludes, “that ambition . . . failed” and led to “an unprecedented (and never repeated) debate [in which] the U. S. Congress pondered the use of the imperfect tense in Latin” (73).

Rand draws the title of his book from the opening stanza of a poem by H. T. Tuckerman, dedicated to Greenough’s statue, which speaks directly to the statue as “thy form majestic.”‍[4] Although contemporary tourists might be confused by Greenough’s statue or ignore it entirely, the sculpture was understood in its time as a significant public art commission, indeed as the nation’s first federal monument commissioned for the memory of George Washington. In the work, Greenough represents Washington enthroned. He is bare-chested and commanding—certainly heroic, and possibly kingly or deified. Tuckerman’s choice of words (“the form majestic”) highlights these stately associations, though Greenough himself argued that the statue represented quite the opposite through “the idea of an entire abnegation of Self.”‍[5] Clearly, the statue cannot be both a “form majestic” and represent “an entire abnegation of Self,” a central contradiction that continues to vex scholarship on the work as much as it flustered critics in Greenough’s historical moment. Still, Rand’s adoption of the phrase “form majestic” deserves further consideration.

Although Rand eschews the advancement of a critical theoretical stance within the book, and admittedly may have faced certain limitations in his scholarship both because he is a federal employee and because he published with the Smithsonian Institution Press, he cannot escape the inevitable ways in which any work of scholarship uplifts certain ideals over others. Rand’s monograph recuperates the history of a significant sculpture, digging more deeply into the twists and turns of its “biography” than have previous scholars. In so doing, the text is inevitably celebratory. Although Rand rightly presents Greenough as imperfect and the sculpture as unsuccessful in many ways, these comments do not offset the celebration of the statue as a “form majestic” and as a remarkable first public monument for the nation. Most significantly, Rand largely ignores Fryd’s widely-accepted analysis of the racist history of federal art commissioned for the United States Capitol, even though Greenough’s statue quite overtly contributes to this history in its representation of a subsidiary Native American figure shown as a pendant to Christopher Columbus. Rand illustrates these figures and offers a perfunctory description of them, including the rather general comment that “a generic American Indian ponders what has already been lost and what will subsequently be taken from him” (62). Although Greenough’s George Washington ultimately sat in the Rotunda for only a brief interval, how much richer would Rand’s discussion of the statue have been if it were repositioned within the context of race and federal iconography already introduced by Fryd? Greenough’s statue is, fundamentally, a body that is represented to the public as a heroic and civic form to be elevated—even worshiped in a secular sense. Within the Rotunda, it would arguably have celebrated a powerful Anglo-Saxon male body. It would be unfair to suggest that Rand advances a racist ideal of the white male body over the non-white body in his text. But, by not engaging with the intellectual foundations established by Fryd, and specifically engaging with the values of race that informed Greenough’s work, Rand inevitably, if accidently, celebrates this “form majestic” more than he critiques it.


[1] There is an extensive bibliography concerning the life of Greenough and this sculpture, specifically. Among the principal sources from which Rand builds are: Sylvia Crane, White Silence: Greenough, Powers, and Crawford (Miami: University of Miami Press, 1972), Nathalia Wright, Horatio Greenough, the first American Sculptor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973), and Vivien Green Fryd, Art and Empire: the Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815–1860 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).

[2] Rand dedicates a paragraph of his acknowledgements to Barbara Wolanin, retired Curator of the Capitol, “and her team” for their assistance in helping reconstruct many layers of the story, see p. 171.

[3] Cited by from Letters of Horatio Greenough, American Sculptor, ed. Nathalia Wright (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972): 167. See Rand, 208n19.

[4] H. T. Tuckerman, A Memorial of Horatio Greenough (New York: Putnam, 1853). Cited in Rand, 214n3.

[5] Letter of May 8, 1841, from Horatio Greenough to Lady Rosina Wheeler Bulwer Lytton, transcribed in Rand p. 91 and reprinted from Letters of Horatio Greenough, 308–10.