Monday, February 20, 2012

Representations of George Washington

What does George Washington have to do with ancient Egypt, the land where obelisks were invented and erected to memorialize great pharaoh-kings (who were gods in the ancient Egyptian religion)?

Robert Mills, Washington Monument, National Mall in Washington DC, 1848-1884

While we're on the topic, what does George Washington have to do with the ancient Greek religion, and the body and pose of Zeus, the king of the Gods?

Horatio Greenough, George Washington Statue, Smithsonian American History Museum, 1840

Both these representations of Washington turn him, in effect, from a man into a god-king.  It strikes me as interesting that there was such a desire in the 1840s to present God-like images of a person who had been so instrumental in founding a republic.  This republic stood for (and still stands for), theoretically at least, the values of religious freedom and equality.  And yet those wishing to honor the republic's founder in the 1840s turned him into a god, without noticing the irony.  True, when the George Washington Statue was revealed to the public it quickly created a lot of controversy.  The controversy centered however, not around the portrayal of Washington as a god, but around the fact that he was half naked.  

There's one other ultra-famous representation of George Washington worth mentioning: Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze.  This painting takes its style and rules of representation from German Romanticism.  It was painted by a German man, who had spent his childhood in the USA, but had moved back, by the time of painting this, to Germany, and painted this in order to inspire European revolutionaries for democracy.    

We know without having to say it, that the Zeus-like sculpture of Washington is a fiction.  I mean, really, no one would believe that he actually wore bed-sheet and sat on a throne, at least not in public.  I think it's useful to remember that the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, is also not a realistic portrayal, something that's easier to forget.  All the details of the painting, from the mystical lighting, to Washington's leader pose, were chosen to convey larger-than-life heroism.

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1851

Enjoy American President's Day!


  1. In looking again at "Washington Crossing the Delaware," I was struck by the portrayal of icebergs in the river. They strike me as unrealistic for the beginning of a winter (December); it might be a more realistic depiction of the spring thaw.

    Googling a bit led me to this article in the NY Times, describing a new painting by Mort Künstler, which aims for historical accuracy as well as aesthetic achievement:

    - abba

    1. Thanks for the link. Although the Letuze version is more heart-pumpingly dramatic, I like how when looking at the Künstler version you feel like you can imagine the moment more, since it looks more like a real moment.