Art Treasures of Washington – Miscellaneous Sculpture

PRESERVED in the interior of the Capitol is a variety of sculpture of various periods. The earliest American sculptor represented is John Frazee (1790-1852), a descendant of Scotch emigrants who landed at Perth Amboy amongst the first settlers of that place. The sculptor was born in Rah-way, New jersey, and began life as a stone cutter, carving his first bust in 1824 or 1825. The subject of his first effort at portraiture was John Wells, a prominent lawyer of New York, and the monument stands in old St. Paul’s Church on Broadway. It was made from a death-mask, and modelled and put into marble without instruction. This was probably the first marble bust chiselled in this country, undoubtedly the first carved by an American citizen.

What labours intervened are not recorded, but, in 1831, at the instance of the Honourable G. C. Verplanck, Congress appropriated $500 for the bust of John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, by John Frazee. It stands in the Supreme Court room, a semicircular hall, designed by Latrobe, after Greek models, for the original Senate Chamber.

The rotunda houses a miscellaneous collection of marbles and bronzes. One of the most interesting statues in the Capitol is that of Thomas Jefferson, in bronze, by Pierre jean David d’Angers, (1789-’856), presented to the government by Lieutenant Uriah P. Levy, of the United States Navy, in 1833. The statue was accepted in 1834, and stood for years in the north garden of the White House, where it remained until, in 1874, during Grant’s administration, it was removed, to make way for the fountain, erected in the centre of the grounds, and placed in the rotunda of the Capitol.

The statue presents Jefferson in an imposing and impressive attitude, holding in his left hand the freshly written Declaration, while his right hand, whose fingers retain the quill, lies upon his heart. The modelling is fluently French in spirit and facility of execution. The statue is inscribed with the signature of the artist, the date, 1833, the name of the founder, and the presentation inscription.

A second contribution to the sculpture of the rotunda is a virile, marble bust of Lafayette, by the same artist.

The rotunda contains an interesting relic in one of the two original plaster casts of Houdon’s famous statue of Washington, for which appropriation was made in 1870. The original marble is in Richmond, Virginia, and its history is well known. It was made from life in 1785, by Jean Antoine Houdon, who came to this country for the purpose. Washington was fifty-four years of age at the time, and wears the costume of the Commander in Chief of the American army.

The statue was made life size six feet two inches and arrived in the country May 4, 1796. For the studies for the statue of Washington, Houdon crossed the ocean, at the solicitation of Franklin and Jefferson, and spent two weeks at Mount Vernon, making studies of the future president and a life mask of his features. It is said that he even made a cast of his entire person. Houdon sailed with Franklin from Havre on July 22, 1785. He spent fifteen days with Washington, and returned to France direct, reaching home on January 4, 1786.

W. J. Hubard, a sculptor of Richmond, Virginia, was accorded the exclusive rights, for seven years, of making three casts of the original. He made two, refraining from making the third, fearing to injure the statue. From the plaster, bronze replicas were made, and are preserved by the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, and Missouri. The first one was purchased for the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington for $10,000.

Hubard was killed in the Civil War, and the government purchased one of the two original plaster casts from his widow for $2,000.

In 1855 Hiram Powers was commissioned to make the statues of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, which occupy corresponding positions in niches opposite the eastern stairways of the House, and the Senate wings of the Capitol. Powers’ conception of Jefferson is curiously weak in comparison with the vigorous figure of the statesman, by the French sculptor, in the rotunda. Its fine, soft modelling recalls the contour of the Greek Slave, and Jefferson appears a rather effeminate person, in gentle pose, with all the vigour and enthusiasm smoothed out of him. The Benjamin Franklin is equally inadequate.

About 1864 the old Hall of Representatives was set apart for a national Hall of Statuary, and the president was authorized to invite each state to contribute statues, in bronze or marble, of two of its most distinguished citizens, as the nucleus of a Hall of Fame.

The effect of the execution of this apparently desirable proposition exceeds the wildest imagination. About forty-three statues have been contributed and accepted, representing twenty-seven states an extraordinary collection, grotesquely ill as-sorted, in which no effort has been made to obtain either uniformity or harmony in material, size, pose, or pedestal. The arrangement, it is true, is only provisional, but the painful incongruity of these mediocre and often amateurish attempts with the quiet, tasteful room, is a sad commentary upon official taste and judgment.

It is the fashion to regard the statue of Lewis Cass, an early work (1888) of Daniel Chester French, as an interesting exception. It is true that the figure has dignity, strength, and character. At the same time there is a clumsiness, a lack of sculptural line, a surface much broken with flapping coat tails, unbuttoned coat, papers, and books ; and a heaviness of modelling, characteristic of the sculptor, which, taken together with the unsympathetic, bombastic personality of Cass, detract from the unity and simplicity of the ensemble. Here is rough and ready realism, grateful enough in its revolt against its hard, conventional companions, yet its exaggerated character verges toward caricature.

Lewis Cass represents the State of Michigan. He was a general in the war of 1812, governor of Michigan Territory, Secretary of War, under Van Buren and of State under Buchanan, Minister to France and Senator.

Two bronze statues by Richard E. Brooks, of the two heroes from the State of Maryland, are amongst the more recent accessions.