Capturing the President for Posterity

Jean-Antoine Houdon, Portrait of George Washington, c. 1786, purchased with funds provided by Anna Bing Arnold

In honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States, a marble bust of the nation’s first president, George Washington, is now on view in LACMA’s American art galleries. The bust was not made, however, by an American artist but by a French one—Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828). Believing sculptors in colonial America were then too inexperienced to represent Washington for posterity, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin led the effort to find the best sculptor in Europe for the commission. The celebrated young Frenchman was chosen partly because he insisted on crossing the Atlantic to sculpt Washington in person rather than relying on existing portraits, a common practice at the time. In October 1785 Houdon arrived at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, where he measured Washington, made a plaster mask of his face, and executed a clay bust. From these important studies Houdon carved this marble bust, one of five he completed.

Gilbert Stuart, the painter whose later portraits of the first president are the most famous (one graces the U.S. dollar bill), greatly admired Houdon’s vivid likeness of Washington. Stuart noted, “Houdon’s bust came first… when I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face. Houdon’s bust does not suffer from this defect. I wanted him as he looked at the time.”

In our era of instantaneous and global dissemination of images and non-stop media coverage of American presidents, it is interesting to consider how prized Houdon’s representation of a younger Washington was, nearly a half century before the invention of photography. Acquired for LACMA in 1976 in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial, Houdon’s bust of Washington is still seen as admirably fulfilling the daunting mandate of Jefferson’s original commission: “The statue shall be exactly that of life.”

Austen Bailly

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