This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
The effect of the statue generally was disappointing. It awakened the ridicule especially of the Congressional wits and connoisseurs; and the Senate in 1842 added an amendment, which was finally adopted, to the appropriation bill, providing $1,000 for its removal. When on May nth this clause came before the House, Mr. Keim of Pennsylvania moved to amend it by " an appropriation of $3,500 for the construction of a suitable pedestal to the statue, to be approved by the President and heads of Departments." This was the straw that broke the Congressional camel's back. The debate which ensued was highly amusing, and if not in the Globes, might require expurgation.
Mr. Keim in support of his amendment said that, so far as the committee were concerned, they were willing that " the statue should remain as it was, much like a Hindoo suttee, with a marble corpse on a funeral pile. The question was merely whether the statue of Washington should remain on a pedestal of yellow pine boards, covered over with coal dust, or be removed to a more appropriate place, and have a more suitable pedestal." Mr. Joseph R. Ingersoll observed that " the statue had been placed in the centre of the rotundo, in a spot which had been previously prepared to receive so great a weight, by the erection in the story below, of'a mass of solid mason work reaching up to and supporting the floor of the apartment. The Secretary had given directions to the sculptor Pettrick to prepare the design of a suitable pedestal".
After a few more words by Mr. Ingersoll, eulogistic of Pettrick, who was a pupil of Thonvaldsen, Mr. Wise inquired whether " the pedestal was not in strictness a part of the statue and whether Mr. Greenough was not bound to complete it as such for the compensation already allowed him ? " He went on to say that, " to himself, it seemed something like Jewing the Government to send them an incomplete thing, and then claim to do the residue for a new compensation." He ridiculed the statue roundly, and said, in commenting upon its want of drapery, that " he must confess it had on him much the same effect it had on a gentleman of Maryland, one of the old school, who, having heard so much said of the statue, mounted his horse and rode a long distance purposely to look at it. Having hitched his horse before the Capitol he mounted the steps and entered the rotundo, where after looking at the statue for a few seconds, turned from it as he said the father of his country would do, who was the most modest of men".
After exhausting himself in ridiculing " the naked statue of George Washington," Mr. Wise turned his attention to the inscription on the back, which he characterized as "bad Latin written in Italy." At Mr. Fillmore's interposition, the chair here called Mr. Wise to order for irrelevancy, but he was not done with the Latin. He criticised the use of " the imperfect tense ' facie-bat' for ' fecit' " ; and went on to say that " a countryman entering the rotundo by the Library door, seeing the back of the statue, would very naturally ask, ' Who is this ? ' And looking at the inscription, would say to himself, ' Simul Acrum ! Who is Simul Acrum ?' But the next word [istud] would tell him." The speaker further said that " he preferred seeing Washington as Houdon had represented him in the statue in the Capitol at Richmond, about which Persico, the sculptor, had told him this anecdote. When he had visited Richmond he had gone to see the statue. Now Persico, although an Italian, gesticulated with all the extravagance of a Frenchman; and as he stood looking at it in admiration of the beautiful head, expressed by gestures his abhorrence of the dress and figure, and his wish that the head could be cut off and preserved, while the rest was destroyed, A Virginia sentinel, who was always on guard in the space before the statue, seeing a foreigner making signs to show his wish to cut off Washington's head, very unceremoniously stepped up to him, saying : ' There's the door ! Begone ! ' So in regard to this statue of Greenough ; if the head could be preserved, he would vote to throw the body into the Potomac to hide it from the eyes of ail the world, lest the world should think that that was the people's conception of their Nation's father".
Not long after the appropriation for the removal had been made, Greenough, convinced, as he says, that " the descent of the light upon the work is so nearly vertical as to throw all the lower portions of the face into shade, and to give a false and constrained effect to the whole monument," memorialized Congress to remove the statue to the grounds in front of the western facade of the Capitol. The position recommended a few days later by the committee was " in the open green space in the eastern grounds, lying directly in front of the main entrance to the rotundo, and between the two gravelled shaded walks leading eastward from the Capitol through those grounds".
In his memorial, Greenough takes occasion to answer his detractors for their criticisms of his statue on the score of nakedness : " When contemporary designs had portrayed Frederic the 2d with his huge walking stick, and his preposterous queue, when the sculptors of the age of Louis 14th had elaborately copied the redundant periwig, the cumbrous robes, and stilted shoes of that monarch, without doubt the assembled courts of France and of Prussia saw in these representations images as imposing as they were exact. What is the effect which they now produce ? Irresistible laughter.
" In the celebrated group of Laocoon, that personage, though overtaken by the ministers of vengeance while officiating at the altar, is represented without his pontifical robes. He is naked. Though the Romans had not only a distinct national costume, but different dresses for the several orders in the state, yet the Senate, to record its veneration for Pompey, erected within its halls a naked statue of that champion. Though Napoleon gave what has to many seemed an undue attention to his imperial attire, and though the associations connected with his gray coat and his three-cornered hat always commanded the enthusiasm of the army, yet when Canova was called on to cross the Alps that he might give to posterity the image of the emperor it was without either the clap-trap of the palace, or the conventional sublime of the uniform, that he chose to appear before his successors. He was represented naked".
" Your memorialist," continues Greenough, " having already outlived the sneer with which it was intended to crush his first effort to make a bust of a distinguished fellow-citizen ' without a shirt,' trusts that the prejudice which has yielded in these few years the neck and shoulders as objects not unfit to be looked upon, will continue to decline before the efforts of high art, until his successors in sculpture shall be enabled to show that the inspired writer meant not merely the face, when he declared that God had made man after his own image".
The limitation of the contract regarding cost was as freely exceeded as its requirements in design. From 1832 to 1835 inclusive, four appropriations of $5,000 each were voted by Congress to pay for the statue, and the act of 1841, already referred to, provided $15,100 more, or as much thereof as might be necessary. Thus far, this horseless " pedestrian" statue has cost the government, including the amounts paid to the artist, for work and materials, the cost of transportation from Italy to the Navy Yard, from that place to the rotunda and thence to its present site, $42,170.74.
The ill-fated statue is artistic, but thoroughly inappropriate to the purposes for which it was executed, and thoroughly meaningless in design. The critic, however, must bear in mind the artist's point of view. " Had I been ordered," he writes, " to make a statue for any square or similar situation at the metropolis, I should have represented Washington on horseback, and in his actual dress. I would have made my work purely an historical one. I have treated the subject poetically and confess I should feel pain in seeing it placed in direct and flagrant contrast with every-day life. Moreover, I modelled the figure without reference to an exposure to rain and frost, so that there are many parts of the statue where the water would collect and soon disintegrate and rot the stone, if it did not by freezing split off large fragments of the drapery." To guard against this, the statue each winter is housed where it stands in a hideous frame structure which is an eye-sore to the Capitol. The modern suggestion of placing it in a pretty Greek temple, no doubt took rise in the artist's own suggestion at the time of the removal, to erect over it " such a shelter as, while it shall insure suitable protection and light for the statue, shall be, by its form, proportions, and material, harmonious with the Capitol itself, and ornamental to the grounds. The building thus proposed, while it may be considered a mausoleum of Washington, will also afford a proper receptacle for such other busts and statues of historic interest as are at present entirely lost to the public." Who would dare to propose this to Congress to-day ?