by Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
March 23, 2018
In 1783, Congress passed an arguably frivolous resolution to construct a large copper equestrian statue of George Washington in the as-yet-unplanned federal city. Progress on the resolution was slow; more pressing issues (writing a constitution, for one) faced the young nation. But while a statue of Washington may not have been first priority, Congress largely agreed that symbolism and statuary serve an important role in nation-building. As founders such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton tenaciously fought for their separate visions of the United States to take shape, it became clear that the location, design, and artist designated for the George Washington sculpture required careful thought.
Seven years later, in October 1790, an Italian portrait sculptor named Giuseppe Ceracchi embarked for the United States with an idea for a truly monumental sculpture of Washington. In July of 1791, he sent his plan to Jefferson, who was impressed enough to describe Ceracchi as “unquestionably an artist of the first class.”1 The proposed monument was grandiose, standing nearly 60 feet tall, cast in bronze and “the finest Italian Marble.” Four groups of allegorical figures, each to be about 15 feet tall, were to surround the enormous central figure of Washington. These figures included multiple Roman gods, a female form wearing a rattlesnake helmet that would symbolize “the Triumph of America”, and a human figure representing “Benevolent Nature.”2 Ceracchi submitted his design to the Senate and House of Representatives on Oct. 31, 1791.
Though Jefferson criticized European governmental systems, he loved French and Italian neoclassical art and architecture. Ceracchi’s design, with its classical motifs and grand scale, appealed to Jefferson’s taste. To others, however, the design seemed impractical, and perhaps even un-American. The commissioners of the federal district wrote to Jefferson on April 11, 1792, “We are of opinion that in the application of the funds we ought to class our Work into Necessary, useful and Ornamental, prefering them in that order.” Wary of seeming unpatriotic, they specified that “our coolness does not proceed from any Disinclination to concur in monumental acknowledgements of the Favor of Heaven and the Virtues of the Heroe, but it certainly ought to be a national Act.”3
Despite Jefferson’s support of the monument, the Senate ordered on April 16, 1792, “That the memorial lie on the table.”4 It was not an absolute rejection, but it did not bode well for Ceracchi’s proposal. The next month, Washington attempted to return two marble figures of Ariadne and Bacchus that the artist had given him as gifts.5
Ceracchi did not give up hope. Just days after his return to Europe in July 1792, he wrote letters to Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison, asking about the future of the monument. He implied that Jefferson had assured him that Congress would support him, writing “I remember Sir that before my departure from Philadelphia jou was pleased to tel me that Congress in the session of this eayr would have certenly […] honoured me with that commission in Urope; I don’t doubt this resolution has passed, your influence upon this subjet, as a Man of tast in the fines Artes could not have falled.”6
Jefferson’s reply to Ceracchi demonstrates the propensity of the “American Sphinx” (as historian Joseph Ellis aptly described him) for telling people what they wanted to hear. The secretary of state wrote that once Washington retired, “the recollection of his services, would be that in which such a tribute would naturally be resolved on. This of course is now put off to the end of the next bissextile [leap year]: but whenever it arrives, your title to the execution is engraved in the minds of those who saw your work here.”7 He did not promise success, but his tone was encouraging.
By November 1794, Ceracchi moved his entire family across the ocean to Philadelphia with a new plan for a monument. He optimistically sent portraitures to significant public figures. Madison, years later, recollected Ceracchi’s return with some embarrassment: “I knew him well, having been a lodger in the same house with him, and much teased by his eager hopes, on which I constantly threw cold water, of obtaining the aid of Congress for his grand project… But just as the circular address was about to be dispatched, it was put into his head that the scheme was merely to get rid of his importunities, and being of the genus irritable, he suddenly went off in anger and disgust.”8
Humiliated, Ceracchi demanded retroactive payment for sculptures he had sent as gifts. He charged Washington $2,182.25, including for the figures Washington had attempted to return. Madison, as well as others, reluctantly paid, justifying his decision with the argument that “his drafts were not the affect of avarice, but of his wants, all his resources having been exhausted in the tedious pursuit of his object.”9
Washington did not fold so easily. In a lengthy response to Ceracchi’s outraged demand, Washington’s secretary laid out precisely why they would not pay for his gifts: “You cannot have forgot, Sir, that when you sent the busts of Bacchus & Aradne to the President in 1792, & requested his acceptance of them that they were refused & return’d to you.”10
Ceracchi returned to Europe in late 1795 in search of better work. Washington never doubted Ceracchi’s skill as an artist, and let him know that his design had been rejected for practical reasons. The U.S., he wrote, “cannot spare money for the purposes of these gratif[icatio]ns & ornamental figures as in the wealthy countries of Europe.”11 Ceracchi found success in Paris, until his participation in a plot to assassinate Napoleon in 1800 resulted in his execution by guillotine.12
1. Gailard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 (Washington, 1922), 24:494-95.
2. “Enclosure: Giuseppe Ceracchi to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 31 Oct. 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0075-0002. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 9:133–35.
3. “To Thomas Jefferson from the Commissioners of the Federal District, 11 April 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-23-02-0346. Also available in print: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 23:396–397.
4. “Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings,” Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, 16 April 1792.
5. “From George Washington to Giuseppe Ceracchi, 10 May 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0241. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 10:372.
6. Spelling errors are accurate to the document as transcribed. “To Thomas Jefferson from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 27 March 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-25-02-0427. Also available in print: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 25:459–60.
7. “To George Washington from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 7 May 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0088. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 18:122.]
8. “To James Madison from Giuseppe Ceracchi, 21 March 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-15-02-0402. Also available in print: The Papers of James Madison, 15:489–90.
9. “To James Madison from Giuseppe Ceracchi, [ca. 11 May] 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-16-02-0007. Also available in print: The Papers of James Madison, 16:5.
10. “From Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr., to Giuseppe Ceracchi, 9 May 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified Feb. 1, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0093. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 18:126–29.
12. James Henry Rubin, “Painting and Politics II: J.L. David’s Patriotism, or the Conspiracy of Gracchus Babeuf and the Legacy of Topino-Lebrun,” The Art Bulletin 58 (1976): 567.