There are plenty of statues of George Washington around the country, but if you showed up on the Antique Road Show with this one, it would cause quite a stir. Valley Forge National Historical Park is home to one of the finest statues of George Washington in existence, but if you're looking for this piece of sculpture, it now has a new home in the park.
There was plenty of advance planning for the move, and there was ample reason to take care during the project—the statue is one of only seven bronze copies cast from the original marble that stands in the rotunda of the Virginia capitol building. According to the park staff, the original was sculpted by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, who traveled to America and stayed with Washington at Mount Vernon for two weeks, taking detailed measurements of the general and casting a life mask that was the basis for the statue. Washington’s family believed that the final statue was the most realistic depiction ever made of the general.
The statue also provides some insights into a bit of art history. A park publication notes,
Americans of the early Federal era looked to ancient Rome and Greece as models of republican ideals. This statue includes both classical and also American symbols that would have been familiar to Americans of the time. George Washington is depicted as a modern Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer and general who left his farm to save the Roman Republic, and then voluntarily returned to his plow.
The Father of our Country wears his military uniform but carries a civilian walking cane rather than his sword, which has been set aside. He stands by a farmer’s plowshare, a symbol of his love of peace and agriculture. He rests his hand on a bundle of rods called a fasces, a Roman symbol of civil authority. Here, the thirteen rods represent the joining of the original states and the strength gained from that unity.
The granite pedestal on which the statue stands was designed in 1943 by prominent architect, Paul Philippe Cret.
Although the sculpture was originally placed outdoors, it was later moved to the lobby of the park theater. That space was deemed too small for appreciation of the subject, and the piece has been relocated to a prominent site as part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the area around Washington’s Headquarters.
The George Young Company, which also moved the Liberty Bell a few years ago, rigged and transported the sculpture, pedestal, shaft and base to the new site. A small plaza will surround the statue and a wayside exhibit describing the symbolism in the piece is ready to be installed. This fall, an orchard of crabapple trees will be planted around the statue, reminiscent of the orchards and farm yards that characterized the Village of Valley Forge during the general’s six-month stay in the area.