CRM Journal

Book Review

Washington Sculpture: A Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation's Capital

By James M. Goode. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009; 848 pp., hardcover, $75.00.


One of the great capital cities of the world, Washington, DC can be experienced in many ways. One important way is through its sculpture. Washington presents various sculpture and sculptural pieces of all kinds, from building ornament to memorial statuary, placed singularly throughout its environs, even in its cemeteries. It is a very particular subject and it would be hard to imagine Washington without its sculpture.

When this book first appeared in 1974, under the title, The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, DC, it was a publication of the Smithsonian Press and represented a pioneering effort. It caught everyone off guard in its originality, as well as the revelation that Washington had a body of sculptural work quite worthy of any capital in the world. Interestingly, it was a history of the individual pieces of sculpture and not an art history critique or comparison. The book went through three editions. More than 30 years later, Goode has now produced an additional, enlarged, and expanded work.

The original book came at a time when Washington was aesthetically rediscovering itself. It was part of a new awareness of the capital as a city and the original book indeed played a part in that eye-opening. The author writes in his preface to this new edition: "When the book appeared in 1974, the city of Washington was quite different from what it is today. After the riots of 1968, the Willard Hotel had closed and it remained boarded up into the early 1980s. Dozens of downtown firms had shut down and buildings became vacant."(p. vii) He found his book greeted as "one of the few publications that presented the physical treasures of the city, and indeed its future, in a favorable and optimistic light."(p. vii)

The two hundred year history of Washington's sculptural collection is an interesting one. L'Enfant had proposed an equestrian statue of George Washington on the Mall, in the cross-axis of the Capitol and the White House. The Washington Monument, off axis, was the eventual result of this idea. It was built as far west on the Mall as firm earth existed, and rose on the edge of a marsh, now filled, that carried the Mall to the Potomac. Unquestionably, the earliest sculpture in Washington was architectural, notably the rich sandstone carvings of 18th century Scottish stonemasons cut into the face of the White House. Especially handsome is the 14-foot swag of roses, oak leaves, and acorns on the wall over the north door. Before there was an actual Washington monument, the building of the Capitol had brought sculptors from Italy to carve its architectural parts and decorations in the same native sandstone. This escalated during the rebuilding of the Capitol after the War of 1812, when Washington was reaffirmed as the capital, over some opposition. The rich evidence of Italian skill can be seen in the Capital today. All of these details are meticulously accounted for and included in Goode's work.

Capitals accumulate collections of commemorative statuary and monuments as part of their national ceremonial function and Goode's inventory is exhaustive. In Washington, however, the impulse to establish memorial and outdoor sculpture occurred rather late. The first major work of this sort in Washington was the 1807 Tripoli Monument, a marble grouping by Giovanni C. Micali, originally sited in the Washington Navy Yard and later the Capitol; it is now at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Following in a quarter century was Horatio Greenough's 12-foot George Washington, which renders the hero in marble, bare-chested and otherwise draped. Commissioned in the 1830s, the fulfillment of an act of Congress authorizing a statue in 1793, Greenough's Washington was admired at the time, and even replicated, but it endures today as a relic of an earlier time rather than an actual memorial, a bit embarrassing in its overplayed classicism, and a particular example of a low-water mark in American Victorian taste. About a decade later Clark Mills completed his great work, the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, in bronze, that serves as the central focus of Lafayette Park and must be counted as one of the finest specimens of American sculpture produced in the first half of the 19th century.

After Greenough's efforts, Washington's adornment really began in earnest. The Italians at the Capitol carved symbolic groups, such as Luigi Persico's The Discovery, 1844. A few private donors commissioned works, such as Commander Uriah Phillips Levy, who commissioned David d'Angers to sculpt a statue of Thomas Jefferson. For 25 years it stood on the north lawn of the White House, before President Grant moved it to National Statuary Hall in the Capitol. W.W. Corcoran built his private gallery of art on Pennsylvania Avenue not long after the Mills Jackson was dedicated, the first art gallery in the capital and it featured Hiram Powers' Greek Slave. In the decade following the Civil War statues honoring war heroes began to rise in profusion. Many are highly important. One pauses over the elegant General James B. McPherson of 1876 by Louis T. Rebisso and the earlier hero, General Nathanael Greene, 1877, by Henry Kirke Brown. Famous civilians include the bronze John Marshall, a handsome seated bronze figure illustrated in his judiciary robe, by William Wetmore Story.

Artistic floodtide came in the 20th century, along with the City Beautiful movement. Statuary seems to have been more readily welcomed than Beaux-Arts buildings. Notable productions of the early part of this period are the four monumental statuary groups at the corners of Lafayette Park honoring foreign military men who aided in the American Revolution. The 1920s saw the unveiling of a scruffy General Grant in bronze by Henry Merwin Shrady and, of course, Lincoln by Daniel Chester French. Nor has the rush to provide public art subsided, for approximately 25 percent of the sculptures Goode discusses are post-World War II, including the whimsical Jim Henson Memorial located in College Park, Maryland, complete with Kermit the Frog. Goode also includes a section on sculptures that have been moved from their original locations or, in some cases, destroyed. Selected biographies of artists complete the collection.

James Goode's Washington Sculpture is a handsome book and an armful. He has written it not as a cover to cover reader but wisely has divided it into sections just as the city itself is in sections. One can dip into this book or read on to their heart's content. The author has assembled good, clear photographic illustrations of his subjects, and in the text, his attention to detail is as meticulous in the additions as it was in the original. The book is an education in itself on Washington history, of value to other scholars, of course, but of equal value to anyone who wants to gain a feel for the history of American sculpture and the texture of American art and biography as represented along the avenues, byways, and suburbs of our nation's capital.

William Seale
Washington, DC