Bust of Washington
Hiram Powers, American, 1805 - 1873, after 1837 active Florence, Italy
George Washington had been dead nearly half a century when prominent American sculptor Hiram Powers fashioned this portrait bust. Numerous earlier images of Washington as military hero, president, patriarch, and demi-god had already been widely disseminated in America and abroad. Powers struggled with how to characterize the first president. He ultimately decided upon an "ideal" portrait in white marble, and imbued Washington with the Roman Republican virtues of restraint and rationality by depicting him unadorned and dressed in classical drapery (which, of course, the real Washington never wore). The actual likeness was based on the bust created by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741-1828) whom Washington had posed for in his home at Mt. Vernon in 1785. Realism is evident in the aging features, slack jaw line, and ponytail.
Encouraged by a growing list of patrons and government commissions, Powers moved to Florence, Italy, in 1837, where he joined a circle of international sculptors who were capitalizing on the tourist trade. He modeled Washington as a creative experiment and happily soon after began receiving orders for marble replicas. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's bust is undated and could have been carved over a twenty-year period when the demand was so great that Powers found it necessary to employ Italian stonecutters to "rough in" the form so he could finesse the features. The Museum's bust may be have been exhibited at the 1864 Great Central Fair in Philadelphia, further popularizing this prototype and resulting in a proliferation of replicas of all sizes and media into the twentieth century.