Common citizen or mighty God? Greco-Roman themes in the portraiture of George Washington

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Title: Common citizen or mighty God? Greco-Roman themes in the portraiture of George Washington
Author: Nelson, Laura Margaret
Type: Thesis
Issue Date: 2011
Abstract: In this text, I address the reception of Greek and Roman imagery in two sculptural works depicting America‟s first president – George Washington. Jean-Antoine Houdon's George Washington portrays Washington as a Roman republican Cincinnatus, while Horatio Greenough‟s Washington as Zeus shows Washington as the Greek god Zeus. These two statues were inspired by a combination of Washington‟s glory and the readings of classical works. The Founding Fathers searched for a model from which to establish their own nation and sought this prototype through ancient Rome. Sources, such as Livy‟s Ab Urbe Condita, were studied for both educational and political purposes. Mentioned in Livy‟s writing on the history of Rome, Cincinnatus became strongly associated with Washington, who initially appeared as a farmer-soldier citizen, thereby defining his image as one of simplicity and humility. Following his death and in honor of the centennial of his birth, Washington is represented in the rather unfitting manner of a god, which illustrates him as improperly grandiose and showy. Greenough models his design after Phidias‟ Statue of Zeus. In addition, he may have been familiar with paintings of Washington as a heavenly figure. However, Greenough writes that he also referred to Virgil‟s Eclogue IV in creating the scenes for the two sides of Washington‟s throne, which shows the continuity of classics in America. At the same time, Washington‟s more noticeable and controversial connection is to that of the Greek god Zeus. A transition from Roman to Greek imagery occurs between the two sculptures as well as a transition from portraying Washington as a simple citizen to one with godly status. The periods in which each sculpture was produced span about fifty years, showing that the emphasis of certain classical themes and figures alters according to the cultural events and needs of that particular age.
Subject: Greek influences
Subject: Roman influences
Subject: Washington, George, 1732-1799
Subject: Sculpture
Subject: Houdon, Jean Antoine, 1741-1828
Subject: Greenough, Horatio, 1805-1852
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Nelson, Laura Margaret. "Common citizen or mighty God? Greco-Roman themes in the portraiture of George Washington". 2011. Available electronically from

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