Modeled by hand, from the life, and likely fired in Mount Vernon’s bake oven, this extraordinarily naturalistic clay bust of George Washington is perhaps the most treasured object in the Mount Vernon collection. Its French artist, Jean-Antoine Houdon, called by Thomas Jefferson the ‘first statuary in the world’ was selected by Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin for a commission to create a life-size marble statue of George Washington for the Virginia State legislature. During his two-week stay at Mount Vernon in October 1785, Houdon sculpted this bust and left it with Washington, who placed it over one of the doors in his Study. Considered to be the most accurate likeness of George Washington, the bust has remained at Mount Vernon since its creation, one of the few original objects transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association when the fledgling organization came into possession of the estate in 1860.

Description

Bust portrait in the round of the head and chest of George Washington in low-fired clay, placed on a black socle. The work is truncated at the shoulders, and signed along the edge of the proper right shoulder. Washington’s head is slightly turned to the proper right and lifted, and his gaze is outward. A remarkable naturalism is conveyed through the inclusion of veins and diagonal folds of skin, particularly at the neck, and prominent bone structure, showing subcutaneous curves, especially evident at the collarbones. Washington’s age is intimated through lines on the forehead and crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, as well as jowls below the chin. An indentation, in the shape of a thumbprint, appears beneath the chin. The earlobes are rather horizontal, and the ears small. The lined treatment of the hair creates a sense of volume and tactility, especially over the ears, and the marks of the artist’s tools are most evident at the sideburns. The queue is only partially wrapped, suggesting informality; the gathered hair below the queue is flattened and contains two small holes. There are slight indentations at the top of the head, likely from damage and repair, and intersecting lines of fracture and repair can be seen at the back of the head. Several small losses appear at the lower front edge of the work on both sides. Numerous air bubbles are visible, particularly in the chest.

Object Details
Classroom Tips

Date

1785


People


Geography


Material/Technique

Low-fired clay, plaster base.


Dimensions

Height of bust only: 17 1/2 in
Height of bust plus base: 22 1/2 in
Width: 13 in at widest point
Depth: 9 1/8 in
Base: 5" H x 6 3/4 W x 18 1/2 Circumference


Credit Line

Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860


Signed

On edge of proper right shoulder: “HOUDON F. 1785”


Object Number

W-369


Colors (Beta)


Classroom Tips

  • Ask students to write a backstory for Washington’s expression on the Houdon bust based on their knowledge of George Washington and America around 1785. Instruct students to imagine they are Washington at this time period. What would Washington be thinking? What issues were significant during the few years leading up to the presidency?
  • Sculptural busts are often created to remember political figures and important people in history. Ask students to research other sculptures of historical figures (busts or full figures) to further examine how we commemorate people from the past. Important questions to ask students to include are: When was the sculpture created? Why was it created or commissioned? Where was it placed? Was it moved or removed recently? Do people visit it?After Houdon created the portrait bust of Washington, he sculpted a full-length marble statue of Washington for the Virginia State Capitol. Ask students to examine both the bust and the statue to compare and contrast. Why did Houdon create the clay bust first? Why did he not use marble on both pieces?

  • Ask students to draw a bust of themselves. Instruct them to take into consideration how they want to represent themselves and what features are important for them to include.

Classroom Materials are ZIP files that include, when available: object images (JPEGS) and teaching tips for the classroom. These materials are for educational uses only.

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Mount Vernon's object research is ongoing and information about this object is subject to change. For information on image use and reproductions, click here.
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