Bust of George Washington with a Mysterious Past Goes on View at The Huntington Library

A colossal marble bust of George Washington by French artist Pierre-Jean David, called David d’Angers (1788–1856), in the collection of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is on view after undergoing conservation analysis that suggests it was in a major fire. This finding supports century-old claims that it is a famous piece with a mysterious past.

As part of her ongoing responsibilities to reexamine and conserve the European art collections at The Huntington, Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art, retained Los Angeles art conservator John Griswold to analyze and treat the bust in late 2010. Griswold’s report noted deep soiling and staining with soot-like particles; marble crystal damage including chips that appear to have “popped” off spontaneously; and a fine crack across the top of the head that may be the result of expansion during high heat exposure from a fire. This information provided scientific evidence that supported what had been argued about the bust in early newspaper articles and other documents but never conclusively proved.

It appears the 400-pound sculpture, dated 1832, was commissioned by the French government as a gift to the United States. It is documented as having been on display in the Library of Congress, then located on the West Front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., when a devastating fire broke out there in 1851. Blackened and pitted, the work was apparently thought ruined beyond repair and discarded with other debris from the fire. It then reportedly made its way to a residential backyard, where it remained until 1914, when it was sold as scrap marble. The piece later was purchased by a New York art dealer, and its identity as the work from the Capitol building was argued in an article in Art and Archeology magazine in 1918.

Henry E. Huntington acquired the bust in 1924, but kept it in storage, perhaps because The New York Times and other publications criticized the sale of a rediscovered national treasure to a private collector. The U.S. attorney general also made headlines for raising “a question as to the authenticity” of the work.

The bust has been displayed intermittently at The Huntington since 1984. Newly cleaned, it will go on public view in a prominent spot in the Huntington Art Gallery tomorrow, opposite the institution’s renowned life-size bronze Diana by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (1741–1828).

“We always believed what we had was a work of high quality,” said Hess. “David d’Angers was a prolific portraitist whose suave style moved beyond the more austere Neoclassical taste of the turn of the 19th century. I love his work and was eager to put this major, signed piece back on display. The evidence suggesting it had been in the Capitol building makes it all the more exciting. This is an incredible tale that’s played out over almost two centuries, and one we’re thrilled to share with Huntington visitors.”

Mystery surrounding the sculpture remains, however. When Hess contacted curators at the Capitol, they reported they could not find proof that the bust was ever there. But, letters written by David d’Angers, in addition to the historic newspaper clippings, suggest his bust of Washington was, indeed, there at the time of the fire. The artist is quoted as having written, “I read yesterday in an American newspaper of the burning of the Library in Washington; the colossal bust that I sent to America is burnt up.”

In 1904, French officials presented the United States with a bronze copy of the bust as a replacement. The bronze is presently displayed in an entryway to the House Chamber at the Capitol.

Bust of George Washington by Pierre-Jean David, called David d’Angers, 1832, marble

1827 – The government of France gathers money through national subscription to have Pierre-Jean David, called David d’Angers, sculpt a bust of George Washington to be given to the United States on behalf of the French people.

1828 – David d’Angers sculpts a model for the bust in plaster. Soon afterward, the marble version of the bust is presented to the United States and is said to have been placed on view in the Library of Congress, at the time located on the West Front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

1851 – Christmas Eve fire breaks out in Library of Congress.

1852 – Marble bust is apparently discarded with debris from the fire.

1904 – French officials give the United States a bronze copy of the bust as a replacement for the marble that was believed destroyed. This bronze bust is presently on display in an entryway to the House Chamber at the Capitol.

1914 – New York–based marble dealer James Klaber acquires the marble for $25 from someone who had kept it in the backyard of his private residence. After cleaning the marble, Klaber asks the advice of art experts who tell him it is a genuine work of art.

1918 – John J. Klaber, son of the marble dealer, writes in Art and Archeology about his father’s discovery and says that the piece is actually a work by David d’Angers, thought to have been lost in the fire of 1851. The bust is given on commission to Mitchell Kennerley of New York’s Anderson Galleries.

1924 – Kennerley sells the marble to Henry E. Huntington. The work’s discovery and sale to Huntington make national headlines.

1984, 2001–07 – The bust is on public view in the loggia near the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art at The Huntington.

2010 – The work is sent to Los Angeles conservator John Griswold for cleaning and routine analysis.

2011 – Griswold determines the bust had been subjected to intense heat, possibly a fire, thereby providing scientific evidence supporting what had been argued about the work in early newspaper articles and other documents. Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at The Huntington, places the work on public view on June 8 in the Huntington Art Gallery.

Pierre-Jean David, called David d’Angers, Bust of George Washington, 1832, marble, 33 ½ in. high (with base). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


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