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Horatio Greenough: The American Sculptor of European Style

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Sculpting the enormous statue of toga- and sandal-clad Washington to resemble one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the American sculptor, Horatio Greenough, is remembered as one of the first American to make sculpture his profession and to gain international recognition thereby.

One of the first American artists schooled in the European style, Greenough was born on September 6, 1805, in Boston, Massachusetts. From an early age, he was drawn to the plastic arts, and while still an adolescent he received instruction from carvers, architects and sculptors in Boston. In 1821, he entered Harvard University and there he befriended Washington Allston, who influenced his career and his thoughts.

Greenough traveled to Rome before the end of his senior year at Harvard in 1825, spending first of many years studying art in Europe. He became friends with many influential people, the most important being James Fennimore Cooper. After recovering an attack of malaria, he returned to Boston in 1827.

Through the influence of Allston and Daniel Webster, Greenough was given the first important commission by the U.S. government to an artist, for a statue of George Washington in 1832. It was designed to stand in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The statue portrays the first President seated, draped in a toga with his chest exposed. His right-hand stretches skyward while his left arm extends outwards offering the hilt of a sword, signifying Washington’s relinquishment of military power at the close of the revolution.

However, depicting a national hero in semi nudity aroused such controversy that the statue was removed to the Smithsonian Institution. It is now housed at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Greenough's most enduring achievement is his writing. He wrote a book of original essays on art in which he outlined the functional relationship between architecture and decoration. These theories influenced the development of Functionalism in modern architecture. Originally entitled “The travels, Observations, and Experience of a Yankee Stonecutter” (1852), these essays were reissued in 1947 under the title “Form and Function”.

After suffering from years of depression, Greenough contracted a severe fever in 1852. After two weeks of this high fever, he died at the age of 48, on December 18, 1852, in Somerville, near Boston.



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