This impressive bronze equestrian portrait of George Washington (1732–1799), the first president of the United States, is the oldest sculpture in the New York City Parks collection. It was modeled by Henry Kirke Brown (1814–1886) and dedicated in 1865.
In 1851, a committee of concerned citizens interested in erecting a monument to Washington in New York approached sculptor Horatio Greenough, known for his huge classical marble portrait of Washington. Simultaneously, the committee also invited Henry Kirke Brown to submit a design, though it was unclear whether he was to assist Greenough or compete with him for artistic selection. Any prospect of collaboration evaporated with Greenough’s premature death in December 1852.
Though Brown, like many of his generation, made an obligatory visit to Italy to study, he was part of a group of sculptors attempting to establish a truly American sculptural idiom. His first major public commission was a statue of De Witt Clinton which he completed for Greenwood Cemetery in 1852. Working at a specially equipped studio in Brooklyn, and assisted extensively by John Quincy Adams Ward, who himself would attain renown as a sculptor, Brown spent 18 months modeling the horse and rider.
The moment Brown depicts is that of Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, when Washington reclaimed the city from the British. With outstretched hand, he signals to the troops in a gesture of benediction, a sculptural motif indebted to precedents from antiquity, most notably the Marcus Aurelius statue on Rome’s Capitaline Hill. The resulting statue depicts a uniting of classical gesture and pose with a simple and direct naturalism. The piece was cast at the Ames foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts, one of the first foundries in the United States capable of such large-scale quality work. The names of the donors are inscribed on the skyward face of the bronze sub-base.
On June 5, 1856, the Washington statue was installed on a simple granite base designed by Richard Upjohn. The event drew thousands of spectators. One month later, on July 4, the statue was formally conveyed to the custody of the City of New York. At that time the sculpture stood in a fenced enclosure in the middle of the street, at the southeast corner of the square. In 1930, following overall improvements to the park, and to better protect it from vehicular traffic and pollution, the statue was moved its position of centrality on the south side of the park--closer to where many feel Washington actually greeted the citizens of New York when he liberated the city from British rule.
In 1989, the sculpture was conserved, and the missing sword and bridle strap recreated through the Adopt-A-Monument Program, a joint venture of Parks, the Municipal Art Society, and the New York City Art Commission. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the George Washington sculpture served as a touchstone for collective grieving and public expression, and became the central focus of a massive around-the-clock community vigil and a provisional shrine.
Union Square National Register #97001678