If there’s one American monument that’s difficult to love, it’s Horatio Greenough’s George Washington (1841). Now located at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the twelve-foot tall marble statue is a commemorative portrait of the Father of Our Country in the neoclassical style—Washington as some combination of Greek god and Roman senator, one hand pointing to the heavens and the other proffering a sword in its scabbard as the man himself stares straight ahead. And that’s the problem. The toga, the sandals, the exposed torso with its ripped abs, the rhetorical gesture (which means what, exactly?) all give this work a faintly comical air, the opposite, needless to say, of what the artist intended.

That’s predictable enough as a twenty-first-century view. But what’s remarkable, as we learn from...

 
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