During the 100-year anniversary celebration of McClain High School this weekend you will have the opportunity to view many statues of many great figures in history.
While most of these are from Europe, on the third floor, on the eastern side of the library, is the statue of an American, George Washington. I never thought much about this statue until I listened to a book on CD, Ron Chernow’s “Washington A Life”. Here are some historical facts behind the making of this great work of art and great man.
* It was created by the most sought after sculpture of the time, a Frenchman named Jean Antoine Houdon, who turned down a commission to do a statue of Catherine the Great of Russia in order to cross the Atlantic and get the measurements and life face mask of George Washington to make a sculpture of George Washington.
* George Washington was a popular cultural icon or idol at this time, 1785. All of Europe wanted to know everything about this man who defeated the British Empire and who, after peace was declared in 1783, gave up his army and power and returned to his farm and his foxhunting.
* Houdon, three assistants and one interpreter arrived at the Mount Vernon Potomac River landing on a Sunday night, October 2nd, 1785 at 11:30 p.m. This woke everyone up as the Washingtons were a farm family that went to bed early “with the chickens” or shortly after the sun went down.
* Along with taking precise measurements of George Washington’s body, Houdon tagged along with George Washington for two weeks. With the Washingtons, he attended a funeral and a wedding, so he saw the solemn and happy side of George Washington.
* Houdon also believed he saw the passionate and angry side of George Washington when Washington thought he was being cheated in a horse trading deal. Houdon realized he saw the inner toughness of the general.
* On October 10th, Houdon himself mixed the plaster of Paris for the life mask of George Washington. Again, Houdon himself applied the Plaster of Paris to George Washington’s face and inserted two quills in Washington’s nostrils so he could breath. When Washington’s 6-year-old stepgranddaughter Nelly Custis saw her grandfather laid out on a table, covered with a sheet, with Houdon applying the plaster of Paris and the quills inserted in Washington’s nostrils, she thought the man she had come to think of as her own father had died. The servants assured her he was alive and well and was not being harmed by the process.
* On October 17th, Houdon declared his work at Mount Vernon finished and left Mount Vernon to return to France. He arrived safe and sound back to Paris that winter. Before he left France, Houdon had a life insurance policy taken out on him knowing the perils of two Atlantic crossings.
* While the measurements and life mask of George Washington were completed by mid October of 1785, the original statue was not completed and in the Virginia State Rotunda until 1796. Houdon had a high standard of excellence in his work.
In summary, when one observes the Houdon statue of George Washington you see the most precise representation of this great man. It is the exact life size as George Washington appears at age 53. George Washington requested that the statue be life size and in his everyday dress. The life size of the statue in McClain High School can trick you. Sometimes when you look that way from the west side of the third floor you think that is a real human being and not statue.
In Houdon’s statue of George Washington you observe that the sword has been exchanged for a cane. Washington stands tall and confident. As well he should. He had been shot at countless times and never took a scratch. He defeated every British General sent to kill or capture him. Five in all. His left arm rests on a riding cape and he looks assuredly into the future of his country, which indeed he was the father of. Well done, sir. Well done.
I hope this makes you all anxious to attend the 100-year reunion of McClain High School. Look forward to seeing you there.
Jerry C. Turner is a 1979 graduate of McClain High School, and is a fueling center supervisor for Costco Wholesale Warehouse. He has a BS from Bowling Green State University and a MPA from Western Kentucky University.