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Cult of Washington

By Jeremiah Daly (Guest Curator; Jeremiah Daly holds an M.A. in Art History from American University in Washington, D.C.)

In the early decades of the 19th century, an unofficial movement arose in America that has come to be known as the "Cult of Washington." The movement, which began as a show of pride in the venerated general and first President of the United States, evolved into hero worship that manifested itself in many ways. From the innocuous use of his visage on coins and paper currency to a colossal marble statue of the President as an Olympian Zeus, images of Washington became abundant in all media and available to those in all walks of life.

Throughout this exhibit you will find engravings that provide interesting examples of this "cult" as it was collected by the Hewitt family. The Prayer at Valley Forge is an excellent example, as is the Athenaeum Portrait. Both have been reproduced countless times in innumerable variations.

In the Ryerson South Parlor are three more examples representing this "cult" that range from the quaint to the truly bizarre. Birth of our Nation's Flag, a color lithograph, depicts the apocryphal story of Washington petitioning Betsy Ross to create the emblem for the newly formed United States. The lithograph's primitive style endows the work with a certain charm, but the overall effect evokes more amusement in contemporary viewers than it does patriotism and pride for our founding father.

A copy of The Declaration of Independence also hangs in the parlor. This version contains a standing image of a serious Washington who seems to bequeath this legacy to future generations. Although it is more successful than The Birth of our Nation's Flag, this work still lacks the accomplishment seen in such seminal works as Stuart's portraits, Trumbell's lithographs and Leutze's Battle of Monmouth.

A third and more interesting work is the Apotheosis, a truly bizarre engraving that mixes the patriotic idealism of the young United States with symbolism that dates back to ancient Rome and Greece. In this image, Washington is depicted as being physically lifted into the Holy Realm in much the same way that Hercules was welcomed into the pantheon of Greek gods on Mount Olympus or the way that Christ ascended into Heaven.

What makes the Apotheosis intriguing is its accomplished style and the seriousness of its depiction. It is to our eyes a totally outlandish image, yet one can conjure up the sense of patriotism it once evoked. This is truly hero worship at its best. We can only wonder what Washington himself might have thought of such a work.

Photos Online:
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Hewitt Handwriting and Emily Post Book | Clocks
Monteath Tomb Restoration (NJHHS)
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