Famous Sculptures Dot City Landscape

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 29, 2009 | Go to article overview

Famous Sculptures Dot City Landscape


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was, arguably, one of the finest portrait sculptors in history. And as expected of such great talent, his works can only be seen in museums today. That is, of course, unless you happen to be in the Pittsburgh area, or more specifically Pleasant Hills. That's because, located among the swirling pathways of Jefferson Memorial Cemetery is a magnificent life-size bronze statue of George Washington by the artist that is about as real a representation as one will ever find.

"When you look at the statue, you can tell it's the real man," says Harry Neel, president and third-generation owner of the cemetery, which is now in its 80th year. "It's not just some artist's rendition of how they wanted him to look.

"What's the most incredible, is that if you get up on a step ladder and look him in the face, it is a powerful face. We don't really get that out of the artwork that we have that was made of him during that period. I mean, he is square-jawed, high-cheekboned, straight forehead -- you can just tell by looking at him that he was a leader and a powerful man."

The statue of Washington, who is depicted with his exact life- size measurements at age 53, right down to his size 13 shoes, contains symbolic as well as realistic elements. Civilian supremacy over the military is depicted by the placement of Washington's right hand on a cane and his left hand on a fasces, against which a sword hangs. The fasces, made of 13 rods symbolizing the 13 states, rests on a plowshare -- the agricultural foundation of the nation.

Neel credits the "farsighted thinking" of his father and grandfather, who built the cemetery, for purchasing the bronze statue when the Gorham Co. of New York called to sell it to them. The cemetery's statue is the last of a total of 33 known casts made of the statue. It was crafted from the original, which Houdon began in the late summer of 1785, when the artist, along with three assistants, stayed at Mt. Vernon taking detailed measurements of Washington's arms, legs, hands and chest and making a mold of his face. Houdon returned to Paris. The statue was not completed and shipped to the United States until 1796, when it was installed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

During the 1850s, the Virginia State Legislature authorized the casting of 11 bronze copies. Additional copies of the monument were cast in the early 20th century, including 22 by Gorham. Bronze copies are located at the Art Institute in Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in Northern Ireland, at the National Gallery in London, the Corcoran Gallery and Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., and right here in Jefferson Memorial Cemetery.

That begs the question, how many more masterpieces can be found in our midst? Well, quite a few actually, and many of us walk by them daily and don't even realize it.

That's certainly the case if you've made your way to the Carnegie Library in Oakland recently. Near the main entrance, a granite pillar holding a bronze plaque honoring powerful Pittsburgh politician Christopher Lyman Magee (1848-1901) was created by none other than Irish-born American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848- 1907), who ranks among the greatest American sculptors and monument builders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So revered is Saint-Gaudens, that his $20 "double eagle" gold piece, which he created for the U. …

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