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Huntington's George Washington bust has complicated history

June 10, 2011 | 10:30 am


This week, the Huntington Library put on display its restored marble bust of George Washington, created in 1832 by the French artist Pierre-Jean David, who went by the name David d'Angers. While depictions of Washington from the era are commonplace, this work of art in particular has a complex history that makes it a worthy specimen for close examination.

Officials said that railroad tycoon Henry E. Huntington acquired the bust in 1924, but kept it in storage in part because the U.S. attorney general questioned the authenticity of the work. In addition, a number of publications, including the New York Times, criticized the sale of the piece to a private collector.

The Huntington said the bust has gone on display only intermittently since 1984.

Research conducted by the Huntington in recent months suggests that the bust was on display in the Library of Congress in the Capitol building, until 1851, when a fire broke out. The damaged bust was discarded and then appears to have made its way to a residential backyard, where it remained until 1914, when it was sold as scrap marble.

A New York art dealer later purchased the piece, according to the Huntington. In 1918, it was featured in an article in Art and Archeology magazine, which argued the authenticity of the work.

Finally, the bust was acquired by Huntington in 1924 and is now in the permanent collection.

The Huntington's analysis of the bust showed soiling and staining, possibly with soot, as well as chips that might have "popped" off. In addition, it found a fine crack across the top of the head that may have been the result of exposure to a fire.

L.A. art conservator John Griswold performed the analysis for the Huntington. But the findings are far from conclusive.

The Huntington said Griswold contacted curators at the Capitol, who replied that they could not find proof that the bust was ever there.


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-- David Ng

Photo, from top: The marble bust of George Washington by the French artist known as David d'Angers, on display at the Huntington in San Marino; Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at the Huntington Library, with the Washington bust (Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)