"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Sunday, March 6, 2022


 The plaster model  for the statue of Freedom by Thomas Crawford atop the Capitol dome stands in the Capitol Visitor Center, in Washington, DC. Crawford called the statue “Armed Liberty” but it has come to be called “The Statue of Freedom.”  See Proctor, 1941. The visitor center gives this short history of the plaster model.

The Plaster Model for the Statue of Freedom

The bronze Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol dome was cast from the sections of this plaster model. Beginning in 1855, American sculptor Thomas Crawford designed the statue and created the model in his Roman studio. After he died in 1857, his widow sent the model in six crates from Italy. The crates finally reached Washington in early 1859, and in 1860-1861 the statue was cast in bronze. The plaster model remained at the Capitol until 1890, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. It was on view in the Arts and Industries Building until 1967 and then stored in pieces until 1992, when it was restored and displayed in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. In late 2008 the model was relocated to the new Capitol Visitor Center, where it is now a focal point of Emancipation Hall. -- U.S.  Capitol Vistor Center
From Crawford and Mills Sculptors, by Elmo Scott Watson, 1933.

The finished statue is hard to see at its height above the streets of Washington.

Crawford's Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome

The Capitol Dome

For a close-up of Freedom you need to look at a current $1 U.S. postage stamp.

The Architect of the Capitol provides this description of the statue:
Statue of Freedom is a classical female figure with long, flowing hair wearing a helmet with a crest composed of an eagle's head and feathers. She wears a classical dress secured with a brooch inscribed "U.S." Over it is draped a heavy, flowing, toga-like robe fringed with fur and decorative balls. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword wrapped in a scarf; in her left hand she holds a laurel wreath of victory and the shield of the United States with 13 stripes.

The helmet is encircled by nine stars. Ten bronze points tipped with platinum are attached to her headdress, shoulders and shield for protection from lightning. She stands on a cast-iron pedestal topped with a globe encircled with the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). The lower part of the pedestal is decorated with fasces (symbols of the authority of government) and wreaths. The pedestal is 18-1/2 feet high and almost doubles the total height. The crest of Freedom’s headdress rises 288 feet above the East Front Plaza. -- AOC
Freedom's strange eagle-skin headdress has its own story. Not only do the talons of eagle hang in flaps over Freedom's ears, the eagle itself has a feathered headdress.

 This statue was in the works in the run up to the Civil War and cannot help reflecting the political tensions of the period. Crawford's 1855 version of the statue has her wearing a pileus, the cap worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. 

By the 19th century this cap had come to be an attribute of freedom or liberty. For example America is shown wearing such a cap on the east pediment of the Capitol building, below the statue.

The Genius of America, by Luigi Persico 

Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War in the Pierce administration vetoed the pileus. He wrote to Capt. Miegs, in charge of the project,  objecting that the liberty cap might in future become re-associated with freedom from slavery. See Davis's Letter to Meigs, Jan. 15, 1856. 
The second Photograph of the statue with which it is proposed to crown the dome of the Capitol impresses me most favorably. Its general grace and power, striking at first, have grown on me as I studied its details. As to the cap, I can only say, without intending to press the objection formerly made, that it seems to me that its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved.
...The liberty cap has an established origin in its use as the badge of the freed slave, and though it should have emblematic meaning today, a recurrence to that origin may give to it in the future the same popular conception which it had in the past. 

Why should not Armed Liberty wear a helmet? Her conflict being over, her cause triumphant, as shown by the other emblems of the statue, the visor would be up, so as to permit the display of a circle of stars expressive of endless existence and of heavenly birth...

Miegs passed the letter on to Crawford. Crawford wrote back on March 18, 1856. Read Crawford's Letter to Meigs.

I read with much pleasure the letter of the honorable Secretary, and his remarks have induced me to dispense with the ‘cap’ and put in its place a helmet, the crest of which is composed of an eagle's head and a bold arrangement of feathers, suggested by the costume of our Indian tribes.

Davis's April 21, 1856 indorsement reads “The third and last study is to my taste admirable, fulfilling every want.  J. D.”

Hazelton calls the result a “mongrel statue.” “It is unfortunately now neither ancient nor modern, classic nor American.”

 Crawford died in 1857.  His plaster model wasn't ready for shipment until 1858. John J. Daly describes in harrowing detail the journey of the Crawford's plaster model across the Atlantic in a leaking boat. “When the plaster cast arrived In the United States It was taken to Mills Station, a hamlet on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad outside of Washington. There it was cast in bronze by Clark Mills.” Mills had assistance of course from his enslaved workforce including Philip Reid, who figured out how to dis-assemble the by-then tightly re-assembled plaster model for casting, using the lifting ring built into the eagle-headdress (See Watson, 1933.)  According to Roose's Companion,  “Mr. Crawford received for his model $3,000, and the casting of it, by Mr. Clark Mills, with all the attending expenses, netted an additional sum of $20,796.82.”

This photo from the Library of Congress captures the “West front of the U.S. Capitol ... as it appeared the moment the statue was completed, and placed in position by Charles F. Thomas Dec. 2nd 1863.”

Vice President Hannibal Hamlin presided over the dedication,  Lincoln was ill. 35 cannons were fired from Capital Hill, representing the 35 states in the Union, answered in turn by salutes from 12 forts in the Defenses of Washington. (See Special Orders 248.) 

Congressman James A. Garfield noticed that the statue of Freedom faces east toward the sea and away from the Potomac and Virginia.  He used that symbolism in the penultimate paragraph of his 1868 Decoration Day speech at Arlington Cemetery saying that the sight of the Capitol “awakened no pride and inspired no hope” in the enslaved at Arlington before the Civil War; Freedom had turned her back on them. “The face of the goddess that crowns it was turned towards the sea and not towards them.” 

After being used as the model for the final bronze statue atop the Capitol, the plaster model lay in the basement of the Capitol until 1890 when it was moved to the rotunda of the National Museum, now the Arts and Industries building of the Smithsonian. This image of the plaster cast in the National  Museum appeared in  a 1903 guide book entitled Washington, the Nation's Capital by Charles B. Reynolds.

Uncle Hank, in Thomas Fleming's Around the Capital with Uncle Hank, found it in the Museum in 1903 and saw a different allegory in it.

Passing into the rotunda his attention was riveted to the colossal plaster model of Crawford’s statue of “Armed Liberty,’’ which adorns the top of the Capitol Dome. This statue is nineteen feet six inches high and looks very imposing under the subdued light of the rotunda.
“Liberty cums high, but we must hev et,” said the old man, as he gazed up at the statue. “En they call et Armed Liberty? Wall, thet’s right. Et’s armed with money. En th’ lielmet hez a big dollar mark ontew et, en thet looks like a money bag en th’ left hand — en, by ginger! she’s winkin’ with thet left eye! But p’r’aps et’s all immaginashun, en my old eyes ez deceivin’ me.” And the old man laughed at the idea. He then entered the hall devoted to mammals, some of which are so remarkably well mounted that they simulate life to an astonishing extent.
And here's the plaster cast still in the Smithsonian in 1960 (The Evening Star,  July 03, 1960, Page 12.)

Original: Tourists can see plaster cast of “Statue of Freedom”
in Washington's Smithsonian Institution

As noted above, the plaster model stood in the Museum until 1967 and was displayed in the Russell Senate Office Building until 2008 when it became the center piece of Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center.

A U.S. Senate web-page entitled “Lady Freedom Among Us” says this:
In 2008, the plaster statue moved again—this time to its honored place in the Visitor Center.

On October 23, 1993, during the ceremony that marked the return of the newly cleaned bronze statue to its perch atop the Capitol dome, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove had recited a well-received poem. Fifteen years later, at the December 2, 2008, Visitor Center's dedication, Dove returned. This time, she honored the plaster version. She again recited her 1993 poem, "Lady Freedom Among Us." Here is the concluding stanza about "Lady Freedom": "Don't think you can try to forget her/ don't even try/ she's not going to budge// no choice but to grant her space/ crown her with sky/ for she is one of the many/ and she is each of us."

Read Rita Dove's poem  “Lady Freedom Among Us.”

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