Hamilton's Bust

Hamilton's Bust

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In 1791, Giuseppe Ceracchi, an Italian sculptor arrived in America.

It was a trip that would end up shaping how we remember a key figure in the American Revolution. 

It’s also a story that reminds us history is often shaped by small, random acts of many mostly forgotten actors. 

Ceracchi was passionate about politics and the American Revolution. He also contained a reservoir of ambition and a talent for self promotion.

His vision was to win a commission to commemorate the event with an equestrian statue of George Washington standing 60 feet high. It would take 10 years to sculpt and cost $2 million in current dollars.

To drum up support, he spent 18 months persuading scores of Founding Fathers to sit for portraits, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington.

By 1792, Ceracchi had returned to Italy where he used terra-cotta molds to sculpt marble busts of Hamilton, Washington, and Jefferson.

He returned to America in 1794 and sent the busts to the men as gifts. 

Hamilton and Jefferson accepted. Washington declined, believing it inappropriate.

Soon after, however, Ceracchi surprised them with a bill for the work.

Jefferson and Washington refused to pay. Hamilton grumbled, but agreed. In his ledger, he said Ceracchi made “my bust on his own importunity.”

It cost $620 ($23,000 today).

That spirit of hustle, opportunity and grift is what has attracted so many to America since its founding.  

The bust portrays Hamilton in classic Greek and Roman style, bare chested with wavy hair. He’s wearing a ribbon of the Order of the Cincinnati. 

It would prove more enduring and influential than any other likeness made of Hamilton.

After Hamilton was killed in a duel in 1804, copies of Ceracchi’s sculpture were made in both marble and plaster. 

The painter John Trumbull used the bust as the source for a portrait painted for New York City Hall. 

In 1870, the first U.S. Postal Service stamp to honor Hamilton used the bust as a model.

In 1880, the bust was used as the basis for the granite statue of Hamilton by Carl Conrads in Central Park.

Hamilton’s widow, Eliza, said the bust was her favorite possession. She kept it on display in the entrance hall of her home in Washington, D.C. and made it a practice to point it out to visitors.

In 1929, the Federal Reserve selected Trumbull’s painting of Ceracchi’s bust as the image of Hamilton that would be used on the $10 bill.

Nothing ever came of Ceracchi’s hopes for an enormous memorial to George Washington. It was deemed too expensive for a cash-strapped country.

Ceracchi died three years before Hamilton. In 1801, he was implicated in an assassination plot in France and guillotined at the age of 49.

The Hamilton family kept the bust until 1896 when it was given to the New York Public Library.

In 2005, the Ceracchi bust of Hamilton was sold to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. 

One of the original Ceracchi copies is displayed in the entrance hall of Hamilton’s house, The Grange.

It’s worth visiting the home, a stately yellow and white mansion located at 141st street in New York City.

Hamilton was killed two hundred years ago this month. He’s become famous again, thanks to a musical.

And an image created by a sculptor whose name has faded into obscurity.


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