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Treasury Notes

 A History of the Bust of Alexander Hamilton at Treasury

By: Richard Cote

HamiltonPortrait.jpgToday marks the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first Treasury Secretary.  On this occasion, I thought it would be fitting to provide some insight into one of the most intriguing art objects in the Treasury building: the plaster bust of Hamilton in the Secretary’s third floor conference room. The bust was acquired three years ago after it went up for auction in Asheville, N.C., but to understand the significance of this piece one would have to go back to 1804 when Hamilton met Aaron Burr on the banks of the Hudson River. 

On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the sitting Vice President, raised pistols against each other. Burr walked away from the duel unscathed, but Hamilton died the following day from a fatal gunshot wound.  In the wake of his death, artists began churning out works commemorating Hamilton in earnest.  Those tributes were often modeled after a piece by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi, who had traveled to the United States twice to execute busts of the leaders of the Revolution. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, and Hamilton all sat for him, and Ceracchi recreated their images as noble Romans, adorned with togas and classical haircuts.

In Ceracchi’s hands, Hamilton was immortalized as a Roman hero, wearing the ribbon ofCeracchi .jpg
the Order of the Cincinnati. This terra cotta piece, which was executed at the peak of the Secretary’s career in Philadelphia in 1794, has become the most enduring image of Hamilton. It’s been the basis for statues, drawings, and postage stamps.  And it was the basis for the bust obtained by the Treasury Department in 2009.  In fact, the auction tag described the work as “after Giuseppe Ceracchi.” 

The piece, though, was hardly in good condition. It was covered with dirt and grime over a layer of white washed paint. A careful conservation process ensued, revealing the bust’s original finish but also the signature of the artist “J. Lanelli” and the number “234.” 

BustConservation.jpgSubsequent research identified the bust as one of a group of four by Lanelli.  It seems the artist was working in Florence at the time of Hamilton’s death and made a few plaster copies of Ceracchi’s bust from Italy and shipped them to America. The one now in Treasury’s collection is thought to have been originally acquired by John Edgar Howard, a one-time aide-de-camp to Hamilton and former governor of Maryland. After Howard’s death, his estate sold the bust at an auction in 1827 to John H. Naff, a historian in Baltimore. In 1868 or 1869, Naff gave it to the Maryland Historical Society as a gift.  At some point later, the bust was removed from the historical society’s collection, where it disappeared from circulation.    

Lanelli’s restored bust is now exhibited in the Secretary’s Conference Room, which is on the third floor of the Treasury building and included in public tours of the Treasury on Saturdays.

HamiltonBust.jpgTwo of Lanelli’s other busts can be viewed at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. The whereabouts of the artist’s fourth piece is still unknown. 

Richard Cote is the Curator at U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Posted in:  Curator of the Treasury
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