A George Washington Monument, Rediscovered in Fragile Plaster

Antonio Canova’s “Modello for George Washington (1818),” a plaster version of Washington as a Roman general, at the Frick Collection. A fire destroyed the original marble monument.

The year is 1816, and Thomas Jefferson, living in post-presidential splendor in Monticello, has been called on to give some advice. The state legislature of North Carolina has resolved to build a monument to George Washington that will have pride of place in the capitol building in Raleigh. Jefferson, who (with Benjamin Franklin) had overseen a similar statue for the Virginia capitol decades before, is asked who would be up to the task of sculpting the general in marble now.

“There can be but one answer to this,” Jefferson responds. “Old Canove of Rome, no artist in Europe would place himself in a line with him.”

“Old Canove” is Antonio Canova, and Jefferson was right about his dominance: by 1800 he had established himself as the dean of Neoclassical marble sculpture, with commanding busts and statues of Napoleon, idealized portraits of Greek heroes, and supple multifigure compositions like his masterpiece “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.” Canova accepts the commission, and at Jefferson’s suggestion depicts the first president in Roman military dress, holding a stylus and a tablet on which he writes his farewell address.

It arrives in Raleigh in 1821, greeted with a 24-gun salute and panegyrics in the press, which praises Canova’s Washington as superior to the Apollo Belvedere. But 10 years later the North Carolina state capitol goes up in flames; the roof caves in, and Canova’s only American commission crumbles to pieces.

Yet here it is on Fifth Avenue: the Virginian general, sword at his feet, skirt draped between his thighs, sandal straps snaking up his lissome calves. “Canova’s George Washington,” a smashing exhibition at the Frick Collection, rediscovers this least famous of American monuments with a major coup of a loan: the modello, or full-scale plaster version, that served as the proof for Canova’s lost marble. It’s joined by earlier studies and models for the commission; a life mask of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, the French sculptor who made the Virginia statue of Washington; and other fascinating supporting materials of a forgotten achievement.

Organized by Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator and author of a definitive essay on the sculpture’s commission for the catalog, this show is a rare foray into American themes for the museum. Mr. Frick, as the docents here still like to call him, had no great interest in the art of his own country; his own portrait of Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart and hanging in his cabinet room, is the rare work he bought of an American subject.

And in its way, it feels like a quietly political gesture from this most proper of New York museums. When mainstream magazines and book authors now broach a possible end to American democracy, this show returns to its dawn — and evokes the achievement of American self-governance through astonished, worshipful European eyes.

Washington was 16 years in the grave when Canova accepted the North Carolina commission, and the artist relied on both the Houdon life mask and a bust by Giuseppe Ceracchi, made in 1792, in which the president wears thickly curled hair rather than the pulled-back military style he sports on the $1 bill. Canova tried to get a sense of the man in a small, terra-cotta primo pensiero, or “first thought,” the surface of which still bears his fingerprints. Here Washington wears a simple toga and the tablet he will hold is absent. Already, though, Canova had decided to show the first president seated, in contrast to Houdon’s upright depiction in Virginia. This new Washington was to be a figure of classical restraint and nobility, rather than youthful revolutionary vigor.

Canova continued to refine his vision in drawings; one makes the president appear like a multi-limbed Buddha as the artist wrestled with the height of Washington’s extended arm. Canova also executed a number of bozzetti, or small-scale plaster models, that translated the drawings’ experimentation into three dimensions. The most eye-opening of them is a nude George Washington, about two and a half feet tall, with raised arms and some very nice pectoral definition.

The fragile full-scale modello has never left Italy before, and has been lent by the Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova in Possagno, the artist’s small hometown near Venice. (Unlike the replica of the statue now at the Raleigh state house, this plaster is by Canova’s own hand.) Mr. Salomon has made the somewhat cheeky decision to display it all alone in the Frick’s circular north gallery, on a faux marble pedestal. The scenography works well, actually — the lost sculpture would have appeared in something like these circumstances in the neoclassical North Carolina state house, which was expanded with a domed circular gallery ahead of its arrival.

If you concentrate only on the unexpectedly soft-featured face of Canova’s Washington, so different from the wooden-toothed archetype passed down to us, you may have trouble catching the full force of its accomplishment. Lifelikeness, though important to Canova, was not the principal goal of the North Carolina statue. By kitting out the first president in Roman costume — which Jefferson encouraged; he thought American military uniforms “have a very puny effect” — the artist attempted to elevate Washington out of his historical circumstances and into a pantheon of classical heroes, and to inspire moral elevation more than individual remembrance.

He had a model for this: the Roman statesman Cincinnatus, who was named dictator during a crisis of the early republic, triumphed over the enemy, and then voluntarily relinquished power and returned to his farm. His act of renunciation made Cincinnatus the very embodiment of Roman republican virtue, and Canova wanted his Washington to be the same: hence the tablet on which “Giorgio Washington” drafts his Italian-language resignation.

More than the get-up, it’s the bearing of Canova’s lost Washington that most expresses a European adulation of American values in the years after 1776. (In his studio in Rome, Canova’s assistants were tasked with reading to the artist from a history of the American Revolution while he chiseled away at the block.) Unlike Canova’s giant statues of nude, not-so-giant Napoleon, this one mutes its subject’s military prowess. It aims instead to embody Washington’s choice of principles over power, which Canova saw, at least in the early 19th century, as uniquely American.

What, anyway, are American values? Washington, Jefferson and the bulk of their fellow revolutionaries were slave holders, after all. But what the classicized statue implies is that certain ideals, notably liberty and justice for all, endure beyond any individual presidential biography, and those ideals are not invalidated when our leaders flout them.

What art can do — all it can do, really, though it’s not nothing — is affirm our ideals’ existence and endurance, in the late 18th century or the early 21st. Who we are, as Americans, is not just the sum total of our past achievements and disgraces. We are also guardians of the ideals Canova saw in us, heirs to a revolutionary tradition with life in it yet.

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