Washington in the Flesh, Almost

Detail of Modello for George Washington, 1818, by Antonio Canova (Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno. Photo: Fabio Zonta)
In a powerful show, the Frick brings us the most lifelike images ever made of America’s Founder.

Canova’s George Washington at the Frick Collection is the zenith of the museum’s signature exhibition style. It’s small, fewer than 20 objects. It’s focused. It examines the creation of Antonio Canova’s full-length sculpture of George Washington in Roman costume from 1821. It was Canova’s (1757–1822) sole American commission and among his most famous subjects. It’s perfectly presented, with superb scholarship and a gorgeous design.

It also finesses a difficult truth with elegance. The sculpture, unveiled to acclaim, was destroyed in a fire in 1836. Its life-size plaster cast, Canova’s final preparatory object, remains, as do Canova’s drawings and modellos. The museum borrows from one of Italy’s most fascinating and seldom-visited small museums: the Fondazione Canova in his birthplace, Possagno, a tiny town in the Veneto. The show is connoisseurship at its best. It’s also the closest experience we’ll ever have of seeing Washington in the flesh since Canova’s depiction was widely thought the best, most accurate depiction of our first president.

In 1816, North Carolina’s legislature commissioned a full-length, life-size sculpture of Washington for the rotunda of its state capitol. When consulted on possible artists, Thomas Jefferson insisted that only Canova, probably Europe’s most distinguished sculptor, would do. By that time, Canova had portrayed emperors, popes, gods, and princesses, his figures sleek and subtly sexy. Absolute power might corrupt absolutely, but restrained, elegantly conveyed power can be intoxicating.

Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington might have been ubiquitous given the many versions Stuart painted, but Jefferson and others thought Giuseppe Ceracchi’s bust, done from life in 1791, was the most accurate depiction of Washington ever done. There are two versions in the show, one marble and the other terra-cotta. The terra-cotta bust is as alive as it could be. Also in the show is Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1785 plaster life mask of Washington. This is the first time all of these depictions have been together. Canova faithfully used Ceracchi’s work as his model.

The show tells us that there was considerable discussion about how Washington would be depicted. The capitol rotunda was too low to accommodate a standing figure, so a seated Washington was decided. He was dressed as an ancient Roman, in part because of the many classical virtues linked to the pioneers of republican government, but also because the look of Roman costume was austere and august while the military dress Washington would have worn seemed, as Jefferson said, “puny,” by which he meant showy and cheap.

This is the only chance viewers will have to see Washington looking like a football player pausing before he heads to the shower.

By Washington’s death in 1799, he was already internationally famous and likened to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman general who could have become a military dictator but decided instead, having quelled a revolution, to retire and return to his farm and civilian life. In Washington’s time, Europeans accustomed to the absolute, hereditary, lifelong power of kings found the concept of a leader voluntarily relinquishing power and retiring to a quiet life both radical and astonishing. Washington did just that, adding to the fame he’d already gathered as a Founding Father and the general who bested the British. Acknowledging Washington’s ultimate act of heroism, Canova showed him writing his farewell address.

The show includes Canova’s preparatory drawings and plaster and terra-cotta models. One shows Washington nude, a common practice even among sculptors who planned to dress the final version. Imagining the figure without clothing makes it easier to conceive how the garments to be added should fall and gather on the figure. This is the only chance viewers will have to see Washington looking like a football player pausing before he heads to the shower.

It’s a great show, immensely satisfying as the best art history always is. The book uncovers an abundance of new material on Canova’s commission. It doesn’t make any difference that the final sculpture isn’t there. Even if it were not destroyed, it wouldn’t ever leave the rotunda. For those who can’t conceive of stone burning, marble is indeed flammable. The show includes one big, charred fragment. It’s Canova’s signature. For those who oppose government funding of the arts, it’s a reminder that the government checkbook has always been open in America, with even the North Carolina legislature in 1816 willing to hire Europe’s most famous artist.

The Frick supplies one of my favorite features of a great museum building: generous and well-presented vistas. Standing by a commanding portrait of a red-dressed Canova, visitors see a vista stretching the length of the museum, to the Washington plaster cast looking straight at Canova in stern splendor, across the main gallery, past elegant Renaissance bronzes of warrior gods, to Piero della Francesca’s painting of the red-robed John the Evangelist about two hundred feet in the distance. Both the Canova portrait and the Piero have wall power. Washington is big and boldly assertive. The combination of Canova the creative genius, a civic icon and Father of the Nation, Greek myth, and the purported author of the Book of Revelations is a heady one. On my second visit to see the show, on an August Friday, I arrived when the museum opened at ten. For a few moments, until the crowds started to arrive, looking at this vista, Henry Clay Frick’s majestic house and art felt like mine.


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