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Appreciating Washington Statue: A Masterpiece by Canova

In 1816, the General Assembly of North Carolina commissioned a full-length statue of George Washington to stand in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Raleigh. Thomas Jefferson, believing that no American sculptor was up to the task, recommended Antonio Canova (1757–1822), the Italian who was one of Europe’s most celebrated artists. The first and only work Canova created for the United States, the statue depicted the nation’s first President in ancient Roman garb – all’antica armor, which had been at the suggestion of Jefferson. It was unveiled to great acclaim in 1821. Tragically, a decade later, a fire swept through the State Capitol reducing the statue to a few charred fragments.

From May 23 through September 23, The Frick Collection will present Canova’s George Washington, an exhibition that examines the history of the artist’s lost masterpiece. The show brings together for the first time all of the objects connected to the creation of the sculpture, including a remarkable life-sized modello that has never before left Italy and tells the extraordinary transatlantic story of this monumental work.

The life-size modello provides the closest representation of what the destroyed marble would have looked like. It will be shown by itself in the Frick’s Oval Room to replicate the effect it would have had in the rotunda of North Carolina’s State Capitol. The adjoining East Gallery will feature the few surviving elements that reveal the artist’s creative process for this project – two drawings from the Museo Civico in Bassano del Grappa and five three-dimensional sketches from the Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova and the Museo di Roma. The faux marble pedestals in the exhibition replicate a design devised by Canova himself and are identical to those used to display his plaster modelli at Possagno.  Also on view are preparatory objects and comparative materials that shed light on the commission, including works by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Gilbert Stuart, Giuseppe Ceracchi and the spectacular portrait of Canova by Thomas Lawrence, which was completed in Rome in 1819, while the sculptor was at work on the sculpture of George Washington.

Following its presentation at the Frick, the exhibition will be shown in Possagno, Italy, at the Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, in the fall of 2018. The Frick is located at 1 East 70th Street in New York City.