Antonio Canova (1757-1822) has been the foremost neo-Classical sculptor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and was highly celebrated while he was alive. For this reason, in 1816, he was commissioned to produce a monument to George Washington made to look like an ancient Roman leader (Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion), writing his farewell address, for the North Carolina State house. The sculpture was unveiled in 1821, but ten years later a fire destroyed it, leaving behind charred fragments.
In the “Canova’s George Washington” exhibition, scheduled to open on May 22, 2018, the Frick Collection will showcase Canova’s full-size plaster model of the monument, as well as draft sketches, related engravings and drawings from the Museo Canova in Possagno, Italy. Among these, there will be a 30-inch preliminary plaster model portraying Washington in the nude which, being solely a preparation work, never left Canova’s studio. Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator, observed that artists often did sketches in plaster of naked versions of their subjects as they thought through the process of turning cold, hard stone into hair, skin and soft-looking fabric. Salomon said that the nude model is one of the four preliminary ones; as a standard practice Canova “would start with rough drawings and then move to three-dimensional plaster models such as this one,” and added that “he always did a nude model of his sculptures so he could understand how the body worked under the drapery.”
Canova’s work is even more impressive considering that he began working on Washington’s monument several years after his subject’s death and that he relied solely on a bust owned by an American diplomat who shipped it to Canova’s studio in Rome.
Ilona Catani Scarlett