Audio Tour

View exhibition objects

Visit our Soundcloud channel, download the SoundCloud app for IOS or Android devices. Or download our free app from iTunes or Google Play to hear available audio.

When using The Frick Collection app, enter audio stop #506 to access the tour. 


Welcome to the exhibition Canova's George Washington. I am Xavier Salomon. I am the Chief Curator here at The Frick Collection, and I am the co-curator of this exhibition together with Mario Guderzo, who is the director of the Canova Museum in Possagno, Italy.

The exhibition focuses on the history of what was one of the greatest early sculptures in the history of America — Antonio Canova's monument to George Washington, the only statue the Italian sculptor ever made for America. You're standing here in the Oval Room at the Frick, and what you see is what remains of that sculpture — the original model in plaster for the marble, which was created between 1816 and 1820. This exhibition tells the story of this monument, its making, its destruction, and it brings the story back to life for the first time here in America. Many of the works you will see are shown here in the States for the first time and leave Italy for the first time.

So the commission of the sculpture came at the end of 1815 when the Senate of the state of North Carolina voted to have a sculpture of Washington in marble made for the central rotunda of the State House in Raleigh. They asked a number of different people in the States as to who would be the perfect sculptor to make this work in America or abroad.  And they decided to follow the advice of President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to two of the senators of North Carolina in January 1816, suggesting that the sculptor who should be used for this commission should be none other than Antonio Canova, the most famous artist of the time in Europe, who was based in Rome.

The commission was organized and Canova started working on the sculpture, which was completed in 1820 and delivered to Raleigh in 1821. It was unveiled to great success on Christmas Eve 1821. The sculpture, however, resided in the State House of Raleigh for only 10 years. In June 1831 a massive fire destroyed the sculpture. The entire rotunda of the State House collapsed over the statue, and it was left in fragments, and it still survives in fragmentary state in Raleigh. The display of the model here in the Oval Room at the Frick is meant to echo the original positioning of the sculpture in Raleigh. Of course, the rotunda was slightly differently shaped, and we don't know exactly what it looked like, the pedestal would have been different, but it's meant to give this idea of a freestanding sculpture in the middle of circular space, that you could walk around and look at from different sides.

The pedestals in this exhibition are based on an original design by Canova for his plaster models, which is still used to this day for the sculptures in the Canova Museum in Possagno. So here in the Oval Room, you see the sculpture as it would have originally appeared. Of course, the statue that was sent to Raleigh would have been in marble rather than plaster, but this was the original model that Canova made for the final statue.  And we will come back to this room, but before doing so we'll look at the other objects in the East Gallery (across from this room) which help us understand how this commission came about, how the sculpture was made, and why it looks the way it looks.

So we walk through into the East Gallery where a selection of these other works is put together for the very first time. And this tells you the full story of this commission. We start on the left with a group of four objects along the wall. Now, when Canova received the commission in 1816, Washington had been dead for sixteen years, and Canova had no idea what Washington looked like. So several letters were sent to try and determine what the model should be. And here you see Washington represented by three different artists. Of course, the painting by Gilbert Stuart is one of the most famous images of the first president. Gilbert Stuart produced about one hundred of these paintings, and this here from The Frick Collection is one of the very first versions of this painting. But then you also have in this exhibition, the only two sculptures that were made from life, with Washington standing in front of the artist.

On the left, the life mask of Washington produced by Houdon in the 1780's. Houdon traveled to Mt. Vernon, met Washington, and took this life mask in October 1785. And on the right, the large monumental terracotta bust by the Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Ceracchi, who met Washington in the early 1790's. These are contemporary works made when Washington was alive, and there was a discussion in 1816 as to which of these models would be the best to be used for Canova's sculpture. And the decision was unanimous and everyone decided that the Ceracchi bust should be the main model for Canova.

So what you see here is your original terracotta work by Ceracchi, which is in the Musée des Beaux Artes in Nantes. It was brought by Ceracchi to France when he moved there, and his widow sold it to a collector, who then left the bust to the museum in Nantes. And to the right of the terracotta bust, instead, you have a marble version of it, to remind us that this terracotta bust provided the model for a series of marble and plaster versions of the bust, which were acquired by a number of different collectors in America and in Europe.

When Canova received the model, the Ceracchi bust, he then started working on his own sculpture. And what you see in the center of the room are the four existing bozzetti (sketches) for the Washington, before Canova produced the full-sized model, and then the marble. We start with the small statue in terracotta, which is what Canova described as his primo pensiero (his first thought) of the sculpture. And here you really see Canova working very quickly — with his fingerprints, with a spatula. If you look at this sculpture closely enough, you can see that there are fingerprints all over it, and pencil marks. This is something that Canova would have produced in a few hours probably.  And it shows the very first idea of Washington — seated, wearing an ancient outfit, a Roman toga. And in his hand he holds either an upside down cornucopia—a horn of plenty to represent the natural wealth of America—or possibly an upside-down torch. And of course, if flames are upside down they would have been extinguished, and would have represented peace after war. It is unclear what this object actually is from the sketch.

Canova worked very quickly to change this plan. And if you move to the left, towards the wall again, you can see two drawings by Canova, which are the only two drawings relating to this commission. On the right is a page from a small notebook, and at the bottom of it you see the first drawing for the Washington where Washington is shown seated holding a tablet in his hand. So the cornucopia or the torch has been replaced with a tablet and he is holding it in his hands, and there are two different options with his arms moved. Above it, you have an equestrian monument for the King of Naples, which was a monument that Canova was working on at the same time. On the left instead is a sheet, which shows different drawings by Canova for different monuments. But at the upper left is another sheet for Washington, again holding a tablet in both hands and seated on a stool. So these must have been drawings which Canova produced immediately after the primo pensiero, as he was still developing an iconography for the sculpture.

Now if we move diametrically across the room, we go back to the other small sketch to the right of the terracotta primo pensiero. And this is the first of a series of other sketches which Canova made once the iconography has been determined. While working on the sculpture Canova read a history of the American Revolution. He was very fond of having his assistants or his half-brother, read to him books aloud, usually classics, while he was at work. And in this case, he asked them to read the history of the American Revolution written by the Italian Carlo Botta.

And so the thing that surprised Canova, and most contemporaries in Europe, about Washington was the fact that having been president for two terms he decided to step down and peacefully relinquish power to the next president. So Canova decides to show Washington signing his farewell address. He has Washington seated with a tablet on which the three Latin words for law, homeland, and liberty are inscribed. The three great gifts that Washington gave to the United States.

At this first stage of the sketch, a crown and scepter are shown at the bottom of the monument at Washington's feet and someone must have told Canova very quickly that these were not symbols that would have been appropriate for an American president. And so, as you will see in the next sketches, they quickly disappeared from Canova’s work. The composition of the Washington, a seated figure one leg outstretched one bent, two arms in different positions, the head slightly turned. It's a very beautiful, rhythmical composition. But Canova needed to work this out properly and to do so he decided to make an anatomical sketch in the nude, so that he could have a model in the studio posing as Washington and he could work out the right relationship between the various limbs and the body of the president.

So if you go to the back of the room on the left, you can see this nude model. This is a larger model than the one we've just looked at. And it represents a young model in the studio seated in the same position as Washington. And of course the whole purpose of a sketch like this would have been to work out precisely the anatomical correctness of the statue and of the position of the body. And so you can see here Canova struggling and working out the relationship between the legs, the arms, the head, and the torso of the figure. And once that is worked out, to the right you have the final of these four sketches, which shows exactly the same position. But here Washington is clothed in a Roman all’antica outfit. And again he's writing patria (homeland), libertas (freedom), et lex (and law), but in a slightly different order than previously.

At the end of the room is a portrait of Canova by the British portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, which shows Canova in 1815, at the time he received the commission for the George Washington.   And at the time he had traveled to London to help the Italian government — the papal government — to reclaim the antiquities and the works of art which had been taken to Paris by Napoleon. This is the time of the Congress of Vienna and Canova was instrumental in helping the Pope reclaim those works. So Lawrence painted this portrait, and then retouched it in 1819 when Lawrence moved to Rome and brought the painting with him, and gave it as a gift to Canova.  So here is the image of the artist around the time he is conceiving these works.

In 1818, he started working on the large model we've seen in the Oval Room, and by 1820 the marble sculpture was effectively completed. What you see on the opposite wall of the East Gallery are two prints, which show the marble monument as it was completed. And near the door, another print which instead shows the monument in situ in Raleigh. Now this is the only image which shows the Canova statue as it would have appeared in the rotunda in the State Capitol. And it commemorates the event in 1825 of General Lafayette's visit to Raleigh, when he inspected the statue, and he commented on the resemblance, the accurate resemblance between the sculpture and General Washington.

Now the problem with this print in that in fact it was made 10 years after the sculpture was destroyed in the 1840's. And what it represents is an imaginary view of the rotunda and of the sculpture. The depiction of the sculpture is not accurate, and the rotunda is somewhat imagined. So even though this can give us a sense of what the sculpture would have looked like before its destruction, it is not accurate.

In between the prints, we have a marble fragment of the original monument. This is the only fragment in the exhibition of the monument. Several fragments of it survive in Raleigh in different locations.  And this is part of the base on which this sculpture of Washington would have sat. And it shows the inscription in Latin with Canova's signature. It says “Antonio Canova made this in Rome in 1820.” And it is inscribed across the surface of the marble block and what you see is part of the sword of Washington which would have been between his feet. The black staining on this piece of marble, of course, is produced by the fire in the State Capitol in 1831.

The last object in this room is the bust, going back towards the Oval Room, which was produced by Canova after the full monument. And this was fairly common for Canova to make busts after his full length statues, that he could keep in the studio and so that people could order marble versions of it. In this case, as far as we know, a marble version of this bust was never made. The sculpture was completed in 1820 and Canova died two years later in 1822. So there was no time for a marble bust to be made. But this shows that patrons could have potentially commissioned a bust of Washington after the Canova model.

We return in the Oval Room to look for one last time at the model by Washington. Having seen the sketches, the drawings, the prints after it, you can now understand how monumental and beautiful this sculpture would have been in the State House in Raleigh. Washington is shown drafting his farewell address. The three words that appear in the other sketches have here disappeared. And he's now instead writing in Italian the beginning of his farewell address to his friends and countryman and dated 1796. He is shown in all’antica armor, and he basically is meant to evoke the ancient hero Cincinnatus who during the Republican times in Rome led a victorious army during the Civil War. And after the victory as dictator stepped down from power and became a farmer. And of course Washington stepping down from the presidency and going back to Mt. Vernon was seen as an example of a modern Cincinnatus, something that would have been unthinkable in Europe at the time where rulers, kings, queens, emperors, Popes were all ruling for life.

Canova always liked to give a further significance to his sculptures. When he portrayed Napoleon, Napoleon will show as the victorious Mars.  When he portrayed Napoleon's wife, Maria Louisa she was shown as Concordia. And when he showed Napoleon's sister Paolina, she was shown as Venus, clearly a very beautiful woman. When it came to Washington, he is therefore shown as a modern Cincinnatus. And this is the greatest message of the sculpture. Canova like everyone today was impressed by the fact that Washington as a first president had stepped down, and of course what the statue does is still to this day celebrates the peaceful passage of power from one president to another in a democratic republic like the United States.

I hope you enjoy the exhibition. It will be on view until September 23 here at the Frick. You can learn more about it at And the exhibition will then travel to the Museo Canova in Possagno in November of this year. Thank you.

Facebook Twitter Threads