Washington - A Modern Cincinnatus

sculpture of George Washington seated holding tablet

The way in which George Washington was to be represented was a subject of discussion at the time of the commission. Canova conceived the statue seated and wearing ancient costume. Jefferson also had suggested all’antica dress: “I am sure the artist, and every person of taste in Europe would be for the Roman, the effect of which is undoubtedly of a different order. our boots & regimentals have a very puny effect.” The decision was made to show Washington seated, as a reference to examples of ancient statuary but also because the ceiling of the rotunda in which it was to be placed was not high enough to accommodate a monumental standing figure.

For a European public accustomed to the absolute power of emperors, popes, and kings, the idea of a general or head of state relinquishing his title and peacefully retiring to private life was almost unbelievable. The painter John Trumbull, writing in 1784 about Washington’s resignation from the army, wrote: “Tis a Conduct so novel, so inconceivable to People, who, far from giving up powers they possess, are willing to convulse the Empire to acquire more.”

Washington was likened to the ancient republican hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who, having won a war as a Roman dictator, stepped down and returned to his farm. Canova ultimately decided to show Washington drafting his farewell address to the nation. Writing to a friend, the artist commented: “I made him [Washington] gladly, because he is a gentleman.”

Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno; photo Fabio Zonta