Introduction

sculpture of George Washington seated holding tablet

Born in 1757 to a humble family in Possagno, on the Venetian mainland, Antonio Canova would become one of the most famous sculptors in Europe, creating masterpieces for popes, emperors, kings, and aristocrats in Italy, France, England, Germany, Austria, Holland, Poland, and Russia. Toward the end of his life, he received a single commission from the United States.

In December 1816, the General Assembly of North Carolina decreed that a marble sculpture of the first president of the United States, George Washington, be commissioned for the State House in Raleigh. Thomas Jefferson, by then a former president, suggested Canova, and through the agency of Thomas Appleton, American consul in Livorno, the statue was commissioned and executed. Canova worked on the life-size marble sculpture for four years; in December 1821, it was delivered to North Carolina.

Ten years later, in July 1831, a fire destroyed the State House and the statue that had been described as “the boast and pride of North America.” Were it not for the “awful calamity,” Canova’s sculpture would today be one of the most important artistic treasures from the early history of the United States.

All the objects related to the creation of this work — drawings, three-dimensional sketches, and the lifesize modello for the final marble sculpture — are assembled here for the first time to bring to life the extraordinary transatlantic story of Canova’s masterpiece.

Running concurrently with the Frick exhibition are Canova e la Danza (at the Italian Cultural Institute until June 28, 2018) and Antonio Canova by Fabio Zonta (at the Italian Consulate until September 23, 2018).

Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno; photo Fabio Zonta