Although a Virginian by birth, George Washington has myriad associations with New York City, the most obvious of which include the uptown neighborhood, downtown park and bridge to New Jersey that bear his name. But soon, New Yorkers are going to be given an entirely new—and revealing—perspective on the Father Of Our Country when a nude statue of him comes to The Frick Collection next month as part of the exhibition, “Canova’s George Washington,” opening May 22.
The Canova in the title refers to the Italian Antonio Canova (1757-1822), who is considered to be the greatest sculptor of the late 18th- and early 19th centuries. Back in 1816, North Carolina commissioned Canova to sculpt the nation’s first President for its State House at the suggestion of our third President, Thomas Jefferson—who, besides being a slaveholder and author of the Declaration of Independence, had a keen appreciation for the Neo-Classical aesthetic at which Canova excelled. Canova’s Monument to George Washington was unveiled in 1821 and true to form, it depicts the Founding Father as Roman statesman. Unfortunately, the sculpture was destroyed in a fire a decade later, though Canova’s full-scale plaster model of it survived.
That piece serves as the centerpiece for the Frick Show, and with it comes another showing Washington in the nude. Why? It was not uncommon for sculptors like Canova to envision their subjects in the buff as studies for works in which they were eventually seen fully clothed; the aim was to aide the artist in figuring out the flow of fabric over the completed form. Washington, though, never posed for either the nude study (which measures 30 inches high) or the finished, life-size Monument: By the time Jefferson first proposed the idea of commissioning Canova, Washington had already been dead for 16 years.