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Canova’s Washington Reminds Us of the Universality of the Founding

For the first time in almost two hundred years, the greatest statue of George Washington can be viewed again in the United States—at the Frick Collection in New York. Its beauty and power remind us of the universality of the ideas of America’s founding revolution and how they were regarded as an “expanding blaze” that would light up the rest of the world.

The statue is by the superb neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova. (It makes quite the contrast with his most famous work—a reclining nude of Napoleon’s sister that was a success de scandale).  In 1816 on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson Canova was chosen by the North Carolina legislature to render a life-size Washington for display in its rotunda. Canova executed the commission with the help of a bust made from real life, gaining inspiration as his assistants read him a history of the Revolution. But, in 1831 the North Carolina capital was engulfed by fire and the dome collapsed, destroying the finished marble work.

Fortunately, a full size plaster model which Canova made as a last preparation for the marble statue resided in a museum in his home town and now has made the transatlantic voyage for the first time. Washington is seated like a Roman consul, with one hand holding a stylus that points to his other arm that holds the Farewell Address. Beneath his chair lie a sheathed sword and a baton.

The symbolism is powerful. The abandoned sword and baton underscore Washington’s double renunciation of power—first as general and then as President.  Real power, Canova implies, lies not in his military prowess of even administrative power, but in his example and wise counsel for conserving the republic. By extension, the tableau emphasizes what was most important about the Founding to Europeans like Canova—the ideas of the American Founding that continued to shake Europe for the next century.

Putting Washington in a Roman toga reminds viewers of Cincinnatus and avoids wrapping the general in the American regimentals which were “puny” (Jefferson’s word) compared to the military garb of Europe. But making him a figure out of his time again emphasizes the universality of his importance and that of the America Founding—a model not confined to America but available to peoples of every nation.

It would be an exhibit worth seeing at any time, but particularly now when the American experiment is threatened by identity politics and tribalism—an extreme form of the factionalism against which Washington warned in the Farewell Address and a deadly threat to the ideals of liberty and self-government.

Reader Discussion

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on August 10, 2018 at 09:30:54 am

Cool, if only it was not necessary to visit New York City to view it.

Too bad that for the clashing symbolism of morally-diverging cultures the Frick didn't juxtapose Canova's Washington with his reclining nude of Napoleon’s sister.

The essence of republican virtue ( power constrained by honor and wise counsel) vs. woman as self-determining bodily agent, free to be sexually victimized.

Right vs. Left.

That show could go on the road to Hollywood and all the big blue cities like NYC, where the pretense of intellect wrapped in the reality of prurience always plays well.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 10, 2018 at 10:03:35 am

Too bad Canova did not juxtapose our American Cincinnatus with, say, Barack Obama, Slick Willie Clinton, Hillary Clinton or especially Jimmy Peanut Carter, all of whom are constitutionally unable and unwilling to shed the (self-continuing) mantle of power.

I suppose they see themselves as living statues and testaments to their own greatness and the nations ongoing need for their wise counsel.

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gabe
on August 10, 2018 at 10:31:35 am

Too bad Canova did not juxtapose our American Cincinnatus with, say, Barack Obama, Slick Willie Clinton, Hillary Clinton or especially Jimmy Peanut Carter....

I always find it off-putting, seeing mere mortals—even mortals on the stature of Washington—depicted in this style, as if gods. Haven’t we outgrown that kind of thing? But then when I hear people praising Trump’s new Supreme Court pick, I guess we haven’t.

Still, the whole “apotheosis of Washington” theme seems … icky? Or at least, it seems like a European affectation. But alas, we’re not the only ones to engage in this nonsense. In Ottawa you can find an enormous, god-like sculpture of their first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. And now there’s an effort to have it removed because—surprise, surprise—we learn he was the architect of the early Canadian practice of Anglicizing the children of Native Americans (First Nations). So much for making graven images of our gods.

Yet the Canadians didn’t just depict Macdonald in marble; he’s also on early currency, and embossed on buildings. They create little foam busts of him packed into a little pellet: Soak it in water, and the bust appears. They even have aerosol cans that will emit an expanding foam that forms his likeness. With all that recognition, who needs Canova?

Well … the foam people do—cuz the busts never really look like the person they’re supposed to emulate. They’re more like those Barbie dolls that are intended to honor famous people, but they all just look like Barbie. Humans have evolved to focus on faces, and you need a real artist to depict one. Clearly, depicting a REAL person’s face is something that sets a REAL artist apart. Whether working in marble or plastic or foam, you need a Canova.

If only the Canadians had someone with that level of skill, people everywhere would be ordering foam busts of their own petty political heroes—even Supreme Court picks. I can just imagine Hannity pulling out his own aerosol can, saying “Let’s open a can of the Canada Cavona Kavanaugh!”

But I bet he wouldn’t say it ten times fast.

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nobody.really
on August 10, 2018 at 10:59:23 am

"I always find it off-putting, seeing mere mortals—even mortals on the stature of Washington—depicted in this style, as if gods. Haven’t we outgrown that kind of thing? But then when I hear people praising Trump’s new Supreme Court pick, I guess we haven’t."

OMG, do I see distress signals in the distance and hear the early abdominal rumblings symptomatic of the viral spread of Kavenaugh Derangement Syndrome?

Fear and disgust seem the most visible, palpable, audibly prominent signs of the New Old Left's resurgent social psychosis.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 10, 2018 at 11:16:23 am

Well, OK, but nobody's "foaming" analysis is actually funny!

I do wonder, however, what flavor punch nobody prefers when he *plops* into the punchbowl:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vjn63YEQM8

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gabe
on August 10, 2018 at 11:17:23 am

Hey, why is the video embedded when I only copied the link?
Wazzup with that?

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gabe
on August 10, 2018 at 11:20:15 am
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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 10, 2018 at 11:22:45 am

''funny" until it's not.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on August 11, 2018 at 18:58:50 pm

This sculpture could be entitled "Washington as a Fey Aesthete." Somehow, I doubt that George would have appreciated it.

Our government was intended by the founders to be operated in obedience to certain potentially (but not yet, then or now, and probably never, actually) universal principles. But that does not mean that our government does not have greater obligations to its own citizens' common interest than to the personal interests of random foreigners who might wish to live here.

Just in case that was the post's intended implication.

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djf
on April 09, 2019 at 05:35:08 am

The statue is by the superb neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova. (It makes quite the contrast with his most famous work—a reclining nude of Napoleon’s sister that was a success de scandale). In 1816 on the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson Canova was chosen by the North Carolina legislature to render a life-size Washington for display in its rotunda. Great! I will use it in my dissertation which I will order on http://phdify.com

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Leslie Howell
on April 09, 2019 at 05:36:54 am

The statue is by the superb neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova. (It makes quite the contrast with his most famous work—a

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Beatrice Barnett

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.