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.