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George Washington, the naked president: Canova’s studies for his statue

Did you know? The Italian artist Canova was supposed to create a model of George Washington. The catch? The President was naked.

George Washington

How it happened

Thomas Jefferson commissioned the study to Canova at the end of 1812. The Italian artist was supposed to make a plaster model of George Washington, depicting the President..naked.

Canova started working on the stone portrait after Washington’s death. Hence, he never posed for it. If you’re intrigued,  you’ll be able to see it soon at the Frick Museum in New York City (more details below).

While that project didn’t come to fruition, the Italian artist deserves recognition. It’s the story of an artist and his commitments. Coming from Italy, his fame reached beyond the Atlantic. Artists and presidents, presidents and artists: they no longer make them like  that any more.

An interesting story, that behind the naked Washington plaster statue and its Italian origin, a story you’re just about to learn and love.

Canova the Man and Canova the Artist

Antonio Canova was born in Possagno, not far from Venice, in 1757. Here, he remained even after his single mother decided to move. Young Antonio wanted to keep company to his sculptor grandfather. That’s where he started learning.

Indeed, young Antonio showed a flair for shapes early. He used any materials, like clay, and even butter. Indeed, butter! Rumor has it, when he was around 7 or 8, he had been invited to a fancy dinner in a beautiful villa in Asolo. But he was bored. So, he apparently carved a lion out of a pat of butter. Needless to say, he left everyone astonished. The dinner host, Senator Giovanni Falier, was so impressed by Antonio’s talent that he endorsed his artistic training.

Thanks to Falier’s interest, Canova became part of the Torretti Studio in Pagnano d’Asolo. Here, Antonio learned the basics of art and he met the wealthy world of Venice’s art lovers. In the late 1770s, the young artist opened his own studio. Later, he visited Rome for the first time. The trip to the Eternal City was pivotal for his career.

These are also the years of his troublesome friendship with Domenica Volpato, the daughter of engraver Giovanni. Antonio and Domenica shared a volatile yet meaningful relationship. The two became engaged after her father’s blessing. However, the shy and withdrawn Domenica eventually set her eyes on another man. When Antonio found out, he broke the engagement. That’s when he vowed to dedicate his life solely to art.

The Roman years

Canova lived in Rome between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.

During his Roman years, he produced some of the most well known marble effiges of the Bonaparte family. In fact, at the time the family was stationed in the city. Napoleon even wanted Canova to move to Paris. But he refused because he preferred to associate his own name to the art and tradition of Italy. In 1815, Napoleon lost at Waterloo while Canova was visiting the French capital. The artist managed to bring back to Italy works of art stolen by the French army while stationed in Italy.

For his courage, Pope Pius VII honored him with the title of Marquis of Ischia. Thanks to this, Canova received a large annuity, which he always donated to various arts teaching institutions. He died in 1822 in Venice. His mausoleum in Possagno was still under construction. He was eventually laid there to rest 10 years later.

Canova and the USA

Shortly after the end of the 1812 War, the General Assembly was eager to reinforce American identity. Through the unique communicative power of the arts. It was, apparently, Thomas Jefferson himself who suggested the name Canova for an outstanding sculpture.

In fact, Canova obtained the commission and he began working. As X.F. Salomon, chief curator at the Frick Museum, in an interview to the NY Times said, “a commission from America then, it was like a commission from Mars.”

Jefferson commissioned a statue of Washington wearing a Roman military uniform. The artist likely started with pencil sketches, only to pass to plaster to mold shapes and ideas. Naked plaster models were the norm. Because they gave the artist the opportunity to focus on human anatomy and to produce a more lifelike piece. Of course, Canova could’t make Washington pose for him. Still, a live model helped the artist in his work.

A curiosity: apparently, Canova found working on George Washington hard. He had been a very tall man, towering over the world with his 6.2″, 175 lbs frame and had very large hands and feet, which the sculptor found hard to create harmoniously.

Canova’s George Washington, the original, marble statue, reached Raleigh in 1821, only one year prior the artist’s death. It was beautiful and majestic and breathtaking, just as everyone had wanted. But it was not destined to last for long. In 1831, a fire hit the state’s House, charring Canova’s work beyond repair.

A replica was installed in the same location only about 50 years ago, in 1970, more than 100 years after the original had gone destroyed. .

Canova and the Naked Washington in the USA

If you’d like to see Canova’s George Washington study and many other sketches and works of one of Italy’s most inspired sculptors, keep this date free: May 22, 2018, this is when the exhibition – which will last until September 2018 – begins. The majority of the exhibits will come directly from the Museo Antonio Canova in Possagno, birthplace of the artist.

Canova is the highest representative of European neo-classical sculpture, who lived between the 18th and early 19th century. His work inspired words of awe from the great and the powerful of his times, with German Goethe and British Wordsworth among his warmer admirers. Even  more passionate, legend says, was Gustave Flaubert who, with an all-Mediterranean afflatus typical of the Italian and the French, once kissed Canova’s famous “Cupid and Psyche,” only to state he had managed to kiss “beauty itself”.

Francesca Bezzone

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