From paintings to statues to the dollar bill, Americans are used to the revered likeness of George Washington — but not quite like this.
A nude sculpture of America’s first president is set to debut at New York’s Frick Collection in 2018. Created by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova in the early 19th century, this statue actually has a more surprising backstory than even its “nude George Washington” billing might suggest.
Thomas Jefferson first recommended Canova to state officials who sought to place a likeness of Washington in the North Carolina state house in 1816. Five years later, that statue debuted and attracted viewers far and wide.
However, just a decade after that, a fire in the state house reduced the statue to “just a few charred fragments,” writes the Frick Collection. But what still remains today is Canova’s preparatory plaster model for the statue. And while the final statue was indeed fully clothed, the plaster model was not.
And it’s this model — along with Canova’s preparatory sketches, engravings, and drawings — that will debut at the Frick Collection on May 22, 2018, as part of an exhibition on the history of the great lost statue burned in the state house fire.
While the nude plaster model and associated materials have never been made public in America before, plenty of the details surrounding these artifacts have long been well known. We know, for example, that Washington, then deceased, did not pose for Canova (in fact, they never even met) and that the artist instead based his works on portraits and busts of Washington.
Furthermore, we can be sure that the nude plaster model was nothing out of the ordinary. “He always did a nude model of his sculptures so he could understand how the body worked under the drapery,” said chief Frick curator Xavier F. Salomon. “Absolutely standard practice.”
Nevertheless, Salomon contends that 19th-century North Carolinians, let alone all other Americans, surely never knew of the nude model’s existence. Soon, however, they’ll be able to see it in the flesh, as it were.