The Canova Statue

Canova Statue of George Washington

The exterior of the North Carolina State House built in 1794 was considered very plain. To lend dignity to the structure, the General Assembly passed a bill calling for the purchase of a statue honoring George Washington. Uncharacteristically they set no limit on the cost. Prominent citizens asked the opinion of Thomas Jefferson and he advised them to have the piece of sculpture done by the dominant neoclassical sculptor, Italian artist Antonio Canova. To honor George Washington, North Carolina commissioned a statue from Canova in 1816. Since Canova had never seen Washington, he was sent a plaster bust and a drawing of a portrait of Washington in order to aid him in sculpting.
Gilbert Stuart protrait of George Washingtion (Vaughn type)

Portrait courtesy of 
the National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution

Lithograph of original Canova Statue
On December 24, 1821, the statue of George Washington arrived in Raleigh. The state paid $10,000 for this national art treasure. Details of the original sculpture can be seen in this lithograph of Leutze and Weisman painting of Canova Statue done after the 1831 fire. Pictured are General Lafayette, Betsey John, daughter of State Treasurer John Haywood and George West, young artist. Canova never received the drawing, so Washington's body was left up to his imagination. He looked to ancient classical civilizations for inspiration like other artists and architects of the time, particularly the neoclassical style. He depicted Washington as a Roman general, dressed in a tunic, body armor, and a short cape. Ironically some thought that the statue should be put on rollers so that it could be quickly moved should something happen to the State House. The rollers were discounted as lacking in dignity. In 1831 when the State House burned and the statue was destroyed, many may have been heard to say, "I told you so."


"The statue of Washington, by the great sculptor, Canova, was ordered by the Legislature and placed in the rotunda of the Capitol in 1822. It was simple, magnificent. It was regarded by all connoisseurs of Art as the first in conception and execution of all Canova's works and it had a lifelike majestic appearance which is indescribable and which would require a personal inspection to appreciate...The statue was of finest Carrara marble, draped as a Roman general in a sitting position. In the left had was a tablet and in the right a pen and Washington was represented as penning his Farewell Address. The pedestal was seven feet high and four and a half feet wide, embellished with four bas reliefs with figures three feet high. In the front was the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown and in the rear was Cincinnatus returning to the plow, representing a pair of oxen with Roman yoke. The people of North Carolina were prouder of this statue than anything else they possessed, and great was their grief at its destruction in 1831." 

...from Recollections of the City of Raleigh by Dr. R.B. Haywood
Quoted from Raleigh: The First 200 Years (Beal 1992)

In 1910, the king of Italy presented North Carolina with the plaster model Canova used as a guide to create the marble statue that is housed at the Museum of History in Raleigh, NC. And in 1970, Italian artist Romano Vio used the model to sculpt the marble copy that stands in the rotunda of the capitol building today.
Canova Statue of George Washington
Canova Statue of George Washington
Canova Statue of George Washington

Copy of Canova Statue in Museum of History
Visitors to the Museum of History in Raleigh
can see this copy of the Canova statue.