George Washington, 1818, by Antonio Canova, gesso. 169cm x 100cm x 142cm.

Washington in New York

In 1816, the North Carolina Senate decided to install a full-length statue of George Washington in the State House
at Raleigh and asked Thomas Jefferson who should get the commission.

'There can be but one answer to this,' replied Jefferson, a connoisseur of all things Neoclassical: 'Old Canove of Rome'. Jefferson also had some suggestions for how America's first president should be represented. Washington, the Cincinnatus of the American Revolution, should, he said, be shown in the garb of a Roman, drafting his farewell address to the States. Five years later, in 1821, Antonio Canova's Monument to George Washington was installed in the State House. The statue, acclaimed at the time as 'the boast and pride of North America', was destroyed in a fire 10 years later but, in 1970, a replica was installed in the new State House.

Curated by Xavier F Salomon of the Frick Collection and Mario Guderzo of the Museo Antonio Canova in Italy, Canova's George Washington, which opens in May at the Frick Collection in New York City, tells the story of this lost masterpiece. For the first time, it brings together Canova's full-size preparatory plaster model, which has never left Italy; four preparatory models, and related drawings, engravings, and Thomas Lawrence's 1816 portrait of Canova.

One of the plaster preparatory models is a 30-inch tall study of a nude Washington. 'Did anybody ever see Washington naked?' asked Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1858. 'It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but, I imagine, was born with clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world. His costume, at all events, was a part of his character.' Hawthorne was referring to the unveiling of Horatio Greenough's statue in the Capitol at Washington, DC in 1832. That statue, modelled after Phidias' ivory and gold Zeus in the Temple at Olympia, showed the Founding Father naked from the waist up.

Canova's small nude was not intended for display. It was a sketch in gesso, a way of working out the arrangement of bone and muscle under Washington's Roman outfit.

Canova could not work from life, for Washington had died 17 years earlier, so the Americans had sent him a bust of Washington's head, and he knew that his subject had been a sturdy man who stood six feet, two inches tall – six inches more than the average 19th-century man – who had big hands and feet. Posterity does not record the name of Washington's body double.

Canova's George Washington will be on show at the Frick Collection from 23 May to 23 September 2018; it will then move to the Museo Antonio Canova in Possagno, Italy later this year.

Dominic Green