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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This George Washington statue was carved by the famous Italian neoclassical marble sculptor, Antonio Canova, after it was commissioned in the year 1816 by the General Assembly of North Carolina.

The full-length marble statue depicted the United States of America's founding father, George Washington, with a pen on his right hand and a big tablet on his left hand ready to write on it. On his feet were a sword and a truncheon. The statue was to be erected in the rotunda of the State Capitol in Raleigh. In the year 1816, while Thomas Jefferson was enjoying his post-presidential lifestyle in Monticello, he was requested to advise the General Assembly of North Carolina on who is best suited to complete the task of carving the statue. Having believed that no American sculptor was up to the task of carving George Washington statue, Jefferson recommended Antonio Canova to be commissioned for the task.

Antonio Canova, who was born in the year 1757 and died in the year 1822, at the time, was among the most celebrated sculptor artists in Europe. During the 1800s, Canova had already established his work and himself as the king of Neoclassical marble carvings. For instance, he was famous for carving statues of Napoleon, statues of Greek heroes, among other outstanding artworks. Whether he carved a portrait of somebody from mythology or a famous individual during his era in a heroic posture, Antonio Canova was outstanding in his artistic works, and he managed to gain popularity even in other nations. George Washington statue was the first and only art piece that he ever did for the United States of America. Antonio Canova carved the sculpture from Carrara marble and depicted the country's first president wearing the ancient Roman attire - and as per Thomas Jefferson's suggestion, Canova portrayed Washington drafting his farewell speech to the states.

The statue brought together Antonio Canova's full-length preliminary plaster model, that is, the four preliminary sketches for the sculpture, and the associated engravings as well as drawings. Antonio Canova began carving the statue in the year 1817 at his studio in Rome, finishing a number of sketches as well as the Marquette. He completed carving Washington's statue in the year 1820 before it was transported from Italy using a US navy vessel. The statue finally reached Raleigh, North Carolina, on the 24th day of December in the year 1821, where a 24-gun salute was carried out. Unfortunately, only a few years later, the North Carolina State Capitol went on fire, and Antonio Canova's only American work piece was consumed by raging fires.