Washington's Warning

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First Things - Web Exclusives

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My friend John McGinnis has written a thoughtful review of “Canova’s George Washington,” a current exhibit at the Frick Collection in New York. The exhibit tells the story of a famous nineteenth-century sculpture of George Washington, now lost, by the Italian neo-classicist Antonio Canova. Although a fire destroyed the work (once housed in the North Carolina State Capitol) shortly after its completion, Canova’s full-sized plaster model remains. That model, dramatically displayed in a rotunda-like gallery, is the highlight of the exhibit.

Canova imagined Washington as a Roman general, clad in ancient armor and with his weapons at his feet, drafting his famous “Farewell Address to the People of the United States.” By presenting Washington as a classical rather than a contemporary figure, McGinnis writes, the statue emphasizes America’s role as a model for all nations and eras. The statue demonstrates “the universality of the ideas of America’s founding revolution”—the capacity of those ideas to “light up the rest of the world.”