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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.”

McGinnis’s sunny interpretation is a plausible one, especially considering Canova’s creative process. Canova could have used Houdon’s earlier statue of Washington, which was executed during the president’s lifetime and shows Washington in his American military uniform, as a model. But, apparently at the prompting of Thomas Jefferson, he decided against it. An American uniform, Jefferson wrote, would give Canova’s statue “a very puny effect.” Washington—and, by extension, the Revolution he had led—were too important to limit to the president’s own time and place.

And so Canova executed the statue all’antica. In fact, the statue's depiction of Washington alludes to a specific Roman general: Cincinnatus, the early Republican figure who left his farm to assume command of the Roman army during an invasion, and who, having crushed the enemy, gave up his command when the war ended and returned to his plow. Cincinnatus had saved the Republic twice: once by defeating the invaders and once by relinquishing power and preventing the rise of dictatorship. Contemporary Americans, who knew Roman history quite well, frequently compared Washington to Cincinnatus. Everyone who saw Canova’s statue would have immediately understood the reference.

Still, I interpret the statue rather differently from McGinnis. First, it’s not at all clear to me that the statue imparts a sunny message. In the long run, of course, the Roman Republic did not survive, precisely because later Romans did not share Cincinnatus's virtues. Perhaps those later Romans were not entirely to blame. In retrospect, the transformation of Rome from republic to empire seems inevitable—and an empire inevitably alters citizens’ character. Over time, with wealth and power, republican virtues come to seem anachronistic and useless. Again, contemporary Americans knew very well the story of Rome’s corruption and decay. They worried that their experiment in republicanism was also doomed to unavoidable failure and that their descendants would find it impossible—as the Romans had—to keep it going in the long run. They likely would have seen Canova’s statue as an admonition, at least as much as a celebration.

Second, it’s easy to overstate the universalism of the American Revolution. True, the Revolution was dedicated in part to certain universal, “natural” propositions about liberty and equality—the propositions Jefferson proclaimed as “self-evident” in the Declaration’s famous preamble. It’s no surprise that Jefferson himself encouraged Canova to portray Washington in classical garb—a depiction Washington himself did not prefer—instead of a “puny” contemporary uniform.

But, as Daniel Boorstin wrote sixty years ago, the American Revolution had another side. Our Revolution is better understood as local and even conservative. Unlike its French counterpart, it did not attempt to remake society to conform to abstract propositions that transcended time and place. It situated itself firmly in a particular constitutional tradition—the British—and thought of itself as remaining true to that tradition, in Boorstin’s words, “up to the bitter end.” And, again unlike the French or later Russian Revolution, the American Revolution did not seek to export itself across the globe and promote a transformation in human relations everywhere, whether other peoples desired it or not.

In fact, the Farewell Address, which Canova depicts Washington writing, famously warned Americans against involvement in world revolution. Not only should America “steer clear of permanent alliances” with foreign countries, Washington wrote, she should have “with them as little political connection as possible.” Neutrality with respect to foreign quarrels was the best policy for America.  Why risk the new nation’s peace and prosperity by entangling it in the intrigues of the old?

The context for this warning was, of course, the French Revolution, and the campaign by Jeffersonians to commit the United States to Republican France’s war against Great Britain. Jeffersonians thought the French Revolution, with its universal Declaration of the Rights of Man—all men, everywhere, not just the French—its rationalism, and its destruction of the old regime, was a natural continuation of our own, and thus worthy of American support. But Washington had proclaimed American neutrality in the conflict. The Farewell Address was a rejection of the Jeffersonian, universalist interpretation of our Revolution, and everyone would have seen it that way at the time.

To my mind, then, Canova’s statue doesn’t suggest a celebration of universalism and progress. It suggests, instead, that Americans, like the Romans before us, are apt to stray from republican virtues in a quest for empire, and warns us against such a path. First Things readers in New York should visit the Frick before the exhibit closes next month, to judge for themselves. 

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion and is a visiting fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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Photo by RadioFan via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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