“Canova’s George Washington” is a handsomely mounted exhibition as well as a model of curatorial diligence. This should come as no surprise: it’s been put together by the Frick, a museum that favors such things over the up-to-the-minute-and-gone-in-a-flash verities typical of our age. Which isn’t to say that “Canova’s George Washington” isn’t something of a head-scratcher. Granted, George Washington is a go-to subject for American audiences. Canova is a sculptor of uncommon gifts, and elaborations on the creative process—its rigors as well as false steps—are invariably enlightening. Still, the Frick show is absent the undeniable masterwork and, on the whole, points up the limitations of talent, however unfettered or considerable. It doesn’t help that “Canova’s George Washington” centers on an artwork that no longer exists. The show’s centerpiece is a monumental plaster modello for a sculpture commissioned in 1816 by the General Assembly of North Carolina. When the finished work, rendered in marble, reached the State Capitol in Raleigh in 1821, it was met with unanimous praise. Ten years later, the Capitol building went up in flames. Canova’s sculpture was reduced to rubble.

Antonio Canova, Bozzetto for George Washington, 1817, Plaster, Gypsotheca & Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno. Photo: Fabio Zonta.

The sculptor was egged on by the sartorially conscious Thomas Jefferson, who felt that American “boots and regimentals have a very puny effect” in comparison to Roman costumery.

A piece of that rubble is on display: a fragment of a scabbard and a Latin inscription reading “A. Canova made this in Rome, 1820.” Canova died before the portrait of Washington was destroyed, but is it too much to imagine that he might have derived some satisfaction knowing that a work of his had acquired the patina of a relic from antiquity? Canova was uncannily fluent in the artistic conventions of classical Greece and Rome. His take on Washington channeled the Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (ca. 519­–430 B.C.). Cincinnatus, having achieved absolute power and decisive military victories, stepped down for the good of the state and returned to the homelier pleasures of tending his farm. This exemplar of civic virtue and personal sacrifice seemed an appropriate analogue for Washington, a general and politician whose relinquishment of power was (as an observer of the time noted) “so novel [and] so inconceivable.” Canova, impressed with Washington’s character, took on the commission, and rendered him in all’antica raiment. The sculptor was egged on by the sartorially conscious Thomas Jefferson, who felt that American “boots and regimentals have a very puny effect” in comparison to Roman costumery.

Sometimes artists have to be practical. Canova rendered Washington in a seated position because a standing portrait wouldn’t clear the roof of the State House rotunda. A lithograph by Albert Newsam, ca. 1840, gives an image of the Canova in situ, complete with a couple gazing at it in earnest admiration and a boy adding graffiti to the base of the pedestal. The picture is more invented than not: forget the State House, Newsam had never seen the Canova. (The image was cobbled together after drawings by Joseph Weisman and Emmanuel Leutze.) Works of a more factual nature punctuate the Frick exhibition. Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Life Mask of George Washington (1785), a reference used for the iconic sculpture in the Virginia State House, is fascinating in its specificity, if a mite icky in artifice. The warm-blooded sagacity of George Washington (1795), one of many such portraits by the painter Gilbert Stuart, serves as a corrective, particularly for nearby sculptures by the Italian neo-classicist Giuseppe Ceracchi. Though he worked from life, Ceracchi fetishized Washington as an ideal rather than an individual, and he transformed the gentleman farmer into an imperial automaton. It’s an impressively off-putting achievement.

Canova’s modello is impressive as well, but for happier reasons—among them, sculptural flair and sweeping ambition. Contemporary viewers are likely to approach this George Washington with skepticism and perhaps even befuddlement. The Roman togs are a bit much for a politician, don’t you think, and what about the accompanying Old World pretensions—don’t they run afoul of our country’s democratic bent? But modern-day cynicism needn’t occlude that, in fact, there are great men who deserve the sobriquet, and that art is subject (if not ultimately tethered) to fashion and circumstance. Truth to tell, Canova’s sculpture is a bit much—too showy, too stylized, too too. Isolated in the Frick’s oval room, George Washington is a peculiarly effete performance, despite its bravura. “The immortal Washington,” as Canova had it, is holding a quill and tablet, the latter of which features his farewell address to the nation—in Italian! Clad in armor, legs akimbo, and topped with a head of hair that no eighteenth-century American barber could have conceived, our first president strikes a pose that runs contrary to everything we know about the man. Pay attention to the hands: their barely contained mannerism stops just short of comedy. Canova’s George Washington is ridiculous.

Antonio Canova, Study for George Washington, 1817, Graphite on paper, Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico.

And stirring. The esteem in which Canova held Washington is patent. The sculptor didn’t stint on giving the commission serious consideration, instead working through its realization with careful and often playful vigor. The highlight of the exhibition occurs in the gallery adjacent to the modello. In it, a terracotta primo pensiero and three follow-up plaster bozzettos affords us entrée into Canova’s head as we watch him grapple with the exigencies of subject and form. The piece that’s getting the most buzz is the nude rendering of Washington—which is striking given how buff the elder statesman is. But it’s the terracotta that’s most appealing. Primo pensiero translates directly into “first thought”; those weaned on modernism will think it Canova’s best thought. The rough-hewn surfaces and lively abbreviations of shape and gesture are imbued with a searching and nuanced intelligence. In the two additional studies we watch Canova tweak the pose, the props, and the aura—at one point, Washington comes across as the most affected of philosophes. The sculptor would downplay, if not altogether quit, that conception. Canova, Washington, and the Frick can all be experienced to more profound effect, but “Canova’s George Washington” crests, all the same, on the sum of its quixotic parts.

Installation view of Canova’s George Washington at The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.