Canovian beauty was what North Carolina got when the General Assembly decided to honor Washington. This was soon after the War of 1812, when the still-young United States was celebrating its place among nations. Someone asked Thomas Jefferson who could produce a suitable statue. “There can be but one answer to this,” he responded. “Old Canove of Rome.”

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Canova in a portrait by François-Xavier Fabre.

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Corbis Historical, via Getty Images

Jefferson got Canova’s name wrong, but Canova got the commission. It was his only work that was destined for the United States. As Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator observed, “A commission from America then, it was like a commission from Mars.”

Canova did the naked Washington in preparation for the final statue, which he sent to Raleigh in 1821. The completed statue sat in the state’s House until it was ruined in a fire in 1831. (A replica was installed in 1970.)

As a preliminary piece, the naked Washington never left Canova’s studio in Italy. Mr. Salomon said North Carolinians almost certainly had not known about it, even though artists often did naked versions of their subjects — in effect, sketches in plaster — as they thought through the process of turning cold, hard stone into hair, skin and soft-looking fabric.

“It is one of the four preliminary models, part of the preparatory work,” Mr. Salomon said, and it was practical, not prurient. “He always did a nude model of his sculptures so he could understand how the body worked under the drapery,” he said. “Absolutely standard practice. He would start with rough drawings and then move to three-dimensional plaster models such as this one.”

Mr. Salomon does not know who posed for the body. It was not Washington. The first president had been dead for 17 years by the time Canova went to work. Canova had done a nude Napoleon as the god Mars about 10 years earlier. But when it came to Washington, clothes made the man — and the statue — because his appearance mattered.

“John Marshall, his first serious biographer, even entitled the chapter on Washington’s arrival in the world ‘The Birth of Mr. Washington,’” the historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote, “suggesting that he was born fully clothed and ready to assume the presidency.” Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed to echo Marshall’s notion after posing a provocative question: “Did anybody ever see Washington naked?”

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The full-size plaster model. Canova did not have much to go on. He never saw Washington, and relied on a bust provided by an American diplomat.

Credit
Fabio Zonta

“It is inconceivable,” Hawthorne wrote. “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.”

Canova must have realized that it was hard not to notice Washington. He stood at least 6 feet, 2 inches tall, six inches taller than average in those days; weighed about 175 pounds; and had unusually large hands and feet.

Mr. Salomon said Canova had seemed to struggle with the arms as he worked to show Washington writing his farewell address on a stone tablet. “He’s trying to get the muscles,” Mr. Salomon said.

But Canova did not have much to go on. He never saw Washington and relied on a bust owned by an American diplomat who shipped it to Canova’s studio in Rome.

“At that point, America was still searching for who their heroes were,” Mr. Salomon said. “They were trying to define the history of a country that has no history.”

For the North Carolinians, the Canova commission must have had a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses flavor — they were well aware that Virginia’s State Capitol already had a statue, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, that showed Washington in a military uniform.

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Washington’s statue in the rotunda of the North Carolina State Capitol.

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Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Mr. Salomon said Canova had chosen the Roman imagery carefully. What interested Canova about Washington was not that he had outsmarted the British in the Revolutionary War, or that he had presided at the creation of a new country. To Europeans, Mr. Salomon said, “what was bizarre was that someone who was running a state had stepped down from power — no one ever did that.” Except Cincinnatus, a former general whom the Romans summoned to be dictator. He served for 15 days, then resigned and went back to his farm, much as Washington went back to Mount Vernon after the presidency.

Mr. Salomon said zeroing in on the naked statue “is kind of schoolboyish.”

“I hope people understand it’s about classical bodies and ancient statuary and all that,” he added.

Yes, but it is a departure for American presidential iconography. Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton, said he could not think of a single major commemorative statue “in which you have nudes.” Last summer, naked statues of Donald J. Trump were placed in Union Square and in public spaces in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland and Seattle. DNAinfo.com reported that the one in Union Square was gone after about two hours, removed by Parks Department workers.

“The very idea of having a nude Washington in the 1820s would have been scandalous,” Professor Wilentz said. “If you go to Statuary Hall in the Capitol, they’re all there, tobacco-chewing politicians who all look like Roman gods. That was the style. You really have to talk to an art historian about the place of the nude in American art, but looking at American politics, I mean, no, we never have our presidents in the buff.”

And then he quoted a line from the Bob Dylan song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: “But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

“That’s from 1965,” Professor Wilentz said. “The very idea is mischievous, to say the least.”

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