This Presidents’ Day, we look to our first president, as this year’s holiday falls just a few days before George Washington’s 284th birthday.
This engraving depicts the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova’s massive seated statue of George Washington in Roman guise, which was commissioned by the North Carolina General Assembly, and executed in Canova’s studio in Rome between 1817 and 1821.
The author of a “Letter from a Young American in Italy,” which appeared in Philadelphia’s “National Recorder” in 1819, described the statue, remarking, “He is sitting with a pen in his hand, and is supposed to have just finished his farewell address; but we all agreed, that he has more the expression and character of a painter, with his portfolio, just preparing to take a sketch of some object before him.”
Costing more than $11,000 (a huge sum for a state whose total annual budget was only about $90,000 at that time), the sculpture was installed in the rotunda of the State House in Raleigh on Christmas Eve 1821, where it remained until it was destroyed by fire a decade later.
In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s close friend and brother in arms, saw the statue and approved of the “exquisite workmanship of the whole,” but privately believed the sculpture failed to capture Washington’s true likeness. An 1840 lithograph depicts Lafayette’s visit to the State House, accompanied by Betsey Haywood, daughter of State Treasurer John Haywood, his host. While the two admire the monument, a recumbent boy-pen in hand-draws on its pedestal, emulating Washington’s actions.