GEORGE WASHINGTON stares down from the rotunda of the Capitol Building, his sword pointed menacingly to earth. Painted in 1865, at the end of the civil war, by Constantino Brumidi, “The Apotheosis of Washington” (pictured) depicts the first president as a god in modern dress, flanked by 13 goddesses representing the colonies that would become the first states of the union. He is the nation’s heavenly protector: a rainbow arcs at his feet and encircles the goddess Athena, who thrusts her shield of stars and stripes at the president and vice president of the Confederacy. The depiction touched on a novel question for the young nation: How should the president, and the presidency, be represented?

Washington was an unprecedented figure, a man remembered both for holding power and surrendering it. He eschewed portraits, and never commissioned an official one. After his death in 1799, all this posed a challenge. “There was no prescribed way of seeing, and implicitly thinking, about America’s chief executive,” says Susan Schoelwer, the senior curator at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home. Artists and statesmen considered whether Washington would be best remembered as a god, an ancient or simply as he was—a modern statesman.

“Canova’s Washington”, an exhibition at the Frick Collection in New York, brings rare likenesses of Washington together for the first time, revealing how artists approached the problem of the presidency. The 17 artefacts provide a brief survey; notable among them are a life mask from 1785 made by Jean-Antoine Houdon and one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits. But the centrepiece is a plaster mould by Antonio Canova (pictured, below), which shows the president in Roman garb. The original marble sculpture, commissioned by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1816, was destroyed in a fire that engulfed the State House in Raleigh in 1831. Only charred fragments remain. 

The exhibition marks the first time in 200 years that Canova’s rendering is on display in America, and the first time that Canova’s original plaster modello has travelled across the Atlantic from the Canova Museum in Posagno, Italy (where the exhibition will travel in the autumn). What is striking is the force of the sculpture’s anachronism—at first glance, you might not recognise the man swathed all’antico, sandals wrapped around his ankles, cloak draped around his neck, a sword at his feet. In one early sketch, a crown and sceptre lay at the base of the statue. “Someone must have told Canova very quickly that these were not symbols that would have been appropriate for an American president,” Xavier Salomon, chief curator at the Frick, remarks.

Canova’s Washington is seated, his eyes fixed upon a marble tablet where he has begun to pen, in Italian, his final address to his people: “Giorgio Washington / Al Popolo degli Stati Uniti / 1796 / Amici e Concittadini” (“George Washington / To the People of the United States / 1796 / Friends and Citizens”). For this vision we have Thomas Jefferson, the third president, to thank, for it was he who advocated that Washington be depicted in such an antiquated manner: “I am sure the artist, and every person of taste in Europe would be for the Roman, the effect of which is undoubtedly of a different order,” he wrote. “Our boots and regimentals have a very puny effect.” The founding fathers consistently invoked lofty Roman tradition in their considerations of Washington; in 1783 the Continental Congress commissioned a sculpture of him modelled after a bronze of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, though it was never realised.

In his rush to aggrandise and honour his predecessor, Jefferson perhaps did not realise that Canova would be making a nude model as a study for the finished project as was convention (Washington did not pose for it—Canova never met him in the flesh). While the plaster version of the finished product is a masterpiece, the model (pictured, below) is the thing that thrills—a rare depiction of a president with no clothes, exposed, undignified, and yet somehow divine.

Another bare-chested Washington was commissioned during the neoclassical revival in 1832, a century after Washington’s birth. Horatio Greenough’s “Vagabond Statue” of the president, modelled after Phidias’s sculpture of Zeus at Olympia, proved to be a bit too chiselled for the tastes of the time. “Few on Capitol Hill seemed ready for a half-naked father-of-the-country with well-developed and fully exposed shoulder muscles,” the statue’s dedicated page on the Senate website explains. “Within weeks, members of Congress demanded the work’s removal.” Greenough’s Washington was moved from the rotunda to the parking lot and then finally to the Smithsonian, where it currently stands. The president, the public concluded, must have clothes.

As Washington entrusted the fate of his memory and likeness to his successors, the figure of the president has always been an unstable one: it changed with the state of the union he represented. While Greenough’s and Canova’s disrobed renderings may have been scandalous in their time, now they have quite the opposite effect. They appear rather as melancholic vestiges of an era when the dignity of the office had not yet been stripped.