In the wake of the second defeat of Great Britain, the young United States of America entered into a time that many historians call “The Era of Good Feelings,” for the War of 1812 assured many that the American experiment would survive. In 1815, North Carolina decided to erect a statue to commemorate George Washington.
Debate ensued whether America possessed the human and artistic capital to create a grand sculpture on the scale of the Canova statue. Some believed it could, but others such as William Hopkinson and Thomas Jefferson disagreed. North Carolina’s Senator, Nathaniel Macon, was asked for his opinion, and he deferred to Jefferson’s judgment. Jefferson recommended a Roman influence, and the Canova statue was a prime example of Neoclassicism—a style that hearkened back to the ancient days of Greece and Rome.
The governor wanted a large neoclassical statue, and left it to the Italian artist to depict the first President’s attitude. The General Assembly allotted $10,000 for the sculpture, but after Conova’s extensive engraving, the transportation costs, and the necessity to remodel the Capitol to house the statue, some have estimated that the total cost might have reached $60,000.
Canova completed the work in 1821. Commodore William Brainbridge transported the masterpiece from Gibraltar Bay to Wilmington. From the port city, the statue was transported up the Cape Fear to Fayetteville. From there, it was transported overland to Raleigh.
Many traveled from far and wide to see the statue. Marquis de Lafayette, for one, made it a point to see the statue in 1825. Government leaders were pleased that the Frenchman was impressed with the statue’s likeness of Washington and its overall design.
The statue was on display for only ten years, however. In 1831, the Capitol caught fire and the statue was consumed in the blaze. A reproduction now sits in the Capitol Rotunda.
R. D. W. Connor, Canova’s Statue of Washington (North Carolina Historical Commission Bulletin, No. 8): 1910.