From 1791 to 1792, the famed Italian sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi resided in America. During that time, he created approximately 24 terra cotta busts of the new country's founding fathers, including George Washington. Upon his return home to Italy, Ceracchi faced persecution for his political beliefs and was forced to leave his Milanese studio and home. Before he left, Ceracchi was able to finish only one marble version of his terra cotta busts, that of Washington. He returned to America in 1794 and presented the Washingtons with his creation, but when Martha and George balked at the price and requested the artist wait while they have the piece appraised, Ceracchi hastily sold the work to another party. The bust, now known as the "Meade-Kimble" bust, is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ceracchi did eventually return to Europe, and in 1795, he sold a plaster cast of the Washington bust to a Bordeaux merchant. It is believed that William Lee, the American Consul in Bordeaux, purchased the plaster cast and then sold it in 1809 to Thomas Appleton, the American Consul in Livorno, Italy. Appleton, who was a good friend of Thomas Jefferson's, was entrusted with the duties of overseeing Canova's Washington sculpture for the state of North Carolina. When Jefferson suggested to Appleton that he use Ceracchi's Washington bust as the basis for the head of Canova's sculpture, he then purchased the cast from Lee.
Seeing a business opportunity, Appleton decided to serialize the bust with the help of the sculptor Massimiliano Ravenna. In 1816, four marble busts were created along with one of Vespucci and one of Columbus, and then all six were shipped to the United States. Appleton's agents, his nephews N.W. and C.H. Appleton, then sold the busts to Tobias Lear's son Benjamin. Benjamin Lear arranged for the sale of three of the busts (Washington, Vespucci and Columbus) to the White House for $80 each, and they still reside there today.
After Lear dispatched the three busts to the White House, he still retained three Washington busts himself. The whereabouts of those three busts is uncertain, although it can be argued that one is in the Gibbes Art Gallery of the Carolina Art Association and another is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art. The third bust is likely the example offered here.
All four of the Ravenna busts of Washington are different in their details, but the facial features and modeling are consistent. The White House example and this bust are the most similar, although there are differences in size and hair texture. Each is situated upon a simple base and neither is clothed. The differences that exist among the set of four busts are not extravagant and perhaps attributable the difficult and unforgiving material. The facial features are nearly identical, alluding to the fact that these four busts were all created from the same cast and by the same hand.
Based on new scholarship by Cinzia Sicca Bursill-Hall, this important bust of Washington may now be attributed to Ravenna's workshop. A closely related bust signed 'RAV' has recently been discovered by Bursill-Hall in the town of Livorno, further solidifying the Ravenna attribution. See Cinzia Maria Sicca, "Livorno e il Commercio di Scultura Tra Sette e Ottocento," 273-295; and Philipp Fehl, "The Account Book of Thomas Appleton of Livorno," Winterthur Portfolio 9, 123-151.