- CanovaOur PickBy Fred Licht and David Finn
- Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic EuropeBy Christopher M. S. Johns
- Memoirs of Antonio Canova: With a Critical Analysis of His Works, and an Historical View of Modern SculptureBy John Smythe Memes
Progression of Art
Daedalus and Icarus
In this early work, Canova drew from a story in Greek mythology, retold by the Greek poet Ovid in Metamorphoses, to depict the architect and inventor Daedalus and his son, Icarus. According to the story, Daedalus created the Labyrinth to contain King Minos of Crete's stepson, the Minotaur, who was half man and half bull. But after Daedalus helped the warrior Theseus slay the Minotaur, King Minos trapped Daedalus and his son in the maze. To escape, Daedalus crafted wings made of wax and feathers, and the two successfully flew off the island. Unfortunately, Icarus became too confident in his skill and, despite his father's warning, flew too close to the sun, melting the wings and causing him to crash into the sea and drown.
Canova depicted Daedalus in the process of affixing wings to his son's shoulders. In the manner of Classical sculptures, the figures are shown partially or fully nude, but Canova gave his figures more detailed realism and pronounced expressions than Classical works. Daedalus's thinning hair and furrowed brow emphasize his age, while his tight-lipped expression reveals his concentration on the task, as well as concern for his son's welfare. In contrast, Icarus is a slender adolescent, smiling and leaning back lightly into his father's protective embrace. Compositionally, the work also employs an approach Canova would often return to, in which the figure's limbs form an interlaced shape that encloses a dynamic negative space. The work was praised for its originality and naturalism when it was shown at the Fiera della Sensa (Ascension Fair) exhibition in Venice in 1779, and it also earned him the commission for one of his next major works, Theseus and the Minotaur.
Marble - Museo Correr, Venice
Theseus and the Minotaur
For the first major commission made in his newly established Roman studio, Canova again turned to Ovid's Metamorphoses and Greek mythology, depicting the hero Theseus after his battle with the Minotaur. According to the tale, Queen Pasiphae of Crete had been made to fall in love with a bull, and the result was the monstrous Minotaur, who had the body of a man and the head of a bull. Sent as one of the humans who were regularly sacrificed to feed the Minotaur, Theseus instead killed the monster, and found his way back out of the labyrinth in which he had been held with the help of Ariadne, Pasiphae's daughter. The thread Ariadne gave Theseus to help him escape is visible here, coiled under the Minotaur's leg.
Canova's initial idea had been to choose a dramatic moment with the figures in active conflict, as often seen in Classical Greek vase painting of this subject. However, on the advice of Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish artist and archaeologist living in Rome who had seen Canova's expressive Daedalus and Icarus, he chose instead to depict the aftermath of the struggle. By showing Theseus contemplating the fate of the monster who might have killed him had he not conquered it, Canova embodied the concepts of calm and restraint that were considered key principles of antiquity and came to characterize Neoclassical art of the period, particularly in contrast to the energetic and dramatic style of Baroque art that had preceded it. The figures' interlocking arms and legs, and the complementary curves of their torsos and inclined or thrown-back heads are also typical of the sculptor's balanced and graceful style.
The work was commissioned in 1781 by Girolamo Zulian, the Venetian ambassador in Rome, who gave the massive block of marble (one of the largest in the Victoria and Albert's collection) to the artist and let him choose the subject. The support of this influential patron and the critical success of the resulting work established Canova as one of the leading artists in Rome of the time.
Marble - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss
Having made independent depictions of the mythological figures Cupid and Psyche, Canova devised this pair in response to the commission of Colonel John Campbell, a Scottish collector who visited the artist in Rome in 1787. The narrative, as Canova noted in a letter, was drawn from The Golden Ass, a 2nd century AD text by Lucius Apuleius, who recounts the story of the beautiful mortal Psyche and the god Cupid, son of Venus, who fell in love with her. Angered, Venus put Psyche through a series of ordeals, the last of which was to retrieve a flask from the Underworld but not to open it. When she could not resist opening the container, Psyche was overcome by deadly fumes, but was revived from near-death by Cupid's touch. This is the moment Canova depicted, as Cupid raises his love from the ground and she returns to life in his embrace.
Canova spent considerable effort on the complex composition of this work, making numerous drawings and clay and plaster models. He seems to have been inspired in part by an image found in the ancient city of Herculaneum, whose rediscovery and excavation (along with Pompeii) a few decades earlier catalyzed the Neoclassical movement across Europe. The image, reproduced in an engraving published in 1757, shows a faun and a bacchante embracing, in poses echoed by Canova's couple. But the sculptor refined and idealized such source material, giving his figures the slim forms and serene features of the Classical sculptures he was emulating. The pair's entwined and counterbalanced arms, legs, and wings create a dynamic composition that spirals upward and that cannot be fully appreciated from a single vantage point; indeed, the sculpture was initially installed on a base that could be turned so the work could be seen from different angles. The varied physical qualities and surface textures Canova created, from soft skin to filmy drapery to Cupid's powerful yet partially translucent wings, are testament to his remarkable skill at handling marble.
The original patron of this work, Colonel Campbell, could not pay for it, but it was soon acquired by Joachim Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law, and installed at his estate near Paris where it was widely admired. The Russian Prince Nicholas Youssoupov also saw this work and requested a second version (now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), in which Psyche's legs are more fully draped. The exquisite grace and beauty of this work set the standard for Canova's refined and elegant style, a part of his output that at times overshadowed his depictions of heroic figures and monuments to significant people.
Marble - Musée du Louvre, Paris
Hercules and Lichas
Like many of Canova's major works, this sculpture developed over a long period of time, in part thanks to its colossal size - it stands nearly eleven feet tall - and in part due to the turbulent times in which it was made. The Neapolitan nobleman Onorato Gaetani commissioned the work from the sculptor and proposed the subject, drawn from Greek mythology and literature. As Sophocles' play The Women of Trachis recounts, the wife of the hero Hercules sent his herald Lichas to give him a cloak which she had dipped in a magical fluid, hoping it would cause her husband to remain faithful to her. Instead, it poisoned him, and driven to madness by pain and anger, he flung Lichas into the sea. In Canova's interpretation, the deadly cloak appears as a thin, filmy garment draped across Hercules's chest, while the lion skin he usually wore lies at his feet. The patron had promised Canova a large sum for this work, of which he had produced a large-scale model by the following year, but when the French army invaded Naples, Gaetani was forced into exile and could no longer accept the sculpture. After leaving Rome himself and then struggling to find another buyer, Canova finally completed the work in 1815 for a Roman banker.
In depicting the height of the story's dramatic action, Canova combined a moment of extreme effort and terror with the almost balletic grace of his figures' innovative poses. Hercules, a demi-god renowned for his strength, is shown at a larger scale than the mortal messenger Lichas, his powerful body straining in a backward arc as he prepares to hurl the innocent servant. Both figures are grimacing open-mouthed in their terror and anguish. In working through numerous compositional possibilities in his drawings, Canova settled on a configuration that is self-contained and harmoniously balanced, but also filled with immanent, explosive motion. The contrasts of beautiful and terrifying captured in this work embody the concept of the sublime, an idea that artists and writers had already begun to explore in the late eighteenth century and would continue to express in the Romantic movement of the following years. As scholar Christopher M. S. Johns has noted, this work exemplifies Canova's achievement, as he based his work on classical models updated with naturalistically described figures, combined in inventively original compositions.
Marble - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome
Monument to Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria
In 1798, when Canova was traveling in Austria after leaving behind his Roman studio, Duke Albert of Saxony-Teschen commissioned the sculptor to create a memorial in the Church of Saint Augustine in Vienna for his wife, Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, who had just died. Canova decided to base the monument on a design he had earlier developed as a memorial to the artist Titian but had never completed. The work consists of a large pyramid inspired by the ancient Roman Pyramid of Caius Cestius, into which a line of mourners enters through a dark, open doorway. In the center, a woman carries the Archduchess's urn, accompanied by two children, at the left another woman helps an old man up the steps, and at the right, a melancholy angel leans on a sleeping lion, the symbol of the Hapsburg family to which Maria Christina belonged.
Canova's design was startlingly innovative in combining an ancient architectural form with more modern imagery, and in representing Maria Christina herself only in a small portrait medallion over the pyramid's door. This contrasts with traditional funerary monuments, such as Michelangelo's tombs of the Medici in Florence, which center on full-length sculptures personifying the deceased. Instead, the subject of Canova's memorial is death itself, embodied in the universal idea of the dark and unknowable space beyond the open door, a threshold people of all ages may cross. The groundbreaking nature of this conception was recognized by one of Canova's earliest patrons, Girolamo Zulian, who commented on a model of the Monument to Titian that "your idea appeals to me immensely, by virtue of its innovative qualities, simplicity, and expression."
Marble - Church of Saint Augustine, Vienna
Colossal Head of Napoleon Bonaparte
Canova did not often make straightforward portraits, as he felt the genre required the artist merely to imitate nature rather than to create a work of his own imagination. Nonetheless, despite his distaste for the military commander who had overthrown the Venetian Republic and stolen masterpieces of Italian art, Canova could not turn down the commission from Napoleon when he was still First Consul of France, near the height of his meteoric rise to leader of the country. When Canova arrived in Paris in October 1802, he had several sittings with Napoleon, resulting in a bust-length clay model for a work that he intended to incorporate into a monumental depiction of the leader in the mythological guise of Mars, the Greek god of war, as a peacemaker. Although the clay original is now lost, there are two plaster versions that Canova probably made from the model, both showing the sitter wearing a high-collared jacket. In order to portray Napoleon as a heroic Greek god, however, the artist insisted that he appear nude, as subsequent marble versions of the bust indicate. This version, measuring over two feet high, was probably executed entirely by Canova, and is said to have remained in his possession until his death. Indeed, this portrayal of Napoleon became so popular that over forty copies of the bust were made during Canova's lifetime, many of them without the artist's involvement.
With its tousled hair and resolute, brooding expression, this portrait captures a sense of both the real and the legendary Napoleon, both the conquering warrior and the self-made Romantic hero, as scholar Fred Licht noted. The full-length monumental sculpture was rejected by Napoleon when it was delivered to him in 1810, not only because he disliked the work's nudity (not to mention its overly idealized, tall, athletic figure), but also because, in a changed political climate, he could no longer accept the complex implications of appearing as a god-like hero. Canova's bust, however, was simpler and more evocative, and it became one of the iconic, official images of the Emperor.
Marble - Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious
This semi-nude sculpture depicts Pauline Bonaparte Borghese as Venus, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. She holds an apple in her left hand, a small narrative element that links this depiction to the mythological tale of the Judgment of Paris, in which Trojan prince Paris found Venus to be the most beautiful of three goddesses, rather than Minerva or Juno. He then gave her a golden apple to indicate her victory.
Pauline was the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had, in 1803, helped engineer her marriage to the Roman nobleman Camillo Borghese, a member of the prominent Italian family, with hopes that it would help consolidate French power over the newly conquered regions of Italy. The couple commissioned a portrait from Canova the following year. Canova initially proposed depicting Borghese in the guise of the virginal Diana, goddess of the moon and hunting, but Borghese, well known for her extramarital affairs and proud of her own powers of attraction, insisted on appearing as Venus. While the artist might have been reluctant to highlight the sitter's physical charms quite so openly, his portrayal, as scholar Fred Licht has suggested, implies that Borghese has taken on the attributes of the goddess thanks only to her social position and her self-regard - qualities she was happy to acknowledge - rather than her moral virtue or historical significance.
The subject of Venus Victorious appears very rarely in Classical sculpture; instead, Canova's composition clearly echoes Italian Renaissance paintings such as Titian's Venus of Urbino, which similarly shows the nude figure reclining on a bed. The composition also emphasizes the negative space toward which Borghese gazes confidently, allowing the viewer to imagine him or herself filling that space alongside the alluring figure. This sense of being in the presence of the sitter is enhanced by Canova's innovative use of a carved and gilded marble bed rather than a neutral pedestal, further blurring the line between the illusionistically sculpted work and the real space around it. Given its intimate and potentially scandalous nature, the sculpture was kept (and remains) in Borghese's private residence, where only selected guests were invited to view it by candlelight, further heightening its allure.
Marble - Galleria Borghese, Rome
The Three Graces
According to Greek myth, the three Graces were the daughters of Zeus and a sea nymph. Their names (viewing the sculpture from left to right, as Canova identified them) were Euphrosyne, Aglaia, and Thalia. Rather than conveying a narrative, the sisters have been depicted since antiquity to embody numerous positive attributes such as youth, beauty, sensuality, and love, and collectively as representing friendship, affection, or kindness. Canova was probably familiar with at least one Roman sculptural group as well as numerous Renaissance paintings depicting the Graces; in his interpretation, however, the central figure is facing forward rather than back, as in the Classical prototypes, and the figures stand in a closer, more intimate embrace, emphasizing the sensual quality of the group. This quality is underscored by the figures' own light touch on each other's waist or shoulders, as well as the glowing, smoothly finished surface, demonstrating Canova's consummate skill at creating "that look of living softness given to the surface of the marble, which appears as if it would yield to the touch," as one writer described it.
While Canova had made an earlier painting of the Three Graces, the idea for this sculpture came initially in 1812 from Josephine de Beauharnais, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte; she was already an enthusiastic patron of the sculptor (the first version is now in the State Hermitage Museum in Russia). In 1814, upon seeing the work in progress in the artist's studio, the Englishman John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, asked Canova to make a second version, remarking, "I frankly declare that I have seen nothing in ancient or modern sculpture that has given me more pleasure." As he usually did, Canova made certain modifications to the work - most noticeably changing a square pedestal behind the figures in the first version into a rounded column in the present work - and considered the second version to be an improvement. Russell was so excited to acquire the sculpture that he persuaded Canova to visit his estate outside London when the artist was visiting the city in 1815, and then followed Canova's advice about placement and lighting to construct a rotunda specifically for the work, which he named the Temple of the Graces.
As with most of Canova's work, the Three Graces was widely acclaimed; the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo dedicated one of his most famous poems, "The Graces," to the artist before the sculpture was even finished, and the French author Stendhal, who visited Canova's studio, commented that each new work of his was an event in Rome, and a step toward a new type of beauty. It also further reinforced Canova's reputation as the consummate sculptor of beautiful, elegant subjects.
Marble - Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh