Antonio Canova – an introduction

Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) is considered the leading figure of the Neoclassical style, inspired by the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome. His sculptures such as 'The Three Graces' and 'Theseus and the Minotaur' were praised for their idealised beauty and their calm yet severe features, expertly carved in marble.

Antonio Canova was born in 1757 in Possagno, a small town in northern Italy, to a family of stonecutters and sculptors. From his early teens he trained with several local sculptors, before moving to Venice where he was able to start an independent career. At around the age of 20 he carved his first marbles, Eurydice and Orpheus and Daedalus and Icarus, both now at the Museo Correr in Venice. These first works gained him wide acclaim and Canova was nominated as a member of the Venetian Accademia delle Belle Arti in 1779. Already he was developing a unique style, moving away from the late-Baroque tradition of the earlier 1700s, which illustrated passionate scenes full of movement and drama, towards a more tempered Neoclassical style inspired by the art of Ancient Greece and Rome.

In October 1779, Canova travelled to Rome to study both ancient and modern sculptures. He recorded his visits and thoughts in a series of travel notebooks. Canova arrived in Rome with a letter of introduction to Girolamo Zulian, the Ambassador of the Venetian Republic, who invited the budding artist to stay at his palace, and proved instrumental in Canova's career. Canova also quickly made contacts with archaeologists, scholars and artists, such as the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton, who lived in Rome and influenced the young sculptor.

Theseus and the Minotaur, marble group, sculpted by Antonio Canova, 1782, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.5&A-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Theseus and the Minotaur can be considered the sculpture that properly launched Canova's career. It was commissioned by Ambassador Zulian, who left Canova free to choose the subject himself. On completing the sculpture, Canova asked Zulian where he wanted it to be displayed, to which his patron allegedly replied; "I did not carve the group, you did, therefore make of it what use you think best: I wish you well and good luck". Canova chose to keep it in his workshop, and it was quickly bought by the Austrian Count von Fries, who brought it to Vienna. The marble sculpture was seen as the first example of a true revival of classical style, and was widely admired by Canova's contemporaries. Most sculptors at the time made copies of existing antique sculptures, however with Theseus and the Minotaur, Canova created his own composition in a classical style, to a level which had never been achieved before.

Tomb of Clement XIV by Antonio Canova, 1783 – 87, Santi Apostoli, Rome. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1780s, Canova also created funerary monuments – used to decorate tombs and burial sites. The scale of his monumental ambition was revealed with his work for the tomb of Pope Clement XIV (1783 – 87; SS Apostoli) and Clement XIII (1783 – 92; St Peter). Canova created the tombs using only white Carrara marble, avoiding the decorative effect of coloured marbles, to create elegant and simple compositions which invited contemplation. An oval portrait in our collection, signed and dated "Canova Fecit. 1786" was probably made for a funerary monument of much smaller scale. The sitter is represented in profile, recalling antique portraits of emperors. The identity of the sitter remains unknown, but it may have been a friend of Canova's.

Portrait of an unidentified man, marble relief, signed by Antonio Canova, 1786, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.34-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Canova also explored the Neoclassical ideals of peace and grace in mythological sculptures representing love stories, such as the celebrated Cupid Awakening Psyche, now at the Musee du Louvre, or the Venus and Adonis in Geneva. A pastel portrait by Hugh Douglas Hamilton portrays Canova in his studio with a mallet in his right hand, leaning against the life-size plaster model of his Cupid and Psyche. (The second figure is British painter and art dealer Henry Tresham, who is visiting him, a fashionable activity for those visiting Rome as part of their Grand Tour of Europe). The sensuality of nude bodies and the smooth polish of the skin in these figure groups prelude The Three Graces, Canova's most famous work.

Antonio Canova in his studio with Henry Tresham and a plaster model for Cupid and Psyche, pastel, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, 1788 – 91, Rome, Italy. Museum no. E.406-1998. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By 1800 Canova's international popularity was firmly established. In 1802 he was appointed Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts of the Papal States, a position which saw him supervise the Vatican and Capitoline museums and gave him authority over the export of works of art from Rome. He continued to work across a range of subject matters and was particularly in demand amongst Europe's royalty and elite, including the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the wider Bonaparte family. The life-size reclining portrait of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese, as the Venus Victorious was especially celebrated for its realistic rendering of her soft skin and provocative pose. The sculpture inspired many variations and copies in the 19th century and beyond, including three examples – in resin, glass and plaster – created by Factum Arte for the V&A in 2018.

Pauline Borghese, resin figure, copy made by Factum Arte after Canova, 2018, Madrid, Spain. Museum no. A.18-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1810 Napoleon's first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, commissioned Canova to create in marble what has since become known as his masterpiece, The Three Graces. The piece depicts the three daughters of Zeus, each bestowed with a virtue, on the left is Euphrosyne (mirth), in the centre, Aglaia (elegance) and on the right,Thalia (youth and beauty). The tender figure group displays Canova's skill in re-creating the sense of living flesh, appearing almost as though the marble would be warm to the touch. Find out more about The Three Graces.

The Three Graces, marble group, sculpted by Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another of Canova's most highly praised sculptures is the Italic Venus. King Ludovico I of Etruria desired Canova to recreate a copy of the Medici Venus, an antique statue that had been removed from Florence to France, under Napoleonic rule. Instead, Canova presented him with a newly conceived Venus – Roman goddess of love – inspired by the ancient original but reinvented for the modern Neoclassical age, with additional drapery covering her nudity and a sensuality typical of Canova's later work. This modern Venus struck a chord with Canova's contemporaries and followers who copied the sculpture. Our collection includes one example by Italian sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni (1809 – 73).

The Italic Venus, marble figure, attributed to Giovanni Maria Benzoni after Canova, about 1860, Rome, Italy. Museum no. 1269&A-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From 1811, Canova produced a series of idealised marble heads on his quest to represent ideal beauty. The group consisted of female mythological subjects, ancient historical as well as more modern Italian historical and literary figures. Among them was a bust of Helen of Troy, the famed beauty who, according to Greek myth, caused the Trojan Wars. Like many of Canova's sculptures, multiple examples of this bust were created within his workshop – at least four were produced from 1814 onwards all with subtle variations (the original is now in a private collection). The V&A's example, dated after 1812, is believed to be a workshop copy and is unlikely to have been worked on by Canova himself. It is different from other known versions in the ringlets and tendrils of hair which frame Helen's face.

Helen of Troy, marble bust, sculpted by Antonio Canova and workshop, after 1812, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.46-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of Canova's last works, left unfinished at his death in 1822, is Sleeping Nymph, now at the V&A. The nymph, in Greek mythology a minor deity considered to be a personification of nature, lies naked on her front on top of a rock partially covered with drapery. The composition was inspired by the classical Sleeping Hermaphrodite, now in the Musée du Louvre collection, a sculpture which Canova found hugely influential. Sleeping Nymph is one of a group of Canova's later works that depict the reclining form. The model for the figure was made in 1820, and just a year later was commissioned by the Marquess of Lansdowne to be translated into marble. Canova was working on the piece when he died, leaving his brother, Abbé Canova, to complete the sculpture in 1824. Four letters which were acquired with the sculpture tell a conflicting story as to Canova's involvement in the work. Abbé Canova insisted that Antonio Canova played no role in the carving of the sculpture, however, a workshop assistant claimed that he worked directly on the "space between the shoulders and half-way down the body" – a key aspect of the composition.

Sleeping Nymph, marble figure, sculpted by Antonio Canova and workshop, about 1821 – 24, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.30-1930. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite his widespread popularity in his own time, Canova's reputation declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as critics turned away from what they perceived as the overly romanticised naturalism of Neoclassicism. In the 1950s however, Canova's contribution was revisited, and today he is once again considered the greatest of the Neoclassical sculptors.

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Theseus and the Minotaur, marble group, sculpted by Antonio Canova, 1782, Rome, Italy. Museum no. A.5&A-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London