The Three Graces by Antonio Canova

Regarded internationally as a masterpiece of neoclassical European sculpture, The Three Graces was carved in Rome by Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) between 1815 and 1817 for an English collector. This group of three mythological sisters was in fact a second version of an original – one commissioned by Joséphine de Beauharnais, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Three Graces, sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Taking its motif from ancient Greek literature, The Three Graces depicts the three daughters of Zeus, each of whom is described as being able to bestow a particular gift on humanity: (from left to right) Euphrosyne (mirth), Aglaia (elegance) and Thalia (youth and beauty). The first version of this piece was commissioned by one of the era's most famous women, Joséphine de Beauharnais, who was by then the divorced first wife of Napoleon. In May 1814, before Antonio Canova had completed the sculpture, De Beauharnais died. John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, visited Canova's studio in Rome in December that year and, impressed by the artistry of The Three Graces, told Canova he wanted to acquire the finished marble. De Beauharnais' son, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, also wanted to buy the group his mother had commissioned, so Canova offered to make the Duke of Bedford a 'replica with alterations'.

Soon after he accepted this offer, in January 1815, the Duke wrote to the artist saying,

I frankly declare that I have seen nothing in ancient or modern sculpture that has given me more pleasure … I leave the variations in the group … entirely to your judgement, but I hope that the true grace that so particularly distinguishes this work will be completely preserved.

The Three Graces (detail), sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For the second version of the piece (which Canova himself apparently preferred), the material was changed from veined to white marble, the pillar from square to round, and the central figure (Aglaia) was given a slightly broader waist. The finished sculpture was delivered to the Duke of Bedford's home, Woburn Abbey, in 1817 (the original is now in the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg). The Duke enthusiastically celebrated his new acquisition, and it soon became one of the most famous European sculptures of its time. In a catalogue of the marbles in his collection, the Duke described The Three Graces as "a work of consummate skill; certainly unsurpassed by any modern specimen of the art of sculpture", and noted "the morbidezza, – that look of living softness given to the surface of the marble, which appears as if it would yield to the touch".

The Three Graces (details), sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At Woburn Abbey Canova's sculpture was displayed in the Temple of the Graces, a top-lit rotunda specially designed for it by the fashionable architect Jeffrey Wyatville, which was to the west end of the existing sculpture gallery. On a visit Canova made to Woburn in 1815, before this new space was built, the sculptor himself had apparently advised on the correct position and lighting to use for his piece. The Three Graces was set on what was thought to be an ancient marble plinth (in fact it dated from the 18th century), in such a way that it could be rotated, allowing the viewer to easily enjoy multiple viewpoints. In its purpose-built home the piece was surrounded by the many outstanding ancient sculptures of the Duke's collection, as well as works by contemporary British sculptors, notably Joseph Nollekens, Francis Chantrey and Richard Westmacott.

The Three Graces (detail), sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Canova is now widely recognised as one of the greatest European artists of his day, but from the mid-19th century onwards his reputation suffered, partly because of what was seen as the problematic relationship between his work and ancient sculpture. The great German scholar Gustav Waagen commented dourly on The Three Graces in his extensive survey of works of art in British collections of 1854: "But however attractive the tender and masterly finish of the dazzling white marble, the pretty but insipid character of the heads cannot gratify a taste familiar with the antique".

Background image: The Three Graces, sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London