Antonio Canova
Biography of Italian Neoclassical Sculptor.

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Cupid and Psyche (1786-93, Louvre)

Antonio Canova (1757-1822)


Early Career and Training
Rome and Neoclassicism
Napoleon Family Sculptures
Return to Rome

The Three Graces (1813-16)
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
One of the greatest ever
female nudes in art history.

See: History of Sculpture.


Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova - arguably the greatest exponent of Neoclassical sculpture - was famous for his marble sculptures of delicate nudes. Working after the excesses of the Baroque style, he carved a niche for himself in the world of neoclassical art. Called 'the supreme minister of beauty' and 'a unique and truly divine man' by contemporaries, Canova was highly acclaimed in his time. His international reputation as one of the greatest neoclassical sculptors clearly surpassed that of John Flaxman and John Gibson. His most famous works include Apollo Crowning Himself (1781, J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), Theseus and the Minotaur (1781, Victoria and Albert Museum), Cupid and Psyche (1786-93, Louvre, Paris), and Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as Venus Victorious (1808, Rome, Borghese). His tomb for Pope Clement XIV invited direct comparison with Bernini's concept of the papal tomb; the latter's dazzling polychromy has been replaced by Canova's unsullied Carrara marble, while curvilinear forms and strong diagonals have been replaced by a rigid system of horizontals and verticals. Although later critics have claimed that Canova's classicism led to a fatal loss of artistic vitality, his contemporaries took a more high-minded view, praising him for his superlative feel for Greek sculpture. For instance, spectators who saw Theseus and the Minotaur for the first time were sure that it was a copy of a Greek original and were shocked to learn it was a contemporary work.

Cupid and Psyche: Close-up

See: Greatest Sculptors.

SCULPTURE (c.1600-1850)
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Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720)
Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721)
Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732)
Andreas Schluter (1664-1714)
Guillaume Coustou (1677-1746)
Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1695-1762)
Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785)
Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)
Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783)
Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)
Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
John Flaxman (1755-1826)
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)
Auguste Preault (1809-79)
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75)

Early Career and Training

Canova was born in Possagno, a small village in the Republic of Venice. He came from a family of stone-cutters, and as soon as he was old enough he began learning the principles of drawing from his grandfather. His grandfather was well versed in drawing, design, ornamental work and architecture. Canova quickly discovered a talent for sculpture and, in his grandfather's studio, carved several marble works before his teenage years. It was in this studio that the young Canova came to the attention of Senator Falier, who would become a lifelong patron. Canova was placed by his patron under the artist Bernardi (also known as Giuseppe Torretto), an eminent sculptor at the time. Canova studied under Torretto for two years before moving to Venice to continue studying at the age of fifteen.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Despite later becoming a champion of neoclassicism, Canova's early works displayed elements of both Baroque art and Rococo art. Examples from this period include his Rococo style statues of Orpheus (1776, Museo Correr, Venice) and Eurydice (1775, Museo Correr) and his Baroque statue Daedalus and Icarus (1777-79, Museo Correr).

Rome and Neoclassicism

Canova visited Rome in 1779 and 1781 and reached a turning point in his style. He studied antiquities and visited the studios of the Roman restorers Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and Francesco Antonio Franzoni. He also came under the influence of English neo-classicist Gavin Hamilton and other avant-garde artists. In a competition Canova submitted a statuette of Apollo Crowning Himself (1781, Getty Museum, Los Angeles), one of the great male nudes in art history. The work came to define the neoclassical style and it’s success allowed the young sculptor to obtain a large block of marble for his next work - a large scale Theseus and the Minotaur (1781, Victoria and Albert Museum), which would help to establish his reputation. Revolutionary in its uncompromising severity, the work marked the end of the baroque era in sculpture: from then on, the new Grecian style gradually took over as the official style for all monuments and large-scale sculptural projects.

In 1782 Canova received his first major commission, the Monument to Pope Clement XIV (1782-7, Apostoli, Rome), followed by that to Clement XIII (1787-92, Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican). Another marble statue from this time is Cupid and Psyche (1786-93, Louvre, Paris). This is a combination of classical and erotic style. Cupid and Psyche are turned towards each other in sensual love, based on Greek mythology. Also, an important sculpture was his Penitent Magdalene (1796, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa), first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1808 and considered one of the greatest sculptures of modern time. The kneeling Magdalene transfixes viewers, as she contemplates a cross and skull on her lap.

Due to his international success, Canova was able to pick and choose his commissions, which allowed him to reject traditional funerary monuments in favour of free standing classical figures. A fine example of this is Hercules and Lichas (1795-96, Gipsoteca, Possagno).

Napoleon Family Sculptures

In 1797 Canova moved to Vienna where he worked on the tomb of Duchess Maria Christina of Saxony-Teschen (1798-1805, Augustinian Church, Vienna). After the French revolution he moved to Paris on the invitation of Napoleon, and made a bust of the new Emperor from real life. This was followed by several other full length statues including Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1803-09, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), Napoleon I (1811, Palazzo Brera, Milan) and an equestrian bronze for Naples. However, Canova's best-known work is his portrait of Napoleon's sister, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as Venus (1808, Rome, Borghese), one of several statues of members of Napoleon's family based on classical prototypes. Paolina's white marble portrait can be considered an equivalent to David's Madame Récamier. Not intended for public view, the young widow was considered one of the noblest catches in the country.

Return to Rome

In 1816 Canova returned to Rome and was honored with the title of President of the Accademia di San Luca, the main artistic institution in Rome. This distinction was presented by the Pope himself and an annual pension was granted. In Canova’s last remaining works, he carved a statue of Venus and Mars (1816-22, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London) and wax moulds for an equestrian statue of King Ferdinand VII. Canova died in 1822, his heart was interred in a marble pyramid he designed as a mausoleum for the painter Titian in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, now a monument to the sculptor. Canova is considered an artist of primary importance who defined classical and elegant sculpture, and who stands out as one of the greatest neoclassical artists of his age.

Note About Art Appreciation
To learn how to judge plastic artists like the Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Perseus in the Vatican

Perseus and the head of Medusa (1797-1801, Vatican Museums, Rome). By public demand this statue was placed in one of the stanzes of the Vatican - an honour hitherto reserved for the most precious works of antiquity.

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