Antonio Canova was considered the greatest sculptor of his time. His sculptures fall into three categories: Heroic compositions, compositions of grace, and sepulchral monuments. In each of these, Canova’s underlying artistic motivations were to challenge, if not compete, with classical statues. The majority of his works are Neoclassical, but his earliest works displayed a late Baroque or Rococo sensibility that was appealing to his first patrons, nobility from his native Venice.
Check out the most famous sculptures of Antonio Canova and appreciate their beauty and eternal dignity:
Apollo Crowning Himself
In a competition organized by the Venetian aristocrat Don Abbondio Rezzonico, Canova produced his statuette of Apollo Crowning Himself, a work inspired by ancient art of a physically idealized and emotionally detached figure. This work came to define the Neoclassical style.
Theseus and the Minotaur
In 1781, Girolamo Zulian – the Venetian ambassador to Rome – hired Canova to sculpt Theseus and the Minotaur. The statue depicts the victorious Theseus seated on the lifeless body of a Minotaur. The Scottish painter, archaeologist and dealer, Gavin Hamilton, who was a friend of Canova, advised that he should portray Theseus and the Minotaur after their struggle. He considered that Canova would gain more favour and critical acclaim if he were to create a static group rather than a violent one. The sculpture did indeed receive widespread acclaim, and helped establish Canova’s reputation as the leading European sculptor of his day.
Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix
By 1800, Canova was the most celebrated artist in Europe. He systematically promoted his reputation by publishing engravings of his works and having marble versions of plaster casts made in his workshop. He became so successful that he had acquired patrons from across Europe including France, England, Russia, Poland, Austria and Holland. Among his patrons, Napoleon and his family was provided by Canova with much work. The most notable representations was that of Pauline Bonaparte. Venus Victrix’ was originally conceived as a robed and recumbent sculpture of Pauline Borghese in the guise of Diana. Instead, Pauline ordered Canova to make the statue a nude Venus. The work was not intended for public viewing.
Cenotaph to Maria Christina of Austria
Duchess Maria Christina was the daughter of the Empress Maria Theresia. Canova between 1790 and 1795 designed a monument to Titian, that was about to be build in Venice. But the execution of the tomb was no longer possible after the occupation of Venice by the French in 1797. The artist decided to use the design and reallocate the memorial monument to a different dead person. The monument was based on the Pyramid of Cestius in Rome — and a modern interpretation of a figural tomb. The deceased appears only in a portrait medallion, and Christian imagery has been eliminated. The genius of death, the mourning lion, the figures representing the different ages of humankind: all suggest an eternity and a visual language that would have been as comprehensible to the ancients as they are to us.
In 1820, Canova made a statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina. Couple of years before, the General Assembly of the State passed a bill calling for the purchase of a statue honoring George Washington. Uncharacteristically they set no limit on the cost. Prominent citizens asked the opinion of Thomas Jefferson and he advised them to have the piece of sculpture done by the dominant neoclassical sculptor, Canova. Since Canova had never seen Washington, he was sent a plaster bust and a drawing of a portrait of Washington in order to aid him in sculpting. Canova depicted Washington as a Roman general, dressed in a tunic, body armor, and a short cape. Ironically some thought that the statue should be put on rollers so that it could be quickly moved should something happen to the State House. The rollers were discounted as lacking in dignity.
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