Antonio Canova – The Minister of Beauty

Zuzanna Stańska 21 April 2022 min Read

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 however his earliest works displayed a late Baroque or Rococo sensibility that was appealing to his first patrons, the nobility of his native Venice. Check out the most famous sculptures of Antonio Canova and appreciate their beauty and eternal dignity.

1. Apollo Crowning Himself

Antonio Canova, Apollo Crowning Himself, 1791-92, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Antonio Canova, Apollo Crowning Himself, 1791-1792, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Canova produced his statuette of Apollo Crowning Himself for a competition organized by the Venetian aristocrat Don Abbondio Rezzonico. The statuette was inspired by the ancient art of a physically idealized and emotionally detached figure. Furthermore this work came to define the Neoclassical style.

2. Theseus and the Minotaur

Antonio Canova, Theseus and Minotaur, 1782, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
Antonio Canova, Theseus and Minotaur, 1782, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

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 felt Canova would gain more favor and critical acclaim if he created 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.

3. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix

Antonio Canova, Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix, 1805-1808, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.
Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix, 1805-1808, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.

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 acquired patrons from across Europe including France, England, Russia, Poland, Austria, and Holland.

Among his patrons were Napoleon and his family, who gave many commissions to Canova. The most notable piece he created for them was a sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte. Venus Victrix was originally conceived as a robed and recumbent sculpture of Pauline Borghese in the guise of Diana. Instead, Borghese ordered Canova to make the statue a nude Venus. The work was not intended for public viewing.

4. Cenotaph to Maria Christina of Austria

Antonio Canova, Cenotaph for Marie Christine, 1805, Augustinerkirche, Vienna.
Antonio Canova, Cenotaph for Marie Christine, 1805, Augustinerkirche, Vienna, Austria. Wga.

Duchess Maria Christina was the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. Between 1790 and 1795 Canova designed a monument to Titian that was about to be built in Venice. However the execution of the tomb became impossible after Venice was occupied by the French in 1797. The artist therefore decided to use the design and reallocate the memorial monument to a different 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 while the Christian imagery has been eliminated. The genius of death, the mourning lion, and the figures representing the different ages of humankind all suggest eternity and a visual language that would have been as comprehensible to the ancients as they are to us.

5. George Washington

Antonio Canova, George Washington, 1821, North Carolina State Capitol, Raleigh, NC, USA.
Antonio Canova, George Washington, 1821, North Carolina State Capitol, Raleigh, NC, USA.

In 1820, Canova made a statue of George Washington for the state of North Carolina. A few years earlier 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 Thomas Jefferson’s opinion and he advised them to have the 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 his 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. However the rollers were abandoned for lacking dignity.



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