Antonio Canova, 1757-1822

By Lori Stranger

Antonio Canova,  The Three Graces,  carved marble, 1814-1817, 17 cm x 97 cm x 57 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, carved marble, 1814-1817, 17 cm x 97 cm x 57 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Italian Neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova was a significant pioneer of the Neoclassical style. He was born November 1st, 1757, to a family of sculptors and stonecutters. Canova demonstrated a talent for sculpting at a very young age, even receiving recognition from the prestigious Venetian Senator, Giovanni Falier.  Canova’s early style portrays a lingering commitment to the Baroque, which is evident in his 1777 dramatic statues of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus’ twisted form and the couple’s agonised expressions being very typical of this Baroque theatricality.      

Canova's Grand tour of Italy in 1779-80 greatly affected his style and following this, he would come to be a very prominent sculptor. His travels to Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples pushed his style in the direction of antiquity. Following the discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Rome was transformed in a classical revival. Canova was impressed with the idealised forms of Greco-Roman sculptures and the grandeur inherent to them. Encouraged by the Scottish painter, Gavin Hamilton, who specialised in archaeology and classical antiquity, Canova embarked on a Neoclassical style that he would maintain throughout his career. 

After establishing his studio in Rome, Canova was commissioned in 1781 to sculpt Theseus and the Minotaur. The calm serenity of the figure depicted after his battle with the minotaur proved to be deceiving.  The initial spectators assumed the sculpture was a Roman copy rather than a contemporary work, illustrating Canova’s faithful commitment to antiquity’s ideals. However, what makes Canova outstanding is his departure from classical antiquity’s cold artificiality. Canova imbued a grace and human quality to his figures that is absent from the removed, stark greco-roman sculptures.  For example, his 1814-1817 The Three Graces, demonstrate an emotionalism that is formed through their intimate embrace. The elliptical composition created by their enclosed arms illustrates at once both a private scene of sisterly affection to which the viewer is intruding upon, but also a public message, encouraging the viewer to follow their example of love and charity. Canova’s Neoclassical style in this regard is distinct from the artificiality and coldness of the classical revival.

Canova’s mastery of sculpture and the emotional quality to his figures earned him many accolades across Europe. Gaining the prestigious patronage of Napoleon and his family stirred an interesting tension in his work. In light of this patronage, Canova’s sculptural portraits come to present an intriguing question as to what extent the idealisation of the sitter renders the portrait untruthful.  His 1802 Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker illustrates a highly idealised representation of Napoleon.  The grandeur of the upright and tall figure departs from the actuality of Napoleon, who was notoriously short.  The idealised musculature of the legs and abdomen can also be read as projecting an unrealistic depiction of Napoleon, meant to flatter.

Overall, Canova was crucial to the development of Neoclassicism, influencing artists across Europe to partake in a revival of the classical style; a style which Romanticism would reject in the 18th century.  He died on October 13th 1822, leaving behind a tremendous legacy. 





Metropolitan Museum, Antonio Canova, date accessed 29th October, 2018.


Britannica, Antonio Canova marchese d’Ischia, date accessed 29th October, 2018.