Antonio Canova: Paintings, Sculptures & Biography

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can an artist make a career from carving marble statues? Can a sculptor also paint? In this lesson, explore the work and life of Italian artist Antonio Canova, who became the most famous sculptor of his time.

Early Years

Antonio Canova (1757 - 1822) was born in a small town in northern Italy. He came from a family of stone cutters and was taught drawing by his grandfather, so it wasn't surprising that he began carving marble in his youth. In his early teens, Canova went to work with the sculptor Torretti, learning and honing his skills. When Torretti later moved to Venice, Canova went too, and there he was able to gain experience drawing from life and sketching casts of noted antique sculptures.

In 1775, Canova set up a studio in Venice and began receiving commissions for figural works. His early sculptures reflected the then-popular Rococo style, emotional and decorative with plenty of embellishing touches. But Canova's figures were very life-like, so much so that some people thought they are actually plaster cases of real people.

Rome and Neoclassicism

Initial success generated funds to allow Canova to travel to Rome in 1779 and 1781. The trips opened his eyes to neoclassicism, a style rising in reaction to Rococo. Neoclassicism aimed to recapture the spirit of the classical world, especially the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassicism favored order, heroism, and idealized human forms. Figures had perfect anatomy without the scars, wrinkles, or imperfections of real life. They also had restrained emotions and stoic expressions even when depicted in highly dramatic or emotional scenes.

During this time in Rome, Canova traveled to the archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. This only furthered his interest in classical form and subject matter. In 1781 he set up his studio in Rome where, with the exception of periodic side trips throughout Europe, he would spend the rest of his life.

Theseus and the Minotaur

An example of Canova's work from this period is Theseus and the Minotaur (1781 - 1782), regarded as his first major neoclassical work. The subject matter comes from Greek mythology. The moment depicted is one of repose after the battle is over.

Antonio Canova, Theseus and the Minotaur, 1781-1782
Canova, Theseus and Minotaur

Theseus, the victor, rests atop the minotaur's body. He is reflective and composed despite the violent struggle that has just taken place. His body reflects a chiseled ideal of perfection. The sculpture proved a great success and helped to build Canova's reputation.

Growing Success as a Sculptor

Canova quickly gained a following. In 1783, he was commissioned to create the tomb of Pope Clement XIV in Rome. Popes' tombs were big deals at the time and tended to generate attention because they were popular stops for travelers and tourists. When completed in 1787, Canova's work attracted crowds.

Canova's workload also increased in other European countries. In 1802, he traveled to Paris to complete a bust of Napoleon. A few years later he was commissioned to do a large bronze equestrian statue of the French leader. Canova's presence and work in Paris had a big impact on French art and, in his pursuit of neoclassicism, he became as much an influence there as he was in Italy.

Cupid and Psyche

One of Canova's most famous sculptures completed during this time was Cupid and Psyche (1786-93). This work depicts another subject from Greek mythology, a moment in the love story of Cupid, the God of love, and the human Psyche. Winged Cupid gently lifts Psyche, reviving her from a death-like sleep with a kiss. The elegant lines and supply figures almost make you forget this is a work carved from stone.

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche, 1786-1793
Canova, Cupid and Psyche

Canova as a Painter

Canova also worked as a painter. He periodically painted in oils and mostly of portraits (including self-portraits,) mythological subjects, and recreations of scenes he'd viewed at Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Antonio Canova, Self-Portrait, late 1700s
Canova, Self-Portrait

However, his paintings never generated the same level of interest as his sculptures. In fact, he said he painted more for his own benefit and didn't exhibit paintings in public. Sometimes he painted studies for his sculptures or used them to explore ideas. Around 1799, he painted a series of dancing scenes with graceful, ethereal women in flowing gowns against dark backgrounds. They're pretty and appealing in a simple way, but they don't have the power or mastery of his sculpture.

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