The Three Graces (sculpture)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Antonio Canova’s statue The Three Graces is a Neoclassical sculpture, in marble, of the mythological three charites, daughters of Zeus – identified on some engravings of the statue as, from left to right, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia - who were said to represent beauty, charm and joy. The Graces presided over banquets and gatherings primarily to entertain and delight the guests of the Gods. As such they have always proved to be attractive figures for historical artists, notable amongst them are Botticelli and Thorvaldsen.
Versions of the piece
John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, commissioned a version of the now famous work. He had previously visited Canova in his studio in Rome in 1814 and had been immensely impressed by a carving of the Graces the sculptor had made for the Empress Josephine. When the Empress died in May of the same year he immediately offered to purchase the completed piece, but was unsuccessful as Josephine’s son Eugène claimed it (his son Maximilian brought it to St. Petersburg, where it can now be found in the Hermitage Museum). Undeterred, the Duke commissioned another version for himself.
The sculpting process began in 1814 and was completed in 1817. Finally in 1819 it was installed at the Duke’s residence in Woburn Abbey. Canova even made the trip over to England to supervise its installation, choosing for it to be displayed on a pedestal adapted from a marble plinth with a rotating top. This version is now owned jointly by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland, and is alternately displayed at each.
The version in the Hermitage is carved from veined marble and has a square pillar behind the left-hand figure (Euphorosyne). The Woburn Abbey version is carved from white marble and has a round pillar, and the central figure (Aglaea) has a slightly broader waist.
By the time he had been commissioned by the Duke, Canova had already enjoyed an illustrious sculpting career. Born in the Italian province of Treviso in 1757, he was educated by his grandfather and his artistic talent was quickly noticed, especially by a Senator by the name of Giovanni Falieri who introduced him to the sculptor Torretto, who he would apprentice for two years.
Canova went on to enjoy small commissions, but his fame did not come until 1780 when he travelled to Rome and found himself inspired and invigorated by the scope and quality of the art and architecture. During this time Canova produced some of his most revered works including: "Theseus and the Minotaur" (1782), his monument to Pope Clement XIV (now displayed in the basilica dei Santi Apostoli) and the masterminding of the sumptuous tomb of Clement XIII in St. Peter’s. In 1793 he produced the seminal Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, a piece of immaculate composition and flowing beauty.
In 1802, he was requested to go to Paris by Napoleon I where he modelled an enormous figure of the emperor clutching a ‘Victory’ in his hand. He would also model a bust of the French leader as well as a statue of his mother. The fact that these pieces represented only a fraction of his works during this period, make his dual commissions to sculpt the Graces understandable.
The sculpture for the Duke of Bedford was based on depictions of the Graces Canova had previously made. These include a painting in 1799, other drawings and a relief of the Graces is also known to have been executed by him around the same time.
In 1810, he modelled a terracotta sketch (now in the Musée de Lyon, France). But it is likely that his piece for the Empress Josephine and later the Duke was modelled mainly on the early drawings and a terracotta sketch model. Certainly we know that the immediate model for the work was a full-scale plaster group that has survived and is now to be found in the Canova museum in Possagno, Italy. In the version presented to the Duke of Bedford the graces are shown to be leaning on a pillar, though in earlier versions this feature was absent.
Artistic technique and effect
The piece itself is carved exactingly from a single slab of white marble. Canova's assistants roughly blocked out the marble, leaving Canova to finish the final carving and shape the stone to highlight the Graces’ soft flesh. This was a trademark of the artist, and the piece shows a strong allegiance to the Neo-Classical movement of which Canova is the prime exponent in the field of sculpture. The lines are exquisite, refined and elegant.
The three goddesses are shown nude, huddled close together in embrace, their heads almost touching in what many have referred to as an ‘erotically charged’ piece. They stand, leaning slightly inward – perhaps discussing a common issue, or simply enjoying being close to one another. Their hair-styles are all similar, with the hair braided and held on top of their heads in a knot.
The style is elegant and suggests refinement and class – there is a delicate beauty to them that is commonplace in Canova’s sculpture. Art historians have often commented on the peaceful balance that seems to exist between the Three Graces’ heads. Unlike compositions of the Graces, which were derived from antiquity (where the outer figures turn out towards the viewer and the central figure embraces her friends with her back to the viewer) - Canova's figures stand side by side, facing each other.
The three slender female figures become one in their embrace, united by not only their linked hands, but also by the scarf which links all of them together. The unity of the Graces is one of the piece's main themes. In the version of the piece commissioned by Countess Josephine, the Graces are stood on a sacrificial altar adorned with three wreathes of flowers and a garland symbolizing their fragile, close ties.
Neo-Classisism and the Baroque
Canova’s work challenged the baroque conception of beauty as vaguely obese and shows the Graces as nubile, svelte young women. Though this is not the only departure the piece (and indeed Canova’s body of work) makes from the Baroque. If one is to look at the sculpture of Bernini for example, the viewer is presented to a stark moment in time: a snapshot. A fine example of this is in his work of 1644, 'The Ecstasy of St. Theresa', which shows the moment the holy spirit pierces Theresa's heart, leaving her in what can only be described as ecstasy of divine presence. It is a dramatic, poignant scene captured by Benini at the very moment of greatest impact. Canova’s work, however, is different.
His pieces do not seem to possess any real sense of time, they merely exist at a point in the past – almost ghostly reminders of a mythological happening, or person long deceased. In the case of the Graces he dispenses with theatrics and invites the viewer to make what they will of the scene. This is typical of the Neo-classical movement in sculpture especially and art generally. In many respects this work was a departure and has since become regarded by many as a benchmark of beauty.