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Canova was born in 1757 in the village of Possagno near Treviso in the Veneto. His father Pietro, a stonemason, died in 1761. His mother, Angela Zardo, remarried in 1762, and entrusted Antonio to the care of his grandfather Pasino Canova (1711-1794), also a stonecutter and sculptor. The boy's precocious talent attracted the attention of Senator Giovanni Falier, who arranged in 1768 for him to enter the workshop of Giuseppe Bernardi, called Torretti (1664-1743), at Pagnano di Asolo. Torretti's subsequent move to Venice gave his young apprentice the opportunity to study drawing from life at the Accademia and antique sculpture from the collection of casts in the Palazzo Farsetti.
Falier provided early commissions on antique mythological themes, including Eurydice (1773-1775) and Orpheus (1775-1776; both Venice, Museo Correr) for his villa at Pradazzi di Asolo. Orpheus won public acclaim at the 1776 Venetian Fiera della Sensa exhibition. In 1775 Canova opened his first studio in the cloister of Santo Stefano in Venice. His Dedalus and Icarus (1777-1779; Venice, Museo Correr) was exhibited at the Fiera della Sensa exhibition in 1779; its impressive contrasts of emotions and physical types won him funds for a trip to Rome, where he would settle permanently in 1780.
The Venetian colony in Rome, including the family of Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico (reigned 1758-1769), offered patronage and support. Venetian Ambassador Girolamo Zulian provided Canova lodgings in the Palazzo Venezia. Prince Abbondio Rezzonico, a papal nephew, commissioned Apollo Crowning Himself (1781-1782; private collection), Canova's first work aspiring to the "noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur" of the classical ideal promoted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), which was at the time beginning to seize the European imagination. Ambassador Zulian, leaving Canova free to choose a subject, received a more dramatic classical essay, Theseus and the Minotaur (1781-1783; London, Victoria and Albert Museum). Pleased with the rising potential of a young Venetian sculptor in the artistic capital, the Venetian Senate awarded Canova an annuity to continue studying and working in Rome. In 1783 he met the theorist and critic Antoine-Chrysosthôme Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849), who became a lifelong friend, correspondent, and advocate. In the same year, Canova took up painting.
A brief engagement in 1781 to Domenica Volpato, daughter of the Venetian engraver Giovanni Volpato (1740-1803), ended when she chose instead to marry the etcher Raffaele Morghen (1758-1833). Volpato helped Canova obtain the prestigious commission for a monument to Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli in 1783. That monument, unveiled in the basilica of Santi Apostoli in Rome in 1787, won the artist acclaim as the greatest modern sculptor. A tomb for Pope Clement XIII was commissioned in 1784 by the Rezzonico family for Saint Peter's, where it was installed in 1792. Resting in Naples from his labors on the Clement XIV monument, Canova met the English Colonel John Campbell, who commissioned the embracing Cupid and Psyche (1787-c. 1794; Paris, Musee du Louvre; a second version of 1794-1796 in Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum). This celebrated creation reveals Canova's highest capacities both for compositional originality and tender and sensuous treatment of his subjects, contrasting with the heroic grandeur of his public monuments.
After the unveiling of the Clement XIII monument in 1792 Canova returned to Possagno and to Venice, where he worked on reliefs of Homeric, Virgilian, and Socratic subjects. In Rome in 1781 he had begun the practice of having classical literature read aloud to him while he worked. He produced a monument to Admiral Angelo Emo (1792-1795; Venice, Museo Storico Navale) for the Republic of Venice. Catherine the Great invited Canova to Saint Petersburg in 1794 to carve her portrait, but he refused, writing to Giuseppe Falier--the son of his first patron--that he dreaded court life and loved solitary concentration on his work. After completing Venus and Adonis (1789-1794; Geneva, Villa La Grange), in 1796 Canova undertook Hercules and Lichas, completed in marble only in 1815 (Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna). General Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to the artist in 1797 promising protection amid the turmoil of the invasion of Italy.
After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1798, Canova returned to Possagno. On a visit to Vienna later that year to seek the restoration of his state pension from the new Austrian rulers, he was persuaded by Duke Albert of Saxony to design one of his most poignant tomb monuments, to Maria Christina of Austria (Vienna, Augustinerkirche, installed 1805). During this time he also traveled to Bohemia and Germany. Returning to Possagno in 1798 he painted an altarpiece, the Lamentation of Christ (1799-1821; Possagno, Tempio), and after his return to Rome he was named to the artists' academy, the Accademia di San Luca, in January 1800. Canova's half-brother Giambattista Sartori came to live with him and to serve as his secretary in May 1800. In 1801 he completed a marble Perseus (Rome, Musei Vaticani; second version New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which came to occupy the pedestal of the beloved antique Apollo Belvedere, sent to Paris by French conquerors in 1798. Pope Pius VII made Canova Knight of the Golden Spur and Inspector General of Antiquities and the Fine Arts. In the latter post he strove energetically to prevent major works of art from leaving Italy.
Invited to Paris in 1802, Canova met Napoleon and modeled his bust in clay. The commission for a monumental statue of the First Consul, conceived as a heroic nude, came in 1803. In 1804 the artist accepted a commission to carve a reclining nude portrait of Napoleon's sister, Princess Paolina Borghese, as Venus Victrix (Rome, Galleria Borghese). A vociferous critique of his work by Carl Ludwig Fernow, published in 1806, disparaged Canova for excessively sensuous naturalism, compared with the purer classicism of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768 or 1770-1844).
Canova attended the inauguration of his monument to the poet Vittorio Alfieri (1804-1810; Florence, Church of Santa Croce) and returned to Paris to model a portrait bust of Napoleon's second empress, Marie Louise (1810; Possagno, Gipsoteca). Resisting the emperor's offers of high positions in Paris, Canova lobbied for imperial support of the arts in Italy, including the conservation of works of art in their original settings. Between 1804 and 1812 he completed two versions of a Venus Italica (Munich, Residenzmuseum, and Florence, Palazzo Pitti), his response to the ancient Medici Venus that also had been sent to France in 1802. A bust of his own image, Self-Portrait (Possagno, Tempio) was completed in 1812. In 1813 he began the first version of his celebrated Three Graces for Josephine (completed 1816; Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum; the second version of 1815-1817, for the Duke of Bedford, was acquired in 1999 jointly by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Canova was elected president of the Accademia di San Luca in 1810, and perpetual president in 1814. In 1815 Pope Pius VII appointed him chief delegate to the Congress of Paris, where his diplomacy furthered the return of many art treasures taken from Italy during Napoleon's ascendancy; the grateful Pope named him Marchese of Ischia in the following year. Also in 1815 Canova traveled to visit Lord Elgin's collection in London, and wrote of his awed response to the naturalism of the Phidian marble sculptures from the Parthenon.
The government of North Carolina commissioned a monumental seated statue of George Washington (1817-1821; Raleigh, State Capitol; destroyed by fire 1831; models in Possagno, Gipsoteca). In 1817-1819 Canova commemorated the last Stuart pretenders to the English throne with a monument to the House of Stuart (The Cenotaph, Saint Peter's, Rome). In response to an appeal in 1818 from the people of Possagno to help finance repairs to the village church, the artist decided to provide and decorate a new building, whose foundation ceremonies he attended the following year. Increasingly debilitated by a chronic stomach ailment, possibly the result of years of leaning on a drill, Canova continued working, completing Ferdinand I in the Guise of Minerva (1810-1820, Naples, Museo Nazionale), Mars and Venus for George IV (1816-1822, London, Buckingham Palace), Venus for Thomas Hope (1817-1820, Leeds, City Art Gallery), and Endymion for the Duke of Devonshire (1819-1822, Chatsworth), until his death in Venice on 13 October 1822. His remains were interred in the Tempio he had endowed at Possagno (consecrated 1830), and his half-brother Giambattista Sartori, named Canova's universal heir, transported the plasters, clay models, and marbles preserved in the sculptor's Rome studio to Possagno in 1826, where he arranged for their eventual display in the Gipsoteca next to Canova's house, constructed between 1831 and 1836.
The most celebrated sculptor and perhaps the most renowned artist of his time, Canova was hugely prolific and preternaturally proficient. He renounced marriage and family life, dedicating his entire energy to his work. Several hundred works of sculpture, often in repeated versions that allowed the artist to "improve" on his conceptions, came out of his studio, along with about one hundred paintings. His clay sketch models show astonishing spontaneity and animated abstraction. As was customary in his time, Canova employed assistants to rough-hew marble compositions from his plaster models, making use of pointing; he was a pioneer in the use of full-size rather than small-scale models, and exceptional for his insistence on personally carving the surfaces into their final character. Marbles from Canova's hand display dazzling technical virtuosity and tactile attractions. The consummate neo-classical artist, he answered his age's demand for an idealization evoking purified antique forms, but endowed these with delicate naturalistic textures that were both praised and blamed. His posthumous reputation suffered both from changing taste and from the numerous copies and emulations of his style by hands that could not approach the quality of his carving. His output included portrait busts that exalt and detach their subjects from the world of transient individuality, and fantasy heads that embody abstract ideals of beauty. John Keats (1795-1821) and Lord Byron (1788-1824) praised his work, which was sought by the powerful of every nationality and political persuasion. Generous in endowing charities for the arts, artists, and his native town, and heroic in his efforts to repatriate a plundered Italian artistic patrimony, Canova showed a farsighted concern for national artistic patrimonies and the preservation of works of art in situ.
[This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]