In attempting to define Romanticism in sculpture, we are immediately
struck by one rather extraordinary fact: in contrast to the abundance of
theoretical writings that accompanied Neoclassical sculpture from
Winckelmann on, there exists only one piece of writing that sets forth a
general theory of sculpture from the Romantic point of view:
Baudelaire's essay of
"Why Sculpture is Boring," which occupies
only a few pages of his long review of the Salon of that year. Actually,
Baudelaire is less concerned with the state of French sculpture at that
moment, which strikes him as deplorable, than he is with the limitations
of sculpture as a medium. To him, there can be no such thing as Romantic
sculpture because every piece of sculpture is to him a "fetish" whose objective
existence prevents the artist from making it a vehicle of his subjective
view of the world, his personal sensibility. It can transcend this
limitation only if it is placed in the service of architecture,
enhancing a larger whole such as a Gothic cathedral, but as soon as it
detaches itself from this context, sculpture reverts to its primitive
status. Fortunately, Baudelaire's theory was not taken at face value by
either artists or patrons, but it does suggest the difficulty Romantic
sculptors (or at least those who thought of themselves as part of the
Romantic movement) had in establishing a self-image they could live
with. Indeed, the unique virtue of sculpture—its
solid, spacefilling reality (its "idol" quality)—was
not congenial to the Romantic temperament. The rebellious and
individualistic urges of Romanticism could find expression in rough,
small-scale sketches but rarely survived the laborious process of
translating the sketch into a permanent, finished monument.
(1757-1822). He was not only the greatest
sculptor of his generation, he was the most famous artist of the Western
world from the 1790s until long after his death. Both his work and his
personality became a model for every sculptor during those years.
Canova's meteoric rise is well attested by his numerous commissions. The
Tomb of Maria Christina, archduchess of Austria, in the Church of the
Augustinians in Vienna (fig. 915)
is remarkable as much for its "timeless" beauty as for
its gently melancholy sentiment. It was commissioned by her husband soon
after her death in 1798,
although its framework had been anticipated in a monument to Titian
planned by Canova several years before. This ensemble, in contrast to
the tombs of earlier times (such as fig.
include the real burial place. Moreover, the deceased appears only in a
portrait medallion framed by a snake biting its own tail, a symbol of eternity, and sustained by two
floating genii. Presumably, but not actually, the urn carried by the
woman in the center contains her ashes. This is an ideal burial service
performed by classical figures, mostly allegorical: a mourning winged
genius on the right, and the group about to enter the tomb on the left,
who represent the Three Ages of Man. The slow procession, directed away
from the beholder, stands for "eternal remembrance." All references to
Christianity are conspicuously absent.
At the beginning of the Romantic era, we find an adaptation
of the Neoclassical style to new ends by sculptors, led by
Antonio Canova. Tomb of the
Archduchess Maria Christina. 1798-1805.
Marble, lifesize. Augustinerkirche, Vienna
Antonio Canova. Tomb of the
Archduchess Maria Christina. (detail)
It is readily apparent that Canova must have known of Pigalle's tomb
for the Marcchal de Saxe (fig.
which looks forward to it in so many respects. The
differences are equally striking, however. Canova's design looks
surprisingly like a very high relief, for most of the figures are seen
in strict profile, so that they seem to hug the wall plane despite the
deep space. Gestures are kept to a minimum, and the allegorical
trappings that clutter Pigalle's monument have been swept away, so that
nothing distracts us from the solemn ritual being acted out before us.
It is this intense concentration that distinguishes Canova's classicism
from the Rococo of Pigalle.
Canova's friends included Jacques-Louis David, who helped to spread his
fame in France. In 1802,
Canova was invited to Paris by Napoleon, who wanted his portrait done by
the greatest sculptor of the age. With Napoleon's approval, he made a
colossal nude figure in marble showing the conqueror as a victorious and
peace-giving Mars (fig. 916).
The head is an idealized but thoroughly recognizable
portrait of Napoleon, while the figure is based on statues of ancient
rulers in the guise of nude classical deities. The elevation of the
emperor to a god marks a decisive shift away from the noble ideals of the Enlightenment that had given rise to
Neoclassicism. The glorification of the hero as a noble example, seen in
Houdon's statue of George Washington (fig.
is abandoned in favor of the Romantic cult of the
individual. There is no longer any higher authority—neither
religion, nor reason is invoked—only
the imperative of Greek art remains unquestioned as a style divorced
from content. Fittingly enough, the statue was given to the Duke of
Wellington after he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Antonio Canova. Napoleon.
over-lifesize. Apsley House, London
Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker
Bronze, height 325 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Palazzo Brera, Milan
Antonio Canova. Napoleon
Not to be outdone, Napoleon's sister Pauline Borghese permitted
Canova to sculpt her as a reclining Venus (fig.
917). The statue is so obviously idealized as to
still any gossip. We recognize it as a precursor, more classically
proportioned, of Ingres' Odalisque (see fig.
885). She is equally typical of
early Romanticism, which incorporated Rococo eroticism but in a less
sensuous form. Strangely enough, Pauline Borghese seems less
three-dimensional than the painting. She is designed like a "relief in
the round," for front and back view only, and her very considerable
charm radiates almost entirely from the fluid grace of her contours.
Pauline Borghese as Venus. 1808.
Marble, lifesize. Galleria Borghese, Rome
Pauline Borghese as Venus.
Pauline Borghese as Venus. (details)
Antonio Canova, marchese d’Ischia, (born , Nov. 1, 1757,
Possagno, Republic of Venice—died Oct. 13, 1822, Venice),
Italian sculptor, one of the greatest exponents of
Neoclassicism. Among his works are the tombs of popes
Clement XIV (1783–87) and Clement XIII (1787–92) and statues
of Napoleon and of his sister Princess Borghese reclining as
Venus Victrix. He was created a marquis for his part in
retrieving works of art from Paris after Napoleon’s defeat.
Canova, the son of a stonemason who died in 1761, was
reared by his grandfather, also a stonemason. Under the
protection of a Venetian senator, Canova, at the age of 11,
went to work with the sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi (called
Torretti), who lived at Pagnano (Asolo). In the same year
(1768) Bernardi moved his studio from provincial Pagnano to
Venice, and Canova went with him. The boy helped his master,
executed a few humble commissions on his own, and, as was
customary at the time, studied classical art and drew from
In 1775 Canova set up his own studio in Venice. In 1779
he sculpted Daedalus and Icarus which had been commissioned
by Pisani, procurator of the Venetian republic; it was
Canova’s first important work. Somewhat Rococo in style, the
figures were considered so realistic that the sculptor was
accused of making plaster casts from live models.
Canova was in Rome in 1779 and 1780, where he met the
leading artists of the period, including the Scottish
painter-dealer Gavin Hamilton, who directed Canova’s studies
toward a more profound understanding of the antique. Canova
visited Naples and the ancient archaeological sites of
Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Paestum. He returned briefly to
Venice, but in 1781 he was again in Rome, where he was to
spend most of the rest of his life. There he became an
active and influential figure in the artistic life of the
city and was always willing to help young artists and find
In 1783 Canova received an important commission for the
tomb of Pope Clement XIV in the Roman church of SS. Apostoli.
When it was displayed in 1787, crowds flocked to see it.
That same year he was commissioned to execute a tomb in St.
Peter’s to Pope Clement XIII. Completed in 1792, it shows a
more developed understanding of the classical aesthetic of
antiquity than his monument to Clement XIV. Subsequent tombs
were increasingly Neoclassical and combined restraint with
sentiment, in a manner akin to the work of Canova’s English
contemporary, John Flaxman.
The French invasion of Rome in 1798 sent Canova
northward. In Vienna he worked on a funerary monument to
Maria Christina (1798–1805) in the Augustinerkirche. In
1802, at the Pope’s instigation, he accepted Napoleon’s
invitation to go to Paris, where he became court sculptor
and considerably influenced French art. He spent part of
1802 in Paris working on a bust of Napoleon, and in 1806
Joseph Bonaparte commissioned an equestrian statue of
In 1808 he finished one of his most famous works, in
which he shows Napoleon’s sister, Pauline Borghese,
reclining almost naked on a couch as Venus Victrix—a fusion
of classical goddess and contemporary portrait. In 1811 he
completed two colossal statues of Napoleon, in which the
emperor is shown as a heroic classical nude. In the
Napoleonic period he had also begun carving some of his most
expressive and ambitious pieces, Perseus with Medusa’s Head
(1801) and the Pugilists (1802).
Canova in 1805 was appointed inspector general of fine
arts and antiquities of the papal state. In 1810 he was made
president of the Accademia di S. Luca in Rome (a position he
was to hold for life). He sculpted his well-known Three
Graces from 1812 to 1816. After having visited Paris to
arrange for the return of Italian art treasures plundered by
the French, he went to London (1815) to give his opinion on
the Elgin Marbles. The success of his mission in Paris led
to the reward of the title of marquis of Ischia by the Pope.
While in London, the Prince Regent, later George IV,
commissioned a life-size group of Venus and Mars. Other late
commissions included the Stuart monument in St. Peter’s
(1819), the alteration and completion of the equestrian
Napoleon into Charles III of Naples (1819), and a monument
of George Washington (1820; destroyed by fire in 1830),
idealized in Roman costume, erected at Raleigh, N.C., in
Canova was also a painter, but his paintings (mostly in
the Gipsoteca Canoviana at Possagno) constitute a minor part
of his works. They include a few portraits and re-creations
of antique paintings discovered at Herculaneum. Canova was
buried at Possagno in a temple designed by himself in
imitation of the Pantheon in Rome.
Canova was as important in the development of the
Neoclassical style as Jacques-Louis David in painting.
Canova’s domination of European sculpture at the turn of the
18th century and the beginning of the 19th is reflected in
countless adulations in memoirs, poems, and newspapers.
“Sublime,” “superb,” and “marvelous” are adjectives
frequently found describing Canova’s work in his lifetime,
although his reputation as a sculptor declined considerably
during the following century.
Antonio Canova. Orpheus and Eurydice
Museo Correr, Venice
Antonio Canova. Orpheus
Museo Correr, Venice
Antonio Canova. Eurydice
Museo Correr, Venice
Antonio Canova. Daedalus and Icarus
Marble, 200 x 95 x 97 cm
Museo Correr, Venice