The Three Graces
Antonio Canova’s statue ‘The Three Graces’ is a Neoclassical sculpture, in marble, of the mythological three charites, daughters of Zeus. The Three Graces illustrates Canova's outstanding ability to transform cold hard marble into soft lustrous skin. According to Greek mythology the three daughters of Zeus and Euryoneme were called Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia. They were traditionally associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and were said to represent beauty, charm and joy. Canova arranged the beautiful sisters in a loose semi-circle so that they complement one another in their poses and gazes, entwined arms and narrow swathes of drapery. The sculpture was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford and installed on a pedestal (which could be rotated) in a specially built Temple at his country house, Woburn Abbey. The Graces presided over banquets and gatherings primarily to entertain and delight the guests of the Gods.
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.
Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757 - 1822)
Canova, who was based in Rome, was one of the most famous artists in eighteenth-century Europe . His sculpture was celebrated for its classical character and convincing lifelike qualities. Canova successfully emulated and, in the view of some contemporaries, even surpassed sculptors of Antiquity and more recent times, such as Michelangelo and Bernini. He was also inspired by painters, especially those from Venice, near his birthplace, Possagno. In 1801 he was knighted by the Pope and in 1814 honoured with the title of Perpetual President of the Academy of St Luke. His work attracted distinguished patrons from all over Europe, including Britain.
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