This month’s essay discusses the life and works of arguably the greatest exponent of neoclassical sculpture. He was internationally famous during his lifetime and was regarded as the most brilliant sculptor in Europe. He was especially known and praised for his marble sculptures of nude figures, making the stone figures appear life-like, graceful, and delicate.
Antonio Canova created a classic ideal of human beauty that exerted a strong influence on academic sculpture during most of the 18-19th centuries. He was the most celebrated sculptor and perhaps the most renowned artist of his time. He was very prolific in his output and was known for his singular focus on his artistic endeavors. This required that he dedicate his entire energy to his work, and so he renounced marriage and family life. Several hundred works of sculpture, often in versions that he repeated that allowed him to “improve” on his conceptions, came out of his studio, along with about one hundred paintings, for which he is lesser-known. As was customary in his time, Canova used his assistants to rough-hew marble compositions from his plaster models, making use of the “pointing” technique of sculpting. He was a pioneer in the use of full-size rather than small-scale models, and he insisted on personally carving the surfaces into their final character and form. The finished product in stone was soft and velvet-like, the flesh having an appearance of bloom.
Canova’s main glory rests on his use of classical subjects. As the consummate neoclassical artist, he answered his age’s demand for an idealization of the classic subject that evoked purified ancient forms, but endowed these with delicate naturalistic textures that were both praised and blamed.
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