Saturday, January 22, 2011

Neoclassical Sculpture

The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova created many works of classical mythological subjects, pursuing an ideal beauty based on reason, according to the aesthetic of the day. He was commissioned to sculpt the monument for Pope Clement XIV (1783-87) in Santi Apostoli, Rome. In accordance with Winckelmann's canon of "noble simplicity and calm grandeur", he dispensed with rich ornamentation and the use of superfluous marble for sumptuous drapery. Nevertheless, Canova remained essentially a follower of the Baroque style and tended to confuse classicism with sentimentality, sometimes veering towards artificiality. His Three Graces and his statue of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese as Venus demanded a visually three-dimensional perspective. This contrasted strongly with Bertel Thorvalsden's (1768-1844) Three Graces, Hebe (1816) or Ganymede with Jupiter as the Eagle (1817) which are essentially-static, fixed, and frontal. Denmark's most important Neoclassicist and one of the leaders of the movement, Thorvaldsen spent the majority of his working life in Rome, preferring to work from copies rather than live models. Such was the admiration for his statue of Jason (1802-03) that the sculptor was ensured a constant stream of commissions. Thorvaldsen was not a profound observer of character, and his work has been criticized by some modern critics for being rather cold and devoid of feeling. However, Thorvaldsen still deserves to be ranked alongside Canova and John Flaxman as one of the greatest Neoclassical sculptors.

                                    Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle

Bertel Thorvaldsen

(b Copenhagen, 13 Nov 1768 or 19 Nov 1770; d Copenhagen, 24 March 1844).

Danish sculptor and collector, active in Italy. He spent most of his working life in Rome, where, after the death of Antonio Canova in 1822, he became the foremost Neo-classical sculptor. Although the heroic quality of his early Roman work was later modified by certain naturalistic features, he never abandoned his fundamental, classicizing ideals. His pan-European reputation led to commissions from public and private patrons in many countries, and in order to supply these he ran a large and well-organized studio. His collection of contemporary paintings was probably the finest in 19th-century Rome and, together with many of his sculptures, is now housed in the Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen (opened 1848). (Unless otherwise stated, the models and versions of the works mentioned in this entry are there.) In the decades after his death, the taste for Neo-classicism, and thus his reputation, declined, and it was not until the mid-20th century that his art was re-evaluated.

                                                  The Three Graces


Having completed his early studies between Pagnano, near Asolo, and Venice, Antonio Canova (1757-1822) established his career in Rome in 1779. His commissions alternated between much-admired papal monuments (Clement XIV and Clement XIII) and secular subjects, but he declined invitations to attend the Russian Court, unlike his friend Giacomo Quarenghi, who had gone there in 1779. Canova went to Vienna in 1798 to fulfil a commission for a monument of Maria Christina of Austria for the Augustine Church. In the same year, France made Rome a republic and paid the artist a great tribute by electing him a member of the National Institute and appointing him Inspector General of Antiquities and Fine Arts for the State and Church.
He went to Paris in 1803 to paint Napoleon and plan a colossal statue of the emperor as "Mars the Peacemaker". In 1815, he was asked by the Papal State to recover works of art confiscated by the French. Before his return to Italy, he was invited to London to give his opinion on the authenticity of the Elgin marbles. At the age of 65, he returned to Venice, where he died.

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