Italian Art Heritage Abroad: The Three Graces

Canova, with his Three Graces, not only rediscovered ancient arts, but also set future trends.

Antonio Canova was born in a small village near Venice. Although Greece was far away, he was still nicknamed “the new Phidias”, as he brought the classical era from 400 BC to 1700 AD, becoming the point man in neoclassicism, a cultural trend that will restore the glory of European art.

The identification of classicism with Antonio Canova dates back to 1779, year of his first stay in Rome, a period that will affect his whole life and art production. Indeed, the “eternal city”, with its open-air museum and some of the most prestigious art collections in the world — including the Vatican Museums —, will introduce him to the Greek and Roman mythology, sharing with many artists of his era the theories of the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The ideal of beauty

According to Winckelmann, only Greek civilization achieved full purity and virtue in art. Canova endorsed this idea by starting his fabulous production of sculptures inspired by Greek classical art, albeit revised creatively. In this sense, he created “The Three Graces”, which are simply the Latin version of the Three Charites in Greek mythology: “Aglaea”, representing Splendor, “Euphrosyne”, Joy, and “Thalia”, Prosperity. They were the daughters of the supreme god Zeus and the nymph Eurynome. The three goddesses were considered bearers of joy and beauty in the Greek ancient world, as they were dancing for the other gods, chairing the feasts and accompanying Aphrodite and Eros, the gods of love.

Before Canova, this subject was back in the spotlight during the Renaissance,  when the Three Graces were memorialized in several paintings, including the popular “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli, displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The evocative power of the three beautiful goddesses, however, would be definitively consecrated by the sculpture, as a result of its unprecedented three-dimensionality applied to sensual female bodies.

Why two equal sculptures?

The sculpture was commissioned in 1812 by none other than Napoléon Bonaparte’s first wife, the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais. Unfortunately, she died two years later, when the carving was still in progress. Canova’s regret of not having delivered the work in time was deep. A few months before Joséphine died in 1814, the English politician John Russell, sixth Duke of Bedford, visited Canova’s atelier in Rome, being amazed at the processing artwork. After the death of the Empress, he offered to purchase “The Three Graces” but, when the carving was finally completed in 1817, it was legally requested by the son of the Empress, Eugène, born from her first marriage with Alexandre de Beauharnais.

After Eugéne’s death, “The Three Graces” were inherited by his son Maximilian, the grandson of Joséphine who was sent to Russia to take part in the cavalry maneuvers of 1837, as his father joined Napoléon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Unbelievably, he impressed the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, the daughter of the Russian Emperor, so far as to marry him after two short years, despite the contrary opinion of her family, that saw Maximilian as belonging to a lower rank and as the direct descendant of a great enemy of Russia such as Napoléon. In spite of everything, love prevailed and the couple had seven children. “The Three Graces” followed Maximilian to Saint Petersburg and remained there after his death. Then, in 1901, the Italian sculpture joined the collection of the Hermitage Museum, the second-largest art complex in the world and a notorious can’t-miss time travel in the heart of Saint Petersburg.

the three graces
The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg

Any old how, Canova had to listen to the prayers of the Duke of Bedford, who was still having dreams of owning that beautiful marble sculpture, which was only briefly seen in Rome. The Duke was indeed not descouraged and commissioned Canova a copy of “The Three Graces”. The artist completed the new artwork in about four years, making only a few simple changes, the biggest of which was chiseling the sculpture out of white instead of veined marble. Canova was so proud of this double and important commission that he traveled himself to England to deliver in person the sculpture to the Duke John Russell, taking also care of its installation in the specifically designed Temple of the Graces in Woburn Abbey, the Duke’s residence in Eastern England.

The appeal and the value of the “British” copy of the “Three Graces” created a dispute in 1994, when the masterpiece, after being offered for sale already in the 1980s, was ready to be purchased and exported overseas by the American Getty Museum, depriving the national artistic heritage of a unique piece. The British government denied the export licence to give local buyers more time to raise the money for keeping the sculpture at home. What happened is that, setting aside all the squabbles, Englishmen and Scots joined forces to find the funds necessary for acquiring the precious sculpture and keeping it in the United Kingdom, with a great display of national pride. The two buyers, supported by a large number of donors, were the Victoria and Albert Museum of London and the National Galleries of Scotland of Edinburgh, where nowadays “The Three Graces” are alternately displayed for seven years. The sculpture is now in London until 2020.

the three graces
Victoria & Albert Museum courtyard, London

Finally, talking about the three female figures in the carving, we should consider an important aspect that made the sculpture immortal: none of the women is turning her back on the viewer and their posing with the pelvis tilted to one side and the shoulder to the other — forming thus some sort of letter s — is still today the most used pose to take pictures of models or to represent the beauty of three subjects in an advertising campaign. Canova, with his Three Graces, not only rediscovered ancient arts, but also set future trends.