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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on January 5, 2024
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Antonio Canova is one of the most famous Italian sculptors in history and worked within the Neoclassical style.


He was a multi-skilled Venetian artist that also produced impressive paintings and drawings.

The sculptor drew in influences from a variety of sources, boosted by his travels around his native Republic of Venice as well as journeys into other parts of what we now know as Italy, plus also the UK and France. Canova's most significant time in the Papal States of Italy outside of Venice was in Rome, where he spent nearly two decades between the years of 1780-1797.

Travels Abroad

It appears that his travels abroad were highly beneficial in promoting his reputation across the continent as a whole and many have claimed that by around the year 1800, Canova was actually the most respected living artist in all of Europe. Once one considers the famous names that would have been around at that time, such as Caspar David Friedrich, JMW Turner and also the British artist and poet, William Blake, it really is an impressive tag to have been given and was entirely merited.

Canova's upbringing was very influential on his career, including both his positive and negative experiences. His grandfather would take care of him after his own parents went through a turbulent few years. The difficulties that they went through would also damage the artist's own mind, to a certain degree, and the sadness that he felt about their problems is believed to have fostered the sensitive nature to his artistic work many years later.

He is seen as a deep thinking, caring individual whose character came out in his famous sculptures, and one's upbringing as a child is always key in shaping one's personality and behaviour. Grandfather Pasino was a sculptor and stonemason who both encouraged his grandson to experiment with these different techniques but also could provide all necessary tools to an enthusiastic young boy. They were based in his home near Treviso, which is close to Venice and also boasts a significant network of canals itself.

Antonio Canova's Most Famous Sculptures

There are many who believe that Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss was Canova's finest sculpture. It was inspired by a Roman painting, which fits perfectly with this sculptors approach to Neoclassical sculpture, as well as his own understanding and ability with in painting. Mythology would also play a key role in his inspiration for a number of different marble sculptures right across his career. Canova actually found this inspiration during a visit to the south of the country, namely Naples.

There are elements to this sculpture that some claim points to the movement towards Romanticism that was to impact large parts of the European art world over an extended period. The artist's ability to create form and give it a sensual look and touch through marble was very much a characteristic that helped Canova stand out from all others during this era.

The sculpture which has received the most focus from Canova's career would have to be The Three Graces, an uplifting piece that features a stunning composition of three female figures. Many academics at the time and since have applauded this piece as his best, both technically and also aesthetically. It is a topic that has been tackled by a number of artists but it is this sculptor's that remains the most respected, at least within this art form.

It was such a popular creation that other donors came in and requested their own versions, meaning that there are now many different interpretations of the same theme from within his career, and it also retains the greatest focus because of the number of original pieces that still exist across the continent.

George Washington was one of the most significant individuals in global history, serving as he did as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Many artists have produced portraits of this key individual, some as commissioned pieces, others as devotional gestures.

Antonio Canova produced a life-size status of George Washington in marble and it was to be his only piece produced for display in the United States. It was the State of North Carolina who commissioned the piece in 1815 and it was eventually finished around five years later. It underlined how this nation was still connected to the roots of its past, both for better and for worst.

The artist worked within a turbulent time for his nation, which included an invasion by the Napoleon army. This merging of boundaries between France and elements of Italy would continue for some time but Canova was clever enough to engineer a position where he could work for both sides. This led to a series of pieces for Napoleon himself, as well as various members of his family and wider circle.

The most respected work from this would have been his Bust (Colossal Head) of Napoleon Bonaparte which was well received and helped to keep this politically-neutral artist in favour and also ensured that his financial future was ensured. There has been a history of artists who have fallen out of favour because of their inability to avoid controversial statements, but also many like Canova who were able to roll with the times in order to keep their career going.

Related Famous Sculptors

The impact of Michelangelo's sculptures cannot be overestimated although his career is still discussed with a broad focus right across his achievements, rather than just this single discipline. He would have provided inspiration to most of the other names featured here, including Canova. He also demonstrated about how the skills of a draughtsman are essential to providing the basis to planning and designing sculptures, whatever the theme.

The Renaissance Man was incredibly ambitious and open minded, finding the time and motivation to attack all manner of subjects for creativity, including literature and architecture, besides the stunning series of frescoes which decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Just that on its own is amongst the highlights in European art history, before we even discuss the other elements of his career. A true master in every way, and perhaps most skilled of all as a sculptor.

Another highly notable sculptor was Donatello, someone who worked in marble just as Canova would later do, but also several other materials too including wood and bronze. This was a Florentine who was born into a truly artisan family and he would immediately be introduced to an artistic culture, of which he would immediately show a great promise for.

He was fortunate enough to come under the teaching of Lorenzo Ghiberti, another key figure from a generation earlier who was able to instill in his young students some exceptional technical knowledge as well as a broad understanding of the artistic world more generally. Donatello would rise to become blessed with some highly significant donors, including Cosimo de' Medici, and this ensured that his career would remain well financed throughout.

One can see how the young Donatello learnt his craft by admiring some of the sculptures of Lorenzo Ghiberti, a respected artist who took on a variety of different artistic commissions during his lifetime. His two sets of doors were his most famous contributions and feature some beautifully designed panels right across each one. They have faded in recent centuries but can still be appreciated at first hand.

His tutoring also went as far as literature, with the artist writing several different publications during his own lifetime which aimed at passing on what he had learnt across his own career. Much of his work was based on religious themes, including a whole series of works that captured different events in the life of Jesus Christ.

The earlier achievements in sculpture were carried on by Gian Lorenzo Bernini who created the Baroque style of this discipline. He took inspiration from classic mythology but also produced a large number of portraits for donors based in Rome, the city in which he spent most of his career. Bernini produced a large number of busts but also much larger pieces on occasion.

The Baroque movement brought in new ideas across the art world which pushed things on after the achievements of the Renaissance era. Bernini played a significant role within the realm of sculpture, whilst other famous names developed painting styles in a similar direction. Whilst he was in Rome, others contributed from other parts of the Papal States, including Venice and Florence.

The 20th century would bring in a whole host of new sculptors, as well as a whole variety of new ideas and styles. Modern art, dominating from just after WWII, allowed artists to take this art form into some extraordinary new directions, which were far removed from the masters of the Renaissance. Perhaps the most famous of all of these artists were three men who were actually skilled across a variety of different mediums, namely Miro, Dali and Picasso.

These three Spaniards were different in there approaches but all ambitious and expressive, choosing to take their paintings into a third dimension through sculpture. None of them stopped there, either, with ceramics, drawings and more being found in their respective oeuvres by the end of their careers. Perhaps it was Picasso who was the most productive, with works numbering in the many thousands, but they all left a huge impact of European modern art.