National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 11 (VI:1), 1968

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Canova's Statue of a Dancer

by Hugh Honour

Résumé en français

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Antonio Canova's statue of a dancer (fig. 1), recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, was completed in 1822 for an English patron, Sir Simon Houghton Clarke. Though a very late work - it was finished only a few months before Canova died - the Dancer is a capital example of the sculptor's style, revealing that complete mastery of the medium which had made him the idol of cognoscenti on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a technical tour de force.

The Dancer is the second version of a statue originally carved for the Empress Josephine, now in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad (fig. 2). Before proceeding to an account of the statue now in Ottawa, and of Canova's relations with Sir Simon Clarke, it will be necessary to say something of this earlier work. The circumstances of Josephine's commission are obscure. Canova's reputation as one of the leading sculptors of Europe had already been established before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and Napoleon himself seems to have had a high regard for his work. Shortly after Venice had capitulated to him in 1797, Napoleon found time to write to Canova: "J'apprends Monsieur, par un de vos amis, que vous êtes privé de la pension dont vous jouissez à Venise. La République Française fait un cas particulier des grands talents qui vous distinguent. Artiste célèbre, vous avez un droit particulier à la protection de l'Armée d'Italie. Je viens de donner l'ordre que votre pension soit exactement payée...." (1) And, as soon as he had been appointed Consul for Life, Napoleon summoned Canova to Paris to execute his portrait. On this occasion Canova met Josephine who, a few months earlier, had commissioned a statue of Hebe and a group of Cupid and Psyche from him. (2) These works were not sent to France until 1808. But in the meantime Canova began a statue of a dancer with her hands on her hips. It is tempting to suggest that Canova discussed this work with Josephine in 1802, though the earliest document concerning it dates from eight years later and refers to a price agreed with Cardinal Fesch (Madame Mère's half-brother}, who appears to have acted as an intermediary. (3)

The full-sized gesso modello for the statue (fig. 3), in the Gipsoteca at Possagno, is inscribed in Xbre 1806, which presumably records the date of its completion. (4) But it was not until December 1807 that Canova mentioned it in a letter to his friend Ouatremère de Ouincy: "Vi devo scrivere d'aver modellato una Ninfa del ballo, soggetto leggiadro, e che incontra molto nel publico gradimento, non altrimente di quello di un Paride poco piu grande del naturale, nudo..." (5) In December 1808 Canova agreed to execute this statue of Paris in marble for Josephine. (6) Work was proceeding on both statues in May 1810 when Canova wrote to tell Josephine's Independent General that he hoped to complete them before the end of the year. (7) But in October he was summoned again to Paris to model the portrait of Napoleon's new Empress, Marie-Louise. During his visit he went to see the divorced Josephine at Malmaison. (8) The final payment for the statues was, however, delayed until January 1812. (9) On 11 February Canova mentioned in a letter to Ouatremère that the Dancer was finished and the Paris "vicino ad essere terminato." They were both ready by 24 June when Canova wrote to ask about sending them to Malmaison. (10) There had been a plan to show them, and also the Terpsichore Canova had carved for Conte Sommariva, at the 1812 Salon. They reached Paris after the opening. The Dancer does not seem to have been put on show until January of the following year and Josephine refused to allow the Paris to be exhibited. (11)

On 13 January 1813 Quatremère wrote to tell Canova of the great critical success his statues in the Salon were enjoying: "Ho veduto la vostra 'Danzatrice.' Essa far impazzir tutti. In verità non credo si possa imaginare nè un motivo più nuovo e semplice insieme, nè una mossa più leggiadra, nè un partito di panni più grazioso. Non posso esprimervi quanta consolazione mi ha dato questa figura; perchè la vostra riputazione non aveva di certo patito diminuzione con la 'Tersichore,' ma il suo successo essendo stato languido, i vostri gelosi e rivali trionfavano un poco in cuor loro, stimandosi qui che in fatto di opinione chi non procede va indietro. Ma or vi assicuro che siete proclamato l'unico scultore. E v'assicuroche dopo viste le vostre statue, tut te le altre sono restate marmo, e niente altro che marmo." (12) Canova must have been cheered by this fulsome praise, but he was distressed to hear that the author of an article in the Journal de l'Empire and other people in Paris were referring to the Dancer as another representation of Terpsichore. He promptly wrote to Ouatremère de Ouincy, on 21 February, to Ennio Ouirino Visconti the next day and again to Ouatremère on the 23rd. (13) In the letter to Visconti, which has recently been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada; 'he began by asking for a candid opinion of the statues sent to Paris (the report in the Journal de l'Empire was, he said, an "elogio superiore alle mie aspettazione"). He then turned to the question of the name: "Mi permetta solamente di prevenirla, che il Giornalista prese un'equivoco nell'appropriare il nome di Tersicore anche all'altra figura di Donna in atto di ballare. Mia intenzione prima non fu da rappresentar in essa una Musa, mauna Danzatrice." He had, however, looked into Visconti's own publications and found that the Dancer might be given the name of Erato, .'musa della danza amorosa." He ended by assuring Visconti that "se io avessi pensato di rappresentare una Musa mi sarei creduto obbligato ad uno stile più severo e meno giocondo." The letter reveals both Canova's respect for Graeco-Roman iconography and his desire to break away from it.

Canova's remarks on the subject of the statue appear to have been passed on to C.P. Landon, author of Annales du Musée. Salon de 1812 (Paris, 1813), who correctly described the statue as "une danseuse moderne." His praise was not as unqualified as Quatremère's and he remarked: "C'est aux figures du Corrège que l'on comparerait sous bien des rapports les statues de M. Canova. Les unes et les autres rappellent ces sensations délicates de douceur et de volupté dont le charme fait oublier aisément quelques incorrections, quelques négligences, et doit désarmer le censeur le plus sévère." (14)

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