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

Bulletin 11 (VI:1), 1968

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 5 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 6 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 7 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 8 here for an enlarged image

Canova's Statue of a Dancer

by Hugh Honour

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4

Clarke said that his dancer was a much improved "replique" of the statue carved for Josephine. Cicognara's catalogue describes it as a "Danzatrice, ripetizione della prima con moite differenze, pei Sig. Simone Clarke a Londra." (30) As Canova employed the pointed gesso modello which had served for the first version, the variations are not immediately striking: they are numerous but very subtle - refinements on refinements in fact. Canova was always seeking to improve his manner of carving, especially the rendering of hair and drapery. One is reminded of Luigi Zandomeneghi's account of Canova's inspecting antique statues in the Villa Ludovisi and turning to him with tears in his eyes, saying: "Anche io nella Tersicore, nelle Danzatrici, nell'Elena, nella Pace, ho voluto pettinare: ma, e ho io pettinato cosi? Anche io ne' panni ho cercato ii trattamenti diversi ...e ii ho io ottenuti?" (31)

In order to appreciate the subtleties of Canova's statues one must understand his working practice. This was as follows: after beginning with drawings (fig. 5) and small clay bozzetti he gradually proceeded to the creation of a clay modello as large as the final statue.

This was finished with great precision and a plaster cast taken of it. Metal points were inserted in the cast and with these as guides the assistants in the studio roughed out the statue from a block of marble. Canova himself then resumed work, carving the entire surface of the figure, often varying details, especially of hair and drapery, and giving them a more lively articulation than in the modello. According to Mrs. Eaton, "the last finishing touches he generally gives by candlelight." (32) To erase the marks of the chisel on smooth portions of the marble - notably the flesh - he finally polished the surface with pumice stone. The extent of his work on the marble naturally varied from statue to statue. But it is significant that after his death not one of his assistants proved himself capable of achieving the astonishing effects of texture which distinguish all his authentic works and must therefore be ascribed to his hand alone.

Comparison between the National Gallery of Canada's statue (fig. 6) and the Dancer in the Hermitage (fig. 7) reveals that many minor adjustments were made to the folds of the dress, which is rendered in a slightly smoother manner. But the most obvious difference is in the treatment of the face, which is altogether more lively. The locks of hair on the forehead are a little simpler and flatter, the eyelids are much less prominent, the cheeks are leaner, the nose is sharper, the lips are less sensuous and wider apart. It almost seems as if Canova had wished to transform the sultry - and perhaps rather sulky-figure he had, not inappropriately, carved for Josephine, into his idea of a fresh English beauty. The face of the second version certainly has a vivacity better fitted to the elegant sprightliness of the pose.

The figure was reproduced so frequently in the nineteenth century and has become so familiar that one tends to overlook the striking originality of the composition. (33) As we have already seen, the statue was conceived quite simply as a dancer, and Canova was reluctant to dignify her with a classical name. This is very significant. When he had first settled in Rome in 1780, abandoning the naturalistic rococo style of his early youth for the neo-classical , he soon won the title of the "continuer of the Antique." Like all great neo-classical artists he sought, not to copy antique statues, but to learn from them, to work in their spirit and perhaps excel them. In a number of statues he measured himself against the creators of the antique marbles, which were then the most highly regarded works of art in Europe. In carving the two boxers, Creugas and Damoxemus, he attempted to realise an antique group known only from a description by Pausanias. His Perseus and his Venere Italica were executed as substitutes for the Apollo, Belvedere and the Medici Venus taken to Paris by Napoleon. To the more hidebound the carving of these figures smacked of hubris. But Canova seems to have had no fear of divine retribution. In his Hercules and Lichas he attempted to go one better than the author of the Farnese Hercules by showing the gigantic muscular figure sprung into violent action.

There were, of course, a few hostile critics who regarded Canova as no more than a pasticheur. But, as Ouatremère de Ouincy remarked at the end of a passage in which he drew the usual neo-classical distinction between the copy and the imitation, "Nous croyons, qu'entre les ouvrages de Canova....on auroit quelque peine à en trouver un dont le sujet, dont l'idée, dont la composition, dont le caractère et l'ensemble puissent paroître, non pas une redite formelle, mais même (excepté peut-être le Persée) une approximation sensible d'une figure antique...." (34) In carving his Dancer - or rather, his three dancers, one with her hands on her hips, one with her finger on her chin, the third flourishing cymbals above her head (35) - he produced statues which had no precedent in antiquity. To quote Ouatremère again, "en parcourant la suite de ses trois Danseuses, on est forcé de reconnoître que Canova ne trouva dans aucune statue antique, aucun antécédent, à quoi pouvoir s'assimiler. Effectivement, nous ne connoissons de Danseuses représentées par la sculpture des anciens, qu'en petites figures de bas-relief, ou bien, si l'on veut, quelques Bacchantes, qui, sur des vases ou des frises, sont vues dans des attitudes plus appropriées à la course qu'à la danse."

But if Canova had been motivated partly by a desire to outdo antiquity, and perhaps to silence those who accused him of being a copyist, he must also have been inspired by his lifelong interest in the theatre. The diary which he kept in 1779 and 1780, on his first visit to Rome and Naples, reveals him as an appreciative spectator of the ballet. In Rome, for instance, he saw Cimarosa's Tito Manlio and noted the names of the principal dancers, Onorato Vigano and Giacomo Tantin (the latter in a female role); in Naples he saw at the San Carlo theatre "due bellissimi balli di Monsieur Piche, uno rappresentava il ratto delle Sabine, e l'altro era un balo di mazzo carattere." (36) The dance theme first appears in his work in a low relief of The Dance of the Sons of Alcinous modelled between 1783 and 1790. (37) In 1795 he began a statue of Hebe in a dancing posture. (38) Numerous dancers appear in a series of gouache paintings which he probably executed at Possagno after he had fled from Revolutionary Rome in 1798. At about the time when he was beginning work on the dancer for Josephine he modelled a relief of the Dance of the Three Graces. (39) And at Bassano there is a witty self-portrait drawing which shows Canova seated with pencil and sketch-book while a ballerina prances beside him (fig. 8). (40) It is not possible to say how far these works were inspired by dancers he had actually seen in the theatre. But Canova's statues may have had some influence  on the ballet. Three poems in praise of a ballerina performing in Venice in 1815 are illustrated with engravings of Canova's dancer with her hands on her hips, the dancer with her finger on her chin, and the sons of Alcinous. (41)

Next PageNotes

1  |  2  |  3  |  4

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"