Your Collection: Dancer by Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova, Dancer (1818–1822), marble, 172.7 cm. NGC

Looking for all the world as if she’s about to step off her pedestal and back into the intricate pattern of a nineteenth-century dance, Dancer (1818–1822) by Antonio Canova (1757–1822) is a striking feature of the 18th- and 19th-century European galleries at the National Gallery of Canada.

Son of a stonecutter and grandson to a sculptor, Canova was born on the mainland near Venice. Canova was precocious, mastering his art at an early age, and soon caught the attention of Venice’s leading patrons, working on both private and public commissions.

Moving to Rome in 1779, he continued to study from the antique while producing large-scale works including both reinterpretations of subjects from Classical mythology and monuments to the great and good. By the early 19th century, he had made a name for himself, not only in Italy, but in England, France and even America. Patrons appreciated his remarkable skill in carving marble, but even more his ability to revitalize ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. His work was seen as continuing an ancient tradition, even surpassing it, making him one of the most celebrated artists of his age.

Canova was known for carving multiple versions of his favourite sculptures, and Dancer is no exception. The first version — now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — was produced for Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. When the work was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1812, one critic wrote, “The novelty of both the concept and the figure’s action, the charm of life and the illusion of movement in this, the simplest of compositions, made all Paris run to it, as if to a new play. I doubt that in the theatre, the most celebrated dancer has ever gathered such a crowd of admirers and received such applause.”


Antonio Canova, Dancer (detail) [1818–1822], marble. NGC

Canova’s second version of Dancer was commissioned in 1817 by English collector Sir Simon Clarke. It was not uncommon for artists to play with a concept until they felt they had gotten it right. Indeed, it was almost expected that an artist would rework sculptures and paintings, re-expressing an idea and making slight improvements each time.

Canova himself was fastidious when it came to modifying or reproducing one of his works, and never left the new iterations to his assistants. When it came to Clarke’s Dancer, Canova himself worked on the sculpture over the next few years — while simultaneously working on many other such commissions — finishing it shortly before his death at the age of 64. This second version of Dancer is the one in the National Gallery of Canada.

When Clarke received the final work, he built a small “temple” to house the sculpture on the grounds of his stately home. Clarke was not alone in giving Canova’s sculpture this kind of special treatment, suggesting just how important Canova was at the time, and how much attention patrons gave to the display of art and the overall viewing experience.

When acquired by the Gallery in 1968, Dancer hadn’t been cleaned in years. Although conservator Mervin Ruggles carried out some minor stain removal shortly after the acquisition, the work still suffered from the accumulated dirt and stains of decades spent in private collections, as well as some additional superficial grime over the ensuing years. This made it difficult to properly appreciate the delicate carving, as well as the play of light over the sculpture’s surface, the subtle contrast between the white marble and cast shadows, and the translucency of the material itself.

To remedy this, the Gallery’s Senior Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Doris Couture-Rigert, undertook an in-depth examination of the sculpture in preparation for its treament. This included, among other things, diagnostic methods such as 2D digital x-ray imaging, reflective UV imaging, and elemental and chemical analyses. A comprehensive surface cleaning followed, which Couture-Rigert carried out using various drycleaning methods, solvent- and water-based techniques. The outcome is both subtle and stunning.


Doris Couture-Rigert, Senior Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, carries out a comprehensive surface cleaning of Antonio Canova, Dancer (1818–1822), marble, 172.7 cm. NGC. Photo: NGC

As part of the conservation process, Couture-Rigert travelled to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where she examined Canova’s first iteration of the sculpture in great detail. Not only did her treatment of the Gallery’s Dancer make it possible to “read” the work in all its flawless beauty, but Couture-Rigert is also continuing her research on both versions which, when published, will reveal subtle variations between the two works, and provide additional insight into Canova’s artistic practice.

Although the way a work is displayed may seem unimportant, it is in fact crucial to the overall viewing experience. Key factors include establishing an appropriate viewing height, determining the relationship of a work to the architectural space, and setting its relationship to visitors.

Over the years, Canova’s Dancer has been displayed on bases of more than one design. The most recent of these was a low, grey box. This sort of minimalist display was common in galleries during the latter part of the 20th century, but was far from historically accurate.

Canova took a keen interest in how his sculptures were displayed, as did his patrons. Sculptures of this kind were usually put on pedestals, placing them at an ideal viewing height, while also separating them from the general décor. These were, after all, works of art, and were expected to be celebrated and set apart.

Antonio Canova, Dancer (1818–1822), marble, 172.7 cm. NGC

Accordingly, the National Gallery of Canada had a new base designed and built for Canova’s Dancer. The obvious choice of material was marble. As for design, Gallery staff looked at pedestals made during the early 19th century, as well as bases designed by Canova himself. The eventual design was a model found in a European collection, designed by Canova.

The model required some adaptation. The shape was retained, but the elaborate carving was greatly simplified, the idea being to suggest a marble pedestal from the early 19th century, rather than slavishly copy an existing one. The sculpture now sits much higher than before, which is more in keeping with the way it would originally have been displayed.

In another bow to tradition, brass handles have been added to the base. Although decorative rather than functional, the handles refer to a common practice at the time the work was created. By building a turntable into a work’s pedestal, sculptors and their patrons could turn a work to catch the perfect light, or to show off additional views. Although rotating pedestals are rarely used today, metal handles are often found on the bases of sculptures in European museums.


Detail of a brass handle added to the pedestal of Antonio Canova, Dancer (1818–1822). NGC

Cleaned, restored and now displayed at the proper height, Canova’s life-sized Dancer can be seen in the 18th- and 19th-century European galleries at the National Gallery of Canada.

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