European Art: Paintings & Sculpture

European Art: Paintings & Sculpture

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 48. AFTER ANTONIO CANOVA | THE THREE GRACES.

Lot Closed

June 18, 01:46 PM GMT


100,000 - 150,000 GBP

Lot Details





white marble, on a white marble plinth

group: 177 by 99cm., 69⅝ by 39in.

plinth: 79cm., 31⅛in.

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Antonio Canova’s Three Graces is one of the outstanding masterpieces of European sculpture. The composition is an icon of western art which stands at the end of an ancient tradition exemplified by the famous Roman group, Les Trois Grâces, in the Louvre which had been restored by Nicolas Cordier (1567-1612).

Canova’s composition shows the three daughters of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Each of the young women personify sacred gifts to humanity: Euphrosyne (mirth), Aglaia (elegance) and Thalia (youth and beauty). Canova’s three beauties face the viewer, gently embracing each other in harmonious gestures. The central Grace draws her sisters inwards whilst demurely tilting her head as her sisters look upwards, creating a gentle flowing cadence. The three are bound together by a single drape, which wraps around their arms and legs and falls in elegant swallow tail folds. Behind them stands a sacrificial altar, festooned with garlands, evoking the ancient Greek religion of which their father sits at the top of the Pantheon. Whilst the Graces were depicted in art throughout the ages, Canova’s composition has become so famous that it is now synonymous with the subject.

Conceived during the celebrated sculptor’s artistic maturity, the prime version of the Three Graces was commissioned by Napoleon’s estranged wife, the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais in 1812. Several years later, in 1815, as it was nearing completion the Three Graces was seen by John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, who proclaimed that ‘I have seen nothing in ancient or modern sculpture that has given me more pleasure’. Since Joséphine passed away in the intervening years, the Duke attempted to acquire it for himself, but was unable to do so since Canova nobly honoured the commission and sold it to her son Prince Eugène de Beauharnais. Canova therefore decided to carve a second version for the Duke, executed between 1815 and 1817. This version, said to be the sculptor’s favourite, was transported to the Duke of Bedford’s home, Woburn Abbey, and installed in a purpose built Temple of the Graces designed by the celebrated Regency architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766-1740). The situation was personally selected by Canova so that the marble was perfectly lit, and the Graces were placed on a revolving 18th-century base, then thought to be antique.

Canova’s prime version is now the in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the star of the museum’s matchless collection of the artist’s work. The Woburn version is in collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Canova was responsible for several drawings of the subject of the Graces earlier in his career and he made a terracotta bozzetto of the subject in 1810. Both marbles appear to have been carved from the same pointed plaster which is now in the Gipsoteca at Possagno, though the second version has various alterations such as a round columnar altar lacking garlands.

The present group is one of a number of later copies probably made in Italy around the turn of the last century. Its sale presents collectors with the opportunity to acquire an image of Canova’s masterpiece, which would create visual impact in any classical home or garden. Sotheby’s holds the world auction record of a marble by Antonio Canova, which was established when his Bust of Peace achieved £5.3million in our London Treasures sale in 2018.


T. Clifford et al., The Three Graces: Antonio Canova, exh. cat. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1995; H. Honour, ‘Canova's Studio Practice-II: 1792-1822’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 114, No. 829, Apr., 1972, pp. 214, 216-229; P. Williamson, ‘Acquisition of Sculpture at the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992-1999’, in: Burlington Magazine, Dec. 1999, CXLI, p. 787, fig. XIV; M. Baker, Figured in Marble. The Making and Viewing of Eighteenth-Century Sculpture, London, 2000, p. 150, fig. 119 and p. 151; D. Bindman, Warm Flesh, Cold Marble - Canova, Thorvaldsen and their Critics, New Haven and London, 2014, p. 104, ill. p. 105, fig. 45; M. Trusted, The Return of the Gods: Neoclassical sculpture in Britain, London, 2008, no. 5; S. Grandesso, Canova Thorvaldsen: La nascita della scultura moderna, exh. cat. Galleria d’Italia, Milan, 2019