Thursday, August 1, 2013

Canova’s ‘The Three Graces’: From Marble to Meerschaum

by Ben Rapaport
Nudes were depicted in sculpture and vase paintings by the ancient Greeks, in Roman wall paintings at Pompeii, Botticelli’s allegorical painting, Springtime, Titan’s Venus With a Mirror, Goya’s Nude Maja and Canova’s The Three Graces," just a few examples of this art genre…
Significance of the Number Three

To the Chinese, three is a perfect number; to the Mayan, the sacred number of woman; Egyptians saw it as the number of the cosmos; to the Japanese, it is three treasures: truth/courage/compassion. In Christianity, the Trinity and concepts such as body/mind/spirit, refer to the makeup of a human being. We have been encouraged to live and act in faith/hope/charity. The combination of thought, word, and deed is the sum of the capability of humans. As Paul Fussell claims:

In early Christianity the enemies are three: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, just as the virtues are three: Faith, Hope, and Charity. And in adjacent mythologies there are three Furies, three Graces, and three Harpies, Norns, or Weird Sisters (Fussell 1975, 128).

The Artist

Antonio Canova was born in Italy in 1757, the son of a stonemason. When his mother remarried in 1762 after his father’s death, he was sent to live with his grandfather, also a stonemason and sculptor. 

Self portrait, 1790, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

His talents recognized, he was apprenticed at the age of twelve to the sculptor Giuseppe Bernardi and moved to Venice. 

A terracotta sculptural model of Saint John the Evangelist by Giuseppe Bernardi. Part of a larger set of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

By the time Antonio Canova was 18, he had opened his first studio, and in 1780 he moved to Rome. His style comes from the close study and understanding of ancient Roman sculptors, and there is a consistent theme of Greek and Roman mythology in all his sculptures. 

 Napoléon Empereur, white marble bust by Antonio Canova (1757 - 1822)
 H : 50 - L : 28 - P : 22 cm.

Canova is considered the quintessential sculptor and in all respects, until perhaps the maturity of Rodin, he was the role model for all aspiring sculptors.

The Sculpture

Artists throughout the ages have found ‘The Three Graces’ an appealing subject. They were depicted in Greek sculpture and vase paintings, 

in Roman wall paintings at Pompeii, 

Three Graces/Charites from Pompeii, Archaeological Museum in Naples

in later, allegorical paintings, and in the marble statue of Canova. Their prominence in the world of art is somewhat surprising, because their role in mythology was not great. Canova sculpted more than a dozen figural groups in marble and cast-plaster, but none of equivalent beauty of ‘The Three Graces’ - considered the most expensive sculpture in the world - frequently depicted as Rubenesque-looking sisters with their hands on each other’s shoulders, the two outer figures looking one way, and the middle one looking the other; it stands approximately five feet, four inches in height.

Duke of Bedford

The Duke of Bedford commissioned this sculpture for Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England,

Woburn Abbey

after he saw a previous version commissioned by the Empress Josephine. Finished sometime between 1814 and 1817, it arrived at the Abbey in 1819 where it was surrounded by other neo-classical sculptures for nearly two centuries.

Canova’s sculpture of the three graces commissioned by the Duke of Bedford, carved between 1814 and 1817.

Frederick, Earl of Carlisle heaped praise on the sculpture in his paean, ‘To The Duke of Bedford on His Group of the Three Graces’:

Tis well in stone to have three Graces, With lovely limbs, and lovely faces; But better far, and not in stone, To have the Three combined in One (Howard 1820, 60).

Detail of Canova’s sculpture of the three graces

The three Graces were the daughters of the god Zeus and the nymph Eurynome, three sister goddesses who attended Venus, the goddess of love. 

An attic red figure vase at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts depicting Eurynome, Himeros, Hippodamia, Eros, Iaso, and Asteria.

They were an ancient symbol of liberality: Aglaia (Splendor, or Elegance), who gave away; Euphrosyne (Mirth), the sister who received; and Thalia, (Good Cheer, or Youth and Beauty), who gave back. 

In Greek mythology, they are the goddesses of joy, charm, and beauty. They presided over banquets, dances, and all other pleasurable social events, and brought joy and goodwill to both gods and mortals. They were the special attendants of the divinities of love, Aphrodite and Eros, and together with companions, the Muses, they sang to the gods on Mount Olympus, and danced to beautiful music that the god Apollo made upon his lyre. 

 The Council of Gods, Rafael, 1518, Villa Farnesina, Florence

In some legends Aglaia was wed to Hephaestus, the craftsman among the gods. They were believed to endow artists and poets with the ability to create beautiful works of art. They were almost always together as a kind of triple embodiment of grace and beauty. In art they are usually represented as lithe young maidens, dancing in a circle, a popular subject for artists of all kinds around the world. Standing close together, the only covering they wear is a delicately placed drape. They are traditionally shown with one sister in the middle facing backwards, but Canova has his beauties all facing the same way, leaning in towards each other. Although veiled for modesty, one can admire how lifelike Canova’s white marble statue is, the freedom in the arms, the delicacy in the hands, the elegance of their coiffures, and the affectionate manner in which the three entwine; lovingly embracing the others, each sister is serene and peaceful.

Expressions in Art and Literature

Canova’s model has been replicated many times on canvas and in etchings. Perhaps the earliest discovered is ‘The Three Graces’, a fresco by an unknown Roman artist, 79 A.D., found at Pompeii.

Three Graces/Charites from Pompeii, Archaeological Museum in Naples

Sir Peter Paul Rubens, ‘The Three Graces’; 

George Frederick Watts, ‘The Three Graces’; 

Jacques Louis David, ‘Mars Disarmed by Venus and The Three Graces’; 

Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België

Lucas Cranach the Elder, ‘The Three Graces’; 

Sandro Botticelli.

c. 1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence


ca 1505, Chateau de Chantilly, France
Jacopo Carucci; 

‘The Three Graces’ by John Singer Sargent; 

and many others. There are also expressions by three contemporary artists, Linda Apple, Gary Kaemmer, and Michael Parkes

And that’s not everything painted, sculpted, etched, chiselled, and carved of this subject. 

So famous was this sculpture that several books have been written about it and Canova, as well as a few reprises in other mediums, among them, Edward Granville, The Three Graces. A Comedy in One Act (1889); 

Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, The Three Graces, a classical and comical, musical and mythological burlesque in two acts (1853); The Duchess (pseudo.), The Three Graces (1895), and The Three Graces, a 1988 Russian opera-parody composed by Vladimir Tarnopolsky. 

No doubt, there is much more that I have not cited, so is it any surprise, then, with all the interest, attention, and notoriety that Canova’s sculpture had received, someone decided to carve its likeness in meerschaum?

Replicate Art in Meerschaum

Even in the nineteenth century, an early stage of globalization was operative in a regional sense. Think of it: Greece, Rome, Rubens (Flemish), Canova (Italian), all having a slight degree of connection with the sculpture, ample evidence that communications of a limited kind traveled in those days.

And anyone who might have given thought to carving a meerschaum pipe or a cheroot holder in the sculpture’s likeness would have been a nineteenth century craftsman from Austria, Germany, or France; from about 1850 to 1925, these three countries had the most skilled carvers with agile hands and an eye for art. 

Canova’s sculpture was not only a challenge, but also an inspiration, to reproduce it in miniature, given an appropriate amount of raw material and the time to execute it. Who these unsung artisans were, how many might have undertaken the challenge, how many variant configurations might have been produced; all these questions remain a mystery never to be solved. A few carvers must have admired the sculpture sufficiently enough; after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. 

It is unfortunate that everyone can associate ‘The Three Graces’ with Canova, but without a clue of any kind, it is impossible to determine who might have carved the two meerschaum expressions illustrated in this article. 

I would like to believe that many other likenesses were produced, and that those others are still in existence somewhere in the world in private collections or in museum vaults. 

The first image is the property of a private American collector, a striking interpretation of ‘The Three Graces’ as a table pipe standing 31.5 inches in height including the pedestal, attributed to the Ludwig Hartmann Company, Vienna, 

for the 1873 Weltausstellung (World’s Fair) in that city.

Meerschaum table pipe depicting the ‘Three Graces’, c1873.

To create a functioning pipe, a few modifications and adaptations were required, and it is also evident that the artist used his discretion to make a few artistic changes, but the resemblance is unquestionable. Discounting the wood pedestal, these changes are readily apparent: the young women have been separated, the body drapes have been removed, and their arms uplifted to support a tray and a pitcher forming the pipe bowl. Added to this scene is a winged puto at the base, and a bird and a rose atop the underside of the tray.

The second expression, a cheroot holder, is considered to be a ‘one-off’ version, a variant, or The Three Graces updated for the genteel Victorian era. This 7-inch cheroot holder, made in the latter half of the nineteenth century,

Three Graces’ meerschaum cheroot holder, second half of the nineteenth century.

is also the property of an American collector. Here the three young women are transformed from scantily-clad nudes to prim and proper young ladies believed to be The Three Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity, one helmeted and one with a cornucopia; on the shank, below and in front are foliate scrolls; there is an amber mouthpiece and an amber insert in the silver wind cover. 

The third expression, this time a pipe of an earlier facture...

Private Collection

Just like Canova’s work, the products of these three unidentified meerschaum master-carvers are remarkable for their purity, beauty, simplicity and execution.

Today, there are porcelain, bronze, cold-cast marble, stone, and resin figurine-size replicas of the Three Graces for sale, and even tempera on paper of them dancing, but on reflection, other than Canova’s rendition in marble, and these two relatively similar artefacts in meerschaum - there may be yet more to be discovered - there are too few three-dimensional versions in other mediums that illuminate the beauty and finesse of his original in marble. That level of detail is not lost on the cheroot holder and, more specifically, the table pipe. 

In particular, the table pipe exhibits the affinity of the artist (or artists), an excellent example of handcraftmanship in one medium adapted to and transformed into another medium.


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