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Antonio Canova's Sculpture 'The Three Graces'

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The Three Graces, by Canova.

Made of marble, this sculpture depicts three sisters in an embrace. They are (from the left) Aglaia, the Goddess of Splendour; Euphrosyne, Goddess of Festivity; and Thalia, Goddess of Rejoicing; and they are the beautiful daughters of Jupiter1 and Aegle. Handmaidens to Venus, Goddess of Love, their role in mythology is small but they were a popular subject for artists of all kinds, from all over the world. They represent gracefulness, peace and happiness, but were also an ancient symbol of liberality. Aglaia gave splendour, Euphrosyne received jollity and mirth, and Thalia returned abundance.

Standing close together, the only covering they wear is a delicately placed drape. The Three Graces are traditionally shown with the sister in the middle facing backwards, but Canova has his beauties facing the same way, leaning in towards each other. Lovingly caressing the others, each sister is serene and peaceful, if somewhat erotic.

The Artist

Born in Italy in 1757, Antonio Canova was 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. His talents recognised, he was apprenticed to a sculptor named Giuseppe Bernardi (called 'il Torretti'), and moved to Venice. By the time he was 18, he had opened his first studio and in 1780 he moved to Rome where he settled. His style comes from the close study and understanding of ancient Roman sculptors; there is a theme of Greek and Roman mythology in his sculptures.

The Sculpture

Currently owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland, the Three Graces was commissioned by the Duke of Bedford for Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, UK after he saw a previous version commissioned by the Empress Josephine. Finished in 1814, it arrived at Woburn Abbey in 1816 where it stood in a purpose built temple in the Grade one listed building2, surrounded by other neo-classical sculptures for nearly two centuries. Despite the plinth being fixed to the floor, it did not constitute a part or 'fixture' under the legal definition, and there was a risk that it would be removed and sold.

In 1982 negotiations began between the Bedford Estates and the Museums and Galleries Commission to enable the sculpture to remain at Woburn Abbey, with access to the public to view the sculpture in its temple. These negotiations failed, and so the risk of sale remained. In 1990 a mysterious investment company bought the Three Graces, and the sculpture was removed from Woburn Abbey. It was kept in the UK while it was waiting for an export licence before being sent to the J Paul Getty Museum in California.

The Government refused to grant the export licence because they wanted to ensure that items of cultural heritage are retained in this country. After a lengthy legal battle during which the Getty museum had to wait to see if their offer would be matched by a British company, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland (with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and John Paul Getty II) matched the price and bought it jointly in 1994 for £7.6 million. The sculpture is exhibited by each museum in turn, spending approximately three years in each before moving again.

1The Roman names have been used for the gods and goddesses in this entry where possible because Antonio Canova was interested in ancient Roman sculptures.2A building officially designated as 'a building of exceptional historical or architectural interest', and therefore subject to severe restrictions with regards to alterations, and protected from demolition.

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