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A sculpture in smooth white marble featuring three nude women standing together, their arms draped around each other. A sculpture in smooth white marble featuring three nude women standing together, their arms draped around each other.

From Rough Clay to Polished Marble: A Close Look at Canova’s Process

Inside the Exhibition


The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova was renowned in his lifetime for his ability to give cold, hard marble the appearance of warm, supple skin.

From the early 1780s, when he unveiled his first major works in Rome, to his death in Venice in 1822, the rich and powerful in Europe, Britain, and even the United States clamored to acquire examples of his virtuosity in stone. Canova: Sketching in Clay, open now in Regenstein Hall, examines the long creative and technical processes that resulted in his famous marbles.

A sculpture in smooth white marble featuring three nude women standing together, their arms draped around each other.

The Three Graces, 1813–16

Antonio Canova. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. © Ghigo G. Roli / Art Resource, NY

Works like The Three Graces began as small and loosely modeled sketches—bozzetti in Italian— where the artist raced to materialize his ideas in clay. Unlike marble carving, in which stone is subtracted from a larger block, sculpting in clay is an additive process in which lumps of the soft material can be pressed together to create forms. Inexpensive and easy to manipulate, clay was an ideal substance for sculptors like Canova to use in developing their compositional ideas, although they had to work quickly: the material becomes increasingly fragile and brittle as it dries out. Firing the finished model by exposing it to extreme heat in a kiln hardens it into a more durable terracotta. 

A rough, small terracotta sculpture of three nude women standing and draping their arms around one another. The figure at left has a bent leg, part of which is missing. Their features are only vaguely suggested,and various lines left by raking tools are prominent throughout.

The Three Graces, 1812

Antonio Canova. Musei Civici, Bassano del Grappa, Inv. S 268. Photography by Luigi Spina

The surfaces of Canova’s sketches bear the traces of the artist’s fingers as he pressed and pinched the soft material, as well as the gouging and raking of his tools. The urgency of his modeling in sketches like Satyr and Nymph (Cupid and Psyche?) enhance the crackling energy of the writhing, entangled couple.

A small, rough terracotta sculpture of two male figures in physical combat, one on his back and reaching up to fight, the other upon him, reaching down. Rake lines from a shaping tool can be seen throughout.

Satyr and Nymph (Cupid and Psyche?), about 1786–87

Antonio Canova. Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. no. 36. Photography by Luigi Spina

Such sketches were increasingly prized by collectors during the 18th century. In 1769, for example, the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckleman argued that, for sculptors, sketching in clay “is like drawing on paper for a painter. And as the juice from the first pressing of grapes makes the best wine, so the genius of an artist is displayed in all its naturalness and truth in works in soft material or on paper.” In other words, sketches provide the most direct evidence of the artist’s hand.

A modern-day admirer of Canova’s, sculptor Fred Brownstein recently recreated his Venus using the artist’s 200-year-old techniques. In this video, he begins with a clay sketch.

Once Canova was happy with the basic idea for a composition, he produced more refined models in clay. Models—modelli—represented the most advanced stage in his preparation for large-scale sculptures. Meticulously finished and abundant in detail, they were often presented to his clients to show them how their finished statue would appear. Canova’s model for a monument to Pope Clement XIV, for example, was undoubtedly used for that purpose and was even painted white to imitate marble.

A highly detailed clay sculpture of a figure in an ornate tall hat and robes, as a pope would wear. The figure raises his right arm commandingly.

Pope Clement XIV, 1783

Antonio Canova. Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. no. 13. Photography by Luigi Spina

Many more steps lay between Canova’s first efforts to design a sculpture in clay and its realization in marble. Among his numerous challenges was how to move from small to large—from a sketch or model to a monumental statue. His solution was to rely on measuring tools and a mechanical process called pointing. As though he had a 3-D printer at his disposal, he could reproduce a model at a larger size by taking repeated measurements from it and proportionally enlarging them. This involved combinations of calipers, plumb lines, and metal pointing marks—black dots that served as fixed points for measuring, which appear on many of his surviving plasters.

Clay sculpture of the bust of a woman, her face turned downward in a sad expression. Small metal pointing dots, used for measuring, are present throughout the work.

Head of the Penitent Magdalene, about 1794–1809

Antonio Canova. Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. no. 82. Photography by Luigi Spina

Canova’s full-scale clay models were always cast in plaster, a powdery white substance that becomes a thick paste when mixed with water. Upon drying, it hardens to a chalky solid. The artist routinely used this relatively inexpensive material to make casts of his clay sketches and models. Plaster casts allowed him to preserve his clay compositions in a form durable enough to survive frequent handling in his studio, where they were shown to visitors and clients, copied, and used as models for his marbles.

Reproducing Canova’s methods, Brownstein creates a full-scale model in clay and casts it in plaster.

As Canova gained acclaim and his commissions multiplied, his studio in Rome expanded and became increasingly like a factory. He hired specialists to complete intermediary tasks in the production of his sculptures: formatores cast his clay models in plaster, practicians transferred his compositions from plaster to marble blocks and carved the basic forms of the figures, and lustratori cleaned marble dust from the surfaces of the finished sculptures and applied a final polish. Like the captain of a ship, Canova monitored each stage in the production of a marble, often making changes to the composition. His most personal involvement, however, was reserved for the initial sketching and modeling in clay and the final carving of the marble surface.

In a large, cavernous working space, many small figures of men, some working, some overseeing in long robes, are dwarfed by numerous monumental sculptures. At right are two such sculptures, seemingly identical, of Pope Clement XIV with his right hand commandingly raised.

View of Antonio Canova’s Studio in Rome, 1786

Francesco Chiaruttini. Civici Musei e Gallerie di Storia e Arte di Udine, Italy

Canova’s skill at carving marble was legendary. Although studio assistants did the initial carving, the artist himself completed the protracted and meticulous process of finishing the surfaces by carving, scraping, and rubbing. His friend Leopoldo Cicognara described this undertaking as a sensuous series of “kisses and caresses” as Canova worked to wear down the surrounding marble and reveal a figure.

After translating the plaster cast to marble, Brownstein completes the finishing process, Canova’s specialty.

Unlike his clay sketches, Canova’s marbles take refinement to its technical and conceptual limit. In works such as his life-size portrait of Napoleon’s mother—leaving England for the first time since 1818 to join our exhibition—the surface of the marble varies greatly as the eye passes over it. Canova has taken full advantage of the peculiar properties of marble: its remarkable potential for simultaneously evoking reflection, translucence, and opacity. Flesh, hair, and fabric are all meticulously delineated by their varying qualities of finish.

A large, finely polished sculpture in white marble of a seated woman partially reclining in robes, a wry smile of her face.

Madame Mère (Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte), 1805–7

Antonio Canova. The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth, SC 96. © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth, reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees/Bridgeman Images

Canova: Sketching in Clay introduces the fascinating and complex art of the production of a statue and focuses especially on Canova’s initial clay sketches, a rarely studied element of his work. Clay and marble, the exhibition demonstrates, were the alpha and omega of his practice. They represented, respectively, idea and execution, beginning and end.

—Emerson Boyer, Searle Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe

Canova: Sketching in Clay is on view in Regenstein Hall through March 18, 2024.


Lead support for Canova: Sketching in Clay is provided by an anonymous donor.

Major support is contributed by Lynda and Scott Canel & Family, Scott and Nancy Santi, the Julius Lewis/Rhoades Exhibition Endowment Fund, and Lorna Ferguson and Terry Clark. 

Additional funding is provided by the Jack and Peggy Crowe Fund.

Corporate Sponsor

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Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor, Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, Josef and Margot Lakonishok, Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff, Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.

Under the patronage of the National Committee for the Celebration of the Bicentenary of the Death of Antonio Canova, Ministry of Culture, Rome.



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