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Terracotta sculpture of the head of a boy with short, loose curls and wide eyes. The sculpture has many deep vertical cracks. Terracotta sculpture of the head of a boy with short, loose curls and wide eyes. The sculpture has many deep vertical cracks.

Canova: Sketching in Clay


This first exhibition to focus on Italian sculptor Antonio Canova’s lesser-known but unforgettable work in clay reveals how the artist developed his ideas—from the first brilliant spark of imagination to his laboriously finished statues.


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Renowned for marble statues that convey a sense of ideal beauty with remarkable lifelikeness, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) was the most celebrated European artist of his time. This exhibition focuses on a less-familiar aspect of his production: his clay sketches.

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Adam and Eve Mourning the Dead Abel, about 1818–22

Antonio Canova. Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. no. 286. Photography by Luigi Spina

Often produced at a lightning pace to capture his ideas, these works are in many ways the antithesis of his exquisitely finished marble sculptures. Visceral, expressive, and impressionistic, their surfaces visibly bear the pressing and pinching of the artist’s fingers, along with the gouges and scrapes of his tools.

Never publicly exhibited or commercially marketed during his lifetime, these intimate sculptures are more than mere records of the artist’s skill as he raced to capture his thoughts in three-dimensional form, more than just a step in the process of making a work of art; they are extraordinary works of art in themselves.

More than half of the approximately 60 surviving terracotta sketches and models by Canova held in both private and public collections across Europe and the United States come together for this exhibition, many of which have been rarely seen in public. These works, complemented by related plaster casts and finished marbles, invite us into the artist’s creative, technical, and workshop processes, prompting a deeper understanding of Canova’s career and methods, from his beginnings in Venice in the late 1770s to his death in Rome in 1822.

Canova: Sketching in Clay is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Emerson Bowyer, Searle Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe, Art Institute of Chicago, and C. D. Dickerson III, senior curator of European and American art, National Gallery of Art.


A scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition and explores how and why Canova created his clay sketches and models. Findings from extensive technical research carried out for the show reveal the steps Canova took in making his works, as well as the tool marks or modeling gestures that distinguish his style. Learn more.


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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