« PreviousContinue »
that he left Venice and went to Rome. Here he found a kind and active friend in Gavin Hamilton the painter, and as the sculptors of the capital had conceived no dread of his talents, they welcomed him warmly. He was soon admitted to the society of the learned and the noble, for Zuliana, the Venetian ambassador, introduced his young countryman to the judges and patrons of art-and, what was wiser and better, gave him an order for a group of Theseus and the Minotaur in marble. This enabled him to display his talents, and work without fear of wanting bread. The commission—we use the language of the profession -was kept a secret; the sculptor laboured incessantly, and in the summer of 1782 at a banquet given on purpose by Zuliana, the marble group was shown by torch-light to the first men in Rome. They stood for some time looking at the hero as he rested himself on the body of the monster which he had slain, and then with one voice pronounced it to be one of the most perfect works which Rome had beheld for ages.' From this fortunate hour to the end of his life, he produced a rapid succession of statues and groups, which carried his fame far and wide over the world-noblemen from all countries and more particularly from Britain, purchased his works at any price; and the Pope, whilst he conferred a coronet and a pension on his friend, refused to allow some of his favourite works to go beyond the walls of Rome. His most zealous and also his most judicious patrons were Napoleon and the present king of England. Nor should the late amiable and excellent Lord Cawdor be forgotten, who discovered the merit of the sculptor long before his wide spread fame inspired the great vulgar,' with the desire to be numbered among his patrons. The story of Canova is told: he died in the fullness of fame at Venice, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.
Canova imagined that he had realized the boast of Lysippus, by commencing art where art itself began-in the study of nature. But nature was not used so wisely by the Venetian as by the Greek. He looked on it with an eye less simple and poetic, and brooded over it with a mind less vigorous and manly. An operastage taint infects all his earlier works; his most careful studies are full of extravagance; his figures are forced into painful action, and his dancing ladies labour hard to press all their beauties upon the curiosity of mankind. He gradually learned to feel the superiority of simplicity over affectation; and advanced from violent motion towards tranquil grace, from the sentiment of action towards that of repose. But he never wholly freed his conceptions from the opera malady; the rudiments of his youthful productions are still visible in the soberest efforts of his ripest years; that unhappy spirit would not be conjured away when
solenın thought was most wanted. Even in the statue of the Kneeling Magdalen there is enough of affectation to poison the charms of the most exquisite workmanship and the loveliest shape.
In the progress of Canova's taste, however, the student in sculpture may read a salutary lesson. He will see that nature must be looked upon with modest eyes; that her charms, as she sometimes chuses to display them, are not always suitable for his art; and that genius alone may hope to seize the grace of that composure which gives vigour to sentiment in proportion as it chastens action. He will see too how an artist may gradually emancipate himself from affectation and return to sobriety of conception, simplicity, and strength. But whilst he observes all this and lays up the lesson in his heart, he will likewise feel that there is hardly any entire escape to be made from early and long cherished impurity of style; that it still follows thought where thought should be most severe, and glides uninvited into the brightest dreams of the imagination. So was it. with Canova. No man ever missed the true feeling of sculpture so far, and returned towards it with such signal success. It is indeed no easy thing to sober down the darling style of our youth, to dismiss notions of excellence endeared by time, to give up some neat conceit, some sparkling absurdity long cherished and hallowed. The revolution which Canova accomplished was the labour of many years. In his youth, violence was vigour, affectation was grace, and the spirit of the startling and the staring was the novelty which he desired to infuse into sculpture. To work in this way was only to record in marble the fruitless throes of Nature, her artificial gestures and actions without soul. Look at his early Dancers, his Market of Love, his designs for Homer: no damsels of the ballet ever leaped so high, or exposed their charms so lavishly, or cut such painful capers as The first; no melo-dramatic heroines
so madly after the little god, showed :such ridiculous affection, and such absurd sorrow as the second; and for the third, take up Homer hinself, or Flaxman, and then say how poor were Canova's notions compared to the poet's verse and the Englishman's sketches. From such productions turn at once to his latter works, bis Pauline, his Mother of Buonaparte, his Endymion, his Magdalen-we mean his Recumbent, not his Kneeling Magdalen—and there can be no need to say another word concerning the affectation of his early, and the comparative simplicity of his concluding works.
Canova's genius, when he had gone so far in weaning it from its unnatural singularities, gave a new impulse to Italiau sculpture. Italy had long contented herself with vulgar transcripts of nature, and with a sordid adherence to the mere shapes of the antique. VOL. XXXIV. NO. LXVII.
The hunan form, clothed in grace and breathing many soft attractions, was something new. With an original power of conception immeasurably below the illustrious artists of Greece, he fairly rivalled them in the vivid grace and exquisite skill of his 'execution, and his success infused fresh life into the espiring arts of Roine. But if he looked impartially, as he imagined he did, to living nature and to finished art, for aid and inspiration, his true ambition was nevertheless to work in the antique spirit; he was far more anxious to re-create works which time had destroyed than to awake any new emotions by fresh images of life and loveliness. More than fifty of his groups and statues are from heathen history, fabulous or real, and most of them indeed bear the very names of works of Greece which the world has lost. The vanity of his nature made him aspire to restore the perished wonders of antiquity to their pedestals. The names of most of his productions will show the bent and aim of his mind;- Apollo crowning himself; Theseus and the Minotaur; Statue of Cupid; Venus crowning Adonis, with Cupid bringing Flowers; a Statue of Psyche; Briseis delivered to the Heralds; Socrates drinking the Poison; Return of Telemachus; Death of Priam; Procession of Trojan Matrons; Dance of the Daughters of Alcinous; Socrates: pleading before the Judges; Crito closing the eyes of Socrates; Cupid and Psyche recumbent; Adonis and Venus; Hebe pouring out Nectar; a winged Cupid; Venus dancing with the Graces; Death of Adonis; Birth of Bacchus; Socrates saving Alcibiades in battle; Cupid and Psyche standing; Perseus with Medusa's Head; Creugas and Damoxenus, boxers; Hercules destroying his children; Hercules and Lychas; Venus victorious; Venus coming out of the bath; Theseus combating the Centaur; a Dancing Nymph; Statue of Paris; Statue of Hector; Statue of the Muse Terpsichore; the Cymbal Nymph; the Garland Nymph; Statue of Ajax; the Muse Polyhymnia; group of the Graces; Recumbent Nymph listening to the Lyre of Cupid; Venus and Mars; Statue of Venus; Statue of Endymion; and many more of the same ancient families of heroes and gods.
Upon such materials historical accuracy compelled him to work, as much as his natural genius permitted him, in the antique spirit and character; and that he imagined he was working in that manner we have his own boast and the reproaches of his brother artists to assure us. When he was thinking of what Lysippus or Phidias had done, he was not consulting the emotions of his own bosom; when he was seeking to revive anew the demigods of Greece, he was casting away sense for the sake of shape: Could he feel as a Greek felt? What was Hecuba to him? The intense nationality of feeling, the genuine ardour with which of old
poets wrote, orators spoke, and artists modelled was all past and gone; it could neither be inherited nor revived, and the Grecian renovations of Canova are the weakest of all his productions.
Complete success was indeed impossible, and for the little he: gaived he paid a heavy penalty. He disobeyed the internal craving of the heart to stanıp upon the natural offspring
of imagination the forms and characters which live around us. He was obliged to forget his native country and all the emotions wbich home and kindred excite--in short, to think for a remote age and a strange people. He was compelled to surrender himself as far as he could to Greece, feel with other men's hearts, see through Athenian eyes, make judgment an alien, and wean his affections from all that he naturally loved. All this required some fortitude, a a little bad taste, and—after all-it perhaps could only be accom+ plished by a second rate spirit. Genius of a high and commanding order would always, in the language of Schiller, "guide the fu; ture rather than follow the past;' it fiuds matter fit for its use in the world it lives in, evokes, from among the materials of living life, forms of beauty and dignity, and impresses upon them a distinct image of its own time and nation. In this way Homer sung and Phidias carved, and indeed all the master minds of the world have never failed to embody in their works the form and pressure of their own days, purified and exalted according to their peculiar taste and genius. Against this historical precept Canova, in common with most modern sculptors, was a frequent rebel. Let no one say that he was driven into antiquity, by the rigour of modern dress—that he fled to Greece to enjoy the luxury of unattired nature. The free manners of Italy, the generous hardihood of her maidens and matrons, the splendid images strewn over the pages of Dante, Tasso and Ariosto, the heroes of his country, the saints whom he worshipped, and the miracles in which he believed, all cry out against Canova.
It will however be observed by those who examine carefully the works of Canova that he has attempted something of an union between Italian nature, his own feelings and the Grecian antique. He did strive to engraft a tree of a sweeter fruit on the old heathen stock; and for such an undertaking he had certainly many qualifications. From his childhood he had lived all day among works of arcient inspiration and the sculptures of Michael Angelo, and at night he had lain down to dream on the very dust of classic works. The living beauties of Italy crowded round him, eager to afford his chissel the unreserved advantage of all their charms, and, with a liberality which would bring blushes to the cheek of the most magnanimous lady in our island, princesses and peeresses, for the encouragement of art and the glory of their country, sat and stood
as Eve did of old and were not ashamed. No man therefore could come with more knowledge to this elected task-how he has acquitted himself the world knows. With the antique in his eye, and the lost works of the ancients in his mind, it is remarkable how little of these high influences are visible in his works. He has lessened the serene majesty of the antique; he has given sweetness and smiles for meekness and gravity, softness for beauty, languor for strength, and the subordinate prettinesses of art for the true manliness of sentiment. There are few of his figures with ancient names which are free from affectation: the
Venus of the Greeks was of a staid character; with them all passion was subdued, and even pain was spiritualized; but Canova did not feel, or disobeyed this visible lesson; he seemed to put his strength in the polished beauty of his workmanship, and in the vitality of his flesh, rather than in the idea which the work was to express. The nature which he did infuse often mingles ungracefully with the materials supplied by old art; his Dancers and his Nymphs are only modest modifications of the girls of the opera, his Graces a renovation of a Grecian group, or an amplification of an antique gem, or a.copy from a painting by Rubens, but made his own by an affectation which overpowers the varied elegance of their forms and their exquisite grouping.
In some few instances, nevertheless, in his Perseus with the Medusa’s Head, his Mars and Venus, his Hebe, his Endymion, he more than approaches the majesty of ancient sculpture.
His historical works of a civil and religious kind are not his happiest. The eminent painters and sculptors of Italy, with Raphael and Michael Angelo at their head, had filled the churches and palaces as well as the hearts of the people with divine subjects--saints, legends, miracles. Something new was wanted, and as nothing that Canova could create was likely to divide with Raphael the admiration of mankind, his religious works are generally cold, obscure abstractions, which excite curiosity without informing the mind or touching the heart. The grace and airiness of his style was out of place in a statue of Religion, and he has sought by colossal magnitude to excite awe and express the grandeur of our faith. Such austere subjects were far too heavy
for his handling. Whatever action can tell he accomplished, and he gave buoyancy and motion to his nymphs and his youths such as no sculptor has ever surpassed; but he had little mind to give, and less loftiness of thought. There was something of truth, though more of malignity, in the accusation of his fellow artists that he wrought without laste or fire. The vanity of the artist brought him ready relief. He flew to the Vatican, gazed on the antique, and returned satisfied with himself and with his works.