As we are told in Canova’s Abbozzo di biografia, Appiani painted the sculptor’s portrait while he was staying in Milan on his return from Paris in December 1802 (Abbozzo di biografia 1805–1806, in Hugh Honour and Paolo Mariuz, eds, Antonio Canova, Scritti, vol. I, Rome, 2007, p. 318). The painting was finished by the beginning of 1803, a fact confirmed in documents assembled by Francesca Reina with a view to producing a monograph on the painter which, in the event, was never published (documents now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, see Fabrizio Magani, in Antonio Canova, Venice, 1992, exh. cat., no. 4, pp. 94–95). It has been identified as the portrait now in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan (GAM 1099), painted in oil on paper laid onto canvas, as in the case of the work under discussion here. Appiani produced two slightly smaller versions of his prototype, one on wood now in a private collection and the painting under discussion here.
In this reduced version, the elimination of the bust present in the prototype enables the artist to focus on the sculptor’s face to greater effect. Minor iconographical variations, particularly in details of Canova’s attire, and what is arguably firmer brushwork differentiate this version from the larger prototype.
Andrea Appiani has here produced a striking, informal image of the famous sculptor, almost a snapshot, idealized but not excessively so. It was to prove enormously popular thanks to engravings made of it by a number of engravers, most famously Francesco Rosaspina in 1806.
Appiani, like his French contemporary Jacques-Louis David, was profoundly shaped by the political events of his day, most importantly the rule of Napoleon in Italy between 1796 and 1815. Appiani was born in Milan and stayed in northern Italy all his life with only occasional visits to Bologna, Florence, Rome and even France. He had studied in the private academy of Carlo Maria Giudici in Milan and also at the Ambrosiana picture gallery and then the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera. There he absorbed the influences of Raphael, Leonardo and his follower Luini and later Domenichino and Correggio; he would later restore Leonardo’s Last Supper fresco.
This education was to stand him in good stead as a painter of a series of ambitious fresco cycles, notably the cupola and pendentives of S. Maria presso S. Celso, the decoration of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand’s Villa Reale in Monza, and much later the state rooms of the Palazzo Reale in Milan. The subject matter of the majority of his mature work is classical and, despite his admiration for earlier artists such as Correggio, Appiani is justly regarded as the single most significant Italian Neoclassical painter.
Appiani met David in 1804 at the coronation of Emperor Napoleon but had already adopted a Neoclassical pictorial language inspired in part by antique cameos, coins, frescoes and sculpture. Unlike David, Appiani tempered his brand of Neoclassicism with an airiness in composition and sweetness of palette quite different from the severity of his French contemporary. Like David, however, Appiani excelled at portraiture, painting the leading lights of his day, most famously his idol Napoleon Bonaparte who he portrayed on several occasions: Napoleon, King of Italy (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, 2346–48) is an iconic example. Therefore, it is only appropriate that Appiani should paint the portrait of Napoleon’s favorite sculptor, and the greatest exponent of Neoclassicism in marble, Antonio Canova.
Antonio Canova, the preeminent Italian sculptor of the 18th century, is universally considered the most innovative sculptor of the international Neoclassical movement and by 1800 was perhaps the most famous artist in Europe. Born into a humble family on 1 November 1757, in the Venetian Republic, Canova was raised by his grandfather, Pasino Canova, a stonecutter specializing in altars and reliefs. Under his guidance, the young and precocious Antonio first developed his passion for sculpture.
The late Baroque style that characterized Canova’s early statues gradually gave way to a tempered classicism; in the Dedalus and Icarus of 1778–79 (Museo Correr, CI.XXV n. 1060) he demonstrates a balance between naturalism and the classical ideal, an aesthetic that earned him popular acclaim.
In 1779 Canova traveled to Rome to study ancient and modern art under the patronage of Abbondio Rezzonico, the nephew of Clement XIII and a Roman senator. Canova requested a plaster cast of Dedalus and Icarus to introduce his work to Roman society, but it received a lukewarm response; critics found the statue to be too great a departure from antique models. Canova, however, refused to make these copies, opting to emulate rather than duplicate the work of the Ancients.
Canova’s greatness was finally revealed to the public with his funerary monument for Clement XIV executed between 1783 and 1787 for SS. Apostoli. A repudiation of the Baroque, it resembles the papal tombs of Bernini, pared down by Canova to the essentials and infused with a sense of humility and restraint. The monument received critical acclaim and was praised for its elegance and simplicity. Canova also worked, in 1792, on the funerary monument for Clement XIII; its Genius of Death, a classically derived nude, has been ranked among the most perfect realizations of the classical ideal.
Canova continued to explore the Neoclassical ideal through works like Cupid Awakening Psyche (Museo Correr, XVII–1789–1794) and the Three Graces (Victoria and Albert Museum, A.4- 1994), which were enthusiastically received by an international audience. The Duke of Bedford commissioned Jeffry Wyatville to design a rotunda to house The Three Graces at Woburn Abbey. Canova also contributed to the prestige of cultural life in Rome at the turn of the century; one of his most beloved works is the Portrait of Paolina Borghese carved in 1808 (Galleria Borghese, LIV). He was a friend of many other artists based in Rome such as Angelika Kauffmann who painted his portrait.
Throughout his career, Canova aided artists and cultural institutions with his own funds and promoted the preservation of Italy’s artistic heritage. In the years following the Napoleonic Wars, he played a pivotal role in the repatriation of art removed by the French from the Papal States and Italy.
Few artists have achieved such high praise within their lifetime, or have been so widely acclaimed by critics, collectors, writers, and artists. At his death, Canova was universally mourned, and volumes of eulogizing essays, biographies, and poetry were published. He was buried with great pomp in the Frari church in Venice. However, later critics of the Romantic period and beyond marginalized Canova as a frigid and slightly kitsch representative of the Neoclassical movement. It would not be until the second half of the 20th century that Canova’s reputation as an artist of the first rank was restored.❖