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Thinking in Clay: How Antonio Canova Made His Sculptures

The clay models by Italian sculptor of Napoleon’s era.

Now on view in the West Wing at the National Gallery of Art through October 9, 2023 is the work of Antonio Canova.

How does a sculptor turn an initial idea into a finished work of marble? For Antonio Canova (1757–1822), the most famous artist of Europe’s revolutionary period, the answer was with clay.

Working with his hands and small tools, Canova produced dazzling sketch models in clay, which helped him plan his designs for his large statues in marble. Imprinted with the fire of his imagination, these sketches were boldly executed in mere minutes. Canova also made more finished models, sensuous in their details, that he showed to patrons or used as guides for carving.

More than 30 of his some 60 or so surviving models reveal the artist’s extraordinary working process—a process that led to the creation of some of the most iconic works in the history of sculpture.