Originally commissioned by Joséphine de Beauharnais, the famous French dictator, Napoleon’s first wife, The Three Graces is a 1.82m tall sculpture in white marble. Carved in Rome by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, it was completed in 1814 and now resides in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, saw the almost completed statue in Canova’s studio and tried unsuccessfully to purchase it. So enamoured by the work, he had Canova make a second, slightly different version which was carved between 1815-1817. This version, said to be preferred by Canova, now resides in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, or the Scottish National Gallery (It is jointly owned). It originally sat in a custom built top-lit rotunda called the Temple of the Graces and was one of the most widely admired works of the time.
The ‘de Beauharnais’ version was carved in a veined marble, but the ‘Bedford’ version changed that to a clean white marble. Other differences were a change from a square to round base,and a slightly thicker waist on the central figure. They remain fundamentally the same, however.
The statue, in the Neoclassical style, depicts the three charities, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia, all daughters of Zeus. They were said to represent mirth (Euphrosyne), elegance (Aglaea), and youth/beauty (Thalia). They were said to have delighted the guests of the gods by presiding over events, like banquets, for example.
As for Canova, he remains admired as one of the greatest European artists of his day and his works some of the best of any period. Born on 1 November 1757, he died on 13 October 1822. He had an impressive career, working with many of the periods great figures, even sculpting aa statue of George Washington as a Roman Emperor that was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1831. After his death, his estate was used to complete the Tempio Canoviano where his body was interred, although his heart was interred at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, and his right hand preserved in a vase at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. Every plaster model and sculpture from Canova’s Roman studio was removed and placed in the Tempio, which is sited on a hilltop in Possagno in the Province of Treviso.