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Antonio Canova (1757-1822)

Dirce 1820-24

Marble | 96.0 x 175.0 x 78.0 cm (whole object) | RCIN 2042

Grand Entrance & Marble Hall, Buckingham Palace

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  • Rectangular statutary marble group of the nymph Dirce, full-length and partly-draped sitting on a lion's pelt and leaning against a wicker beehive, looking sharply to her right, holding a garland in her right hand.

    The presence of a second nymph by Canova in the Royal Collection testifies to the sculptor's talent for promoting sales of his work to established clients. Having commissioned the colossal group of Mars and Venus and pre-empted Lord Cawdor in the purchase of the Ninfa delle fontane, George IV remained anxious to secure a version of the Three Graces for the centre of the Circular Room at Carlton House. In February 1820 Canova wrote to offer the present nymph - Dirce, nutrice di Bacco - which he had just completed in plaster at full size, as a companion for Ninfa delle fontane, which had been installed at Carlton House the previous June. The subject, Dirce, was one of the nymphs of Mount Nysa who nurtured the infant Bacchus.

    Sir Charles Long replied with enthusiasm on the King's behalf and the marble seems to have been roughed out by 16 December. Although the statue was engraved (with a dedication to Sir Thomas Lawrence) in 1822, only the head seems to have been finished at the time of Canova's death the same year; the rest was completed by the studio assistant Cincinnato Baruzzi.

    In a letter to the sculptor, Lawrence described the plaster model (which he had seen in Rome) as 'the most perfect of your productions'. However, the turn of the head creates such an awkwardness in the pose of the figure as she leans weightlessly against a draped beehive that it suffers by comparison with the true touchstone among Canova's reclining nudes, the Borghese Venere vincitrice. The completed statue was sent to England in 1824 with the Mars and Venus, and installed at Carlton House by Westmacott. In August 1825 William Richard Hamilton, the British Minister at Naples who had played a leading part in the post-war negotiations over the return of looted ancient sculpture to Rome, wrote to Sir Charles Long on behalf of the Abbate Canova, the sculptor's brother and executor, accepting (without complete satisfaction) the offer of 5,000 guineas in payment for the two groups delivered in the previous year. Hamilton wrote that the Abbate was none the less 'highly flattered that these his brother's latest finished works, should be deposited in the palace of the King of Great Britain, to whom he considers himself, as his brother did during his lifetime, so mainly indebted for the halo of glory which shed fresh lustre over Canova's last days'.

    Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002

    Commissioned by George IV, 1820 (delivered 1824; 5,000 guineas, together with Mars and Venus)

  • Medium and techniques



    96.0 x 175.0 x 78.0 cm (whole object)