The Graces are, by tradition, the three daughters of Jupiter/Zeus: Thalia (youth and beauty), Euphrosyne (mirth), and Aglaia (elegance). This group was commissioned by John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, when he visited the studios of Antonio Canova in Rome in 1814. There Russell saw and was, justifiably, taken with a version of The Three Graces (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg) commissioned for Empress Josephine, the former wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. As she had died earlier that year, the Duke made an offer on the piece, but was thwarted by her son, who claimed ownership. Not to be done out of a sculpture, Russell commissioned Canova to produce a second version which was completed in 1817 and installed at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire in 1819.
One of the reasons I love this piece is the sheer skill demonstrated by Canova. His working technique was to dictate the design and then allow his workers to carve out the broad shapes, saving the final level of detailing for himself. This is what set him apart from his contemporaries and led to comparisons with the finest sculptors of antiquity – Canova could make solid, cold marble look as though it was as warm and responsive as human flesh. I’ve spent so much time with this piece, looking at how an individual figure balances within the group or how the artist renders the touch of fingers on a face. It is truly spectacular and never fails to take my breath away.