Antonio Canova, Study of a Boy, c. 1790–1800, terracotta, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Photographed by Luigi Spina

CHICAGO, IL.- The Art Institute of Chicago will soon be exhibiting Canova: Sketching in Clay, on view from November 19, 2023 through March 18, 2024. Italian sculptor Antonio Canova was the most celebrated European artist of his time and this exhibition focuses on his lesser-known but unforgettable work in clay. The first show in more than 50 years dedicated to these terracotta sketches, these vivid works reveal how the artist developed his ideas—from the first brilliant spark of imagination to his laboriously finished marble figures.

With more than 60 works in the show, including 37 terracotta sketches and models, this is the largest exhibition of Canova’s work to ever be displayed in the United States and includes many sculptures that have rarely been seen in public. The clay works are complemented by plaster casts and finished marbles, allowing visitors a glimpse into the artist’s creative, technical, and workshop processes, and providing a deeper understanding of his methods, from his beginnings in Venice in the late 1770s to his death in Rome in 1822.


Antonio Canova, Adam and Eve Mourning the Dead Abel, c. 1818–1822, terracotta, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Photographed by Luigi Spina

Although never publicly exhibited or sold during his lifetime, these intimate sculptures are more than mere records of the artist’s skill as he raced to capture his thoughts in three-dimensional form and more than just a step in his process; they are extraordinary works of art in themselves.

Often produced at a lightning pace to capture his ideas, they are in many ways the antithesis of his exquisitely finished marble sculptures. Visceral, expressive, and impressionistic, their surfaces visibly bear the pressing and pinching of the artist’s fingers, along with the gouges and scrapes of his tools.


Antonio Canova, Pope Clement XIV, 1783, painted terracotta, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Photographed by Luigi Spina

All of Canova’s marble sculptures, which emphasize pure perfection, are anchored by his initial work in clay,” said Emerson Bowyer, Searle Curator of Painting and Sculpture of Europe at the Art Institute of Chicago. “His sketches are often unfinished but electric, and you can feel the feverish work that gives them a modern quality, totally ahead of their time, and which resonate well beyond the 19th century.”

Canova: Sketching in Clay is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Art Institute of Chicago and curated by Emerson Bowyer, Searle Curator, Painting and Sculpture of Europe, Art Institute of Chicago, and C. D. Dickerson III, senior curator of European and American art, National Gallery of Art.


Antonio Canova, Pyrrhus Sacrificing Polyxena, c. 1798–1799, terracotta, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Photographed by Luigi Spina

A scholarly catalog accompanies the exhibition and explores how and why Canova created his clay sketches and models. Findings from extensive technical research carried out for the show reveal the steps Canova took in making his works, as well as the tool marks or modeling gestures that distinguish his style.

The Art Institute of Chicago - Canova: Sketching in Clay  November 19th, 2023 - March 18th, 2024


Antonio Canova, Venus and Adonis, c. 1787, terracotta, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Photographed by Luigi Spina


Antonio Canova, Humility, 1783, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. no. 11. Photography by Luigi Spina


Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1812, Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova, Possagno, Inv. S 268. Photography by Luigi Spina


Antonio Canova, Character Head, about 1780, Dino and Raphaello Tomasso.