In this beloved marble view
Above the works and thoughts of Man
What Nature could but would not, do,
And Beauty and Canova can!
Beyond Imagination’s power
Beyond the Bard’s defeated art,
With Immortality her dower,
Behold the Helen of the heart. (Lord Byron, 1816, after seeing Canova’s marble Helen.)
Canova’s cool, cerebral compositions, combined with his dazzling technical skills as a carver, made him the most celebrated sculptor of the 19th century. The effect of his sculptures, which were almost always pure white, immediately evokes ideal images of Ancient Greece and Rome. The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of extreme turbulence and political and social chaos. Ruling dynasty’s and empires vanished and new ones appeared, as if overnight, and yet these calm and controlled gods and goddesses, warriors and heroines of the Ancient world, remain above the fray and must have been aesthetically calming to collectors and looking to the past for reassurance.
Canova was searching for ideal beauty – something we see again and again in his sculpture, especially his busts – and in Paris and Helen he achieved it. They remain as perfectly beautiful today as they were when they were created in 1812.
Canova’s first version of Paris – a full-length plaster -- was created in 1808 and it was an instant success. Canova, who was then at the height of his fame, decided to do an abbreviated bust of Paris, of which there were probably five versions. The first marble (location unknown) was also probably created in 1808 and was in the collection of the French Ambassador to Rome, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier (1752-1826). A second, from 1809-10, was done for Quatremère de Quincy (Art Institute of Chicago). The third was commissioned for the Crown Prince of Bavaria in 1812 (Neue Pinakothek). And the fourth, formerly in the collection of Count Pac is now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. There must have been a fifth version owned by the Marquise de Grollier, a painter living in Venice, as Canova describes it in a letter of 1816 that he was sending her a version ‘because it…craves accompanying the Paris’ (H. Honor and P. Mariuz, eds., The Letters by Antonio Canova (1816-1817), vol. 1, Rome, 2002, pp. 359-60).
Canova’s Helen was even more popular as there are at least eight plaster and marble versions. The original idea to pair Paris with Helen seems to be confirmed by Canova’s sketch of circa 1806 preserved at Possagno (A. Mariuz and G. Pavanello, Antonio Canova: The Notebook Drawings of Possagno, Cittadella, 1999, p. 49). And the earliest known marble version of Helen dates from 1811, executed for Canova’s friend and patron Isabella Albrizzi (1763-1836), is signed ANT. CANOVA F. 1811 and remains in the Palazzo Albrizzi, Venice. The next marble Helen was only documented in 1816-17, and was the version destined for the Marquise de Grollier which was intended to be paired with her Paris.
The present casts display no pointing marks which indicate they were not used for reproducing other versions and were taken after finished marbles. The bust of Paris, as the inscription clearly states, was almost certainly cast from the marble version of 1812 which was commissioned by the Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, which has the same inscription. The bust of Helen was almost certainly after the Albrizzi version given by Canova to Albrizzi in 1812. It is unlikely to have been after any other version, as the next marble version of Helen appears only in 1816-17 and close comparison of these two versions further bolsters this connection. And, lastly, both marbles were in Canova’s studio in 1812. They were most likely cast by Vincenzo Malpieri, Canova’s trusted assistant, as studio records link him to plaster casting. In 1813, Malpieri was paid for a series of plasters, including a Paris and Helen, which were acquired by Francesco Barisan. of Castelfranco Veneto. By the end of the 19th century Barisan’s collection was recorded in Venice, but by then it no longer included Paris and Helen. While the provenance of the present Paris and Helen is not documented, it has been suggested that, because of the present lot’s Veneto provenance, they might be the missing pair from Barisan’s collection.