London, rediscovered long-lost Canova masterpiece, the Lying Magdalene

Antonio Canova's last masterpiece, the Lying Magdalene, a work thought to be lost, has been rediscovered in London. The current owner had purchased it in 2002 for only 5,200 pounds. It will go to auction with an estimate of between £5 million and £8 million.

A sculpture that was bought in 2002 in a garden statue auction for only 5,200 pounds turned out to be a work by the great Antonio Canova. And the work, a reclining Magdalene from 1819-1822, will go up for auction at Christie’ s in July with an estimate of between £5 million and £8 million. It will first be shown in London from March 19 to 20, then it will be in New York from April 8 to 13, then in Hong Kong from May 27 to June 1, after which it will return to London for a three-week exhibition in June before the auction to be held July 2 to 7.

A “historic rediscovery” is being called by Christie’s. It is in fact the work that was commissioned from Canova by the British prime minister at the time, serving from 1812 to 1827, Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool. “It is a miracle,” said> art historian Mario Guderzo, a specialist on Canova and director of the Museo-Gipsoteca Antonio Canova in Possagno, “that an exceptional masterpiece by Canova, long thought to be lost, has been found two hundred years after it was made. This work has been sought by scholars for decades, so the discovery is of fundamental importance for the history of collecting and art history. It testifies to the intense thought process of the work of the Italian sculptor who was a fundamental witness of his time: loyal to Pope Pius VII, in demand by Napoleon, beloved by the English ruler George IV, esteemed in the world of European collecting, and of fundamental importance in the return of artworks seized under Napoleon. The rediscovery of the distended Magdalene brings to a conclusion a very special story worthy of a novel.”

According to Donal Johnston, head of international sculpture at Christie’s, “The rediscovery of Canova’s lost masterpiece is immensely exciting and a highlight of my more than 30-year career in the field. This sculpture represents an extensively documented commission from an important figure in British history, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, whose purchase of Magdalene is a testament to the love that British collectors had always shown for the work of the great Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Significantly, it is closely related to Chatsworth’s famous Endymion, as both were completed in the summer of 1822. The Magdalene, which appeared at auction at Christie’s in 1852, later fell into oblivion and was lost to scholars before being recently rediscovered.”

The Reclining Magdalene is one of the last works executed by the great neoclassical artist, representing one of the pinnacles of his studies on the human form animated by grace, and draws on a long tradition: evident, for example, is the relationship with Gian Lorenzo Bernini ’s Beata Ludovica Albertoni preserved in Rome in the church of San Francesco a Ripa. The work, commissioned in 1819 by Lord Liverpool, started from a plaster model now in the Museo Gipsoteca in Possagno, dated “1819 in the month of September.” Canova exhibited the model in his studio in October of the same year, and the following month he recalled in a letter to his friend Quatremère de Quincy that he had exhibited another model of a second Magdalene lying on the ground and almost fainting from the excessive pain of her penitence, a subject that Canova liked very much by his own admission and that won him several praises. One of the admirers was the Irish writer and poet Thomas Moore, who had an encounter with Canova: “He took me to see his last Magdalene, which is divine: she lies lying in all the abandon of pain; and the expression of her face, and the beauty of her figure...are perfection” (1819). After the artist’s death and before the commission was handed over to the Prime Minister, the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to Lord Liverpool from Naples on November 11, 1822: “My dear Lord Liverpool [...] With the rest of Europe you will have mourned for Canova: it is a loss truly irreparable, and one which I cannot think of without tears [...] you and the Duke of Devonshire [who commissioned the Endymion] have the last strokes of his chisel.”

After being commissioned by lord Liverpool, the work has had several passages reconstructed by recent research led by Alice Whitehead (Francis Outred Ltd.). Upon Lord Liverpool’s death in 1828, just six years after the sculpture’s completion, title and ownership passed to his brother, Charles, 3rd Earl of Liverpool, after whose passing the Lying Magdalene passed for sale by Christie’s, in 1852, in an auction at Fife House, Whitehall, London. Listed as “Canova’s celebrated statue of Magdalene,” it was described in the auction catalog as “one of Canova’s finest and most finished works.” It thus ended up in the collection of Lord Ward (later Earl of Dudley), one of the most eminent collectors of his time.

Within less than a century, however, the significance and authorship of the Lying Magdalene fell into oblivion. After Lord Ward’s death, his estate and collection passed to his son, who during a tribulating personal moment in 1920 sold his large house, Witley Court, and its entire contents to Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer. It was at this point that the attribution to Canova seems to have been lost. Following a disastrous fire that destroyed much of the mansion, the sculpture changed hands again at an auction in 1938, where it was not attributed and was described as a “classical figure.” It has now been established that it was purchased by Violet van der Elst (an eccentric businesswoman and activist, very famous in her day but now largely forgotten), who built and lost a fortune and contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in England. Although not recognized as a work by Canova at that stage, the sculpture was nevertheless appreciated and remained with her as her fortune dwindled, her many homes were sold and her vast collection of art and antiques were dispersed, largely to fund her humanitarian activism.

The Lying Magdalene is attested in the garden of van der Elst’s house on Addison Road, Kensington, where it remained after the property was sold in 1959 to a local art dealer; it appears that the work was later sold again with the house in the late 1960s. The sculpture remained unattributed even in 2002, when the current owner bought it in an auction of garden statues and architectural objects. Only recently has the authorship and significance of the Reclining Magdalene, the rediscovered masterpiece by Antonio Canova, been reestablished.

Image: Antonio Canova, Lying Magdalene (1819-1822; marble, 75 x 176 x 84.5 cm)

London, rediscovered long-lost Canova masterpiece, the Lying Magdalene
London, rediscovered long-lost Canova masterpiece, the Lying Magdalene

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