Prince Camillo Borghese originally commissioned Canova to depict his new wife as Diana the chaste goddess of the hunt. This would however have been very much out of character for a Princess who sought controversy at almost every turn. Instead she insisted on posing nude as Venus. As well as challenging the accepted norms there was a political element to this change of subject, and perhaps a little mischief in the mind of Pauline, as the Borghese family saw themselves as descended from Rome’s founder Aeneas, who according to Virgil was the son of Venus.
The resultant sculpture, Venus Victrix, is an outstanding example of the neoclassical style, of which Canova was a chief proponent. Influenced by the archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum, neoclassicism looked back to the artistic achievements of the Greeks and Romans as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Yet despite his reliance on classical sources Canova aimed to achieve something new and vital in his work by examining the idealised forms of the classical period through the questioning eye of the enlightenment. The figure in fact owes as much to paintings such as Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbnino’ and David’s ‘Madame Recamier’ than to antique sculpture.
Celebrated for breathing light and shadow into his works, and for his graceful fluidity of line, Canova carefully balanced the neoclassical ideal with extraordinary realism. His technical skill in the treatment of the surface of the marble, capturing the soft texture of skin, was particularly renowned.
The figure of Pauline reclining in a studied pose is exemplary of his skill and is extraordinarily lifelike. She holds an apple in her left hand, identifying her as Venus Victrix, the goddess awarded the Golden Apple in the famous Greek myth of the Judgement of Paris.
Seen as scandalous at the time, Prince Camillo refused to display the sculpture publicly, only allowing his friends to view it by candlelight and refusing permission for it to be sent to France. Always controversial and capricious when asked if she minded posing naked for the sculpture, Pauline remarked, “Ah, but there was a fire in the room.”
Today Venus Victrix is seen as one of the most remarkable and beautiful sculptures created by Canova. Such was its renown in the 19th century that it became a highly sought-after souvenir of the Grand Tour.