Classical Figural Marble Mantelpiece after Antonio Canova, Continental Europe, probably Italy, 1820-1840
The Classical Figural Marble Mantelpiece has an oblong mantel shelf with molded edge above a pair of carved classical dancing maidens flanking the firebox with a frieze centering a bas-relief image of a kneeling Ganymede feeding an eagle flanked by scrolls and anthemions.
Dimensions: H 50″, W 77″, D 15″. Firebox enclosure: H 37” x 47”.
This fire box surround relates very closely to three examples in The White House; in the Yellow Oval Room, the China Room (formerly known as the Presidential Collection Room) and the Vermeil Room respectively. Indeed, the dancing figures are virtually identical in all four mantels but the overall configuration of the surrounds in the Yellow and Vermeil Rooms most closely resemble the design of the present mantel.
Published sources offer contradictory information on the origins of the White House examples, one source refers to them as French, another Italian. The latter being more likely in our opinion. William Seale, White House historian, notes in his study The President’s House, (Washington, DC., 1986), p. 143/148/150, that James Hoban ordered 21 statuary marble mantles from Italy for the reconstruction of The White House in 1816 and that they were installed in June, 1819.
The dancing maidens are drawn from designs by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and relate directly to 1793 models drawn for the Casa Canova in Possagno, the celebrated Danzatrice or dancer figures. Other related drawings and monochromes of dancing maidens by Canova are at Bossano.
The bas-relief of Ganymede and the eagle centered on the frieze depicts a popular story of Greek and Roman mythology. Characterized in both Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ganymede was the son of Tros, a legendary king of Troy. A beautiful shepherd, he attracted the attention of Zeus, who fell in love with him. In the guise of an eagle, Zeus carried Ganymede off to Olympus, where the youth became the cup-bearer to the Gods.
This interpretation of the moment before the abduction is based on Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen’s (1770-1844) Ganymede and the Eagle c.1817-1829. Apparently inspired by a third century Roman antiquity in the sculptor’s collection, this version was commissioned in 1817 by the Earl of Gower and is now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. A slightly earlier version by Thorvaldsen c.1815 is in the Ricau Collection at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.
Canova and Thorvaldsen were the most celebrated sculptors of the neoclassical period in Europe and influenced many other European and American sculptors and inspired work throughout the 19th century.