In May 1819, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, on his first trip to Rome, paid a visit to the studio of the most celebrated sculptor of the time, Antonio Canova. He marvelled at what he saw and commissioned a marble statue from Canova, leaving both its size and subject to the sculptor to decide, and paying a deposit in advance.
The marble was roughed out by 1822, when Canova asked for a further £1,500. It was completed before his death later that year. It arrived in London the following year and caused a stir when first displayed at Devonshire House. The 6th Duke, who regarded it as his greatest sculptural treasure, also commissioned a large bronze copy of it from the sculptor Francis Chantrey, which can be seen outside the Orangery shop.
In Greek mythology, Endymion was a handsome shepherd boy of Asia Minor, the earthly lover of the moon goddess Selene, and each night he was kissed to sleep by her. She begged the god Zeus to grant him eternal life so she might be able to embrace him forever. Zeus granted her wish and put Endymion into eternal sleep.
The highly polished finish on Canova's statue is believed to represent the reflected light of the moon goddess.