Born in 1752, Giraud was trained as a goldsmith in his native town Aix-en-Provence and then in Paris. He studied sculpture in Italy in the early 1780s, and established a friendship with the painter Jacques-Louis David who recommends him as one of the best sculptors in France: ‘He is one back home (in France) who just made a sculpture representing Achilles. (…) Certainly it is the best sculpture and he is the best sculptor we have at the moment; he is the only one who really understands the antique and who is really knowledgeable.’
After his return in 1789 Giraud became académicien with his impressive Wounded Achilles given by the artist to the museum of his home town. Inheriting a fortune from his uncle, he returned to Italy in 1790 and spent eight years in Rome, Florence and Naples. Giraud brought back to Paris an important group of plaster casts after the antique, which he exhibited to the public in his private palace located at 3, Place Vendôme. A notarial deed dating from 1788 attests that Giraud acquired this palace from Philippe Laurent de Joubert, Baron de Sommières et de Montredon, the same person who purchased in 1793 Giraud’s marble Mercury (INHA, autographes, carton 39). His museum of antique casts attracted major artists of the time, notably principal actors of Neoclassicism, such as the painters Ingres, David, Granet, as well as the sculptor and medallist Jacques-Edouard Gatteaux (1788-1881).
Giraud promoted the return to Antiquity in other arts as well and contributed in particular to one of the most popular works of art history in France of that period, the Recherches sur l'art statuaire consideré chez les Anciens et chez les Modèrnes, published in 1805 by Emeric-David.
We should also mention Giraud’s scholar Pierre-François Grégoire Giraud (1783-1838), who, despite their shared last name, was no relation of the master. Both sculptors worked closely together and shared their passion for Antiquities, and Pierre-François inherited his master’s collection when he died. Several of Pierre-François’ works are today in public collections, such as a life-size marble Dog from 1827 and a life-size wax sculpture of a Jeune Femme couchée avec deux enfants (both Louvre, Paris), as well as a relief of Aethra and Phalante, of which the wax and bronze versions are in the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (legs Jacques-Edouard Gatteaux, 1881). His marble figure of Paris, after the Antique, is one of the most vibrant tributes he could pay to his master’s Mercury.
Giraud’s marble of Mercury from the Salon of 1789 was mentioned for the last time on April 15, 1793, at the sale of Philippe Laurent de Joubert, Baron de Sommières and Montredon’s collection, former owner of Giraud’s palace on Place Vendôme. The marble was described in the catalogue as ‘… a standing Mercury, a beautiful marble figure 30 pouces high [ca. 76 cm]’, and said to have been acquired by an English collector (F. Miel, op.cit. p.108).
We also know that Giraud has modelled a wax bozzetto for his Mercury which belonged to the sculptor's nephew, the painter Frédéric Montenard (1849-1926), when it was exhibited at the Exposition Centenale in 1900 in Paris (n° 1664). Miel mentions three other wax bozzetti made by Giraud, all lost today.
The present bronze is the only remaining sculpture known today of Giraud’s marble Mercury from 1789 – possibly still in a private English collection – and the wax bozzetto, which once belonged to Frédéric Montenard.
This bronze illustrates Giraud's talent in rendering the male anatomy with great veracity and perfection, adapting the antique marble of the Farnese Mercury (Uffizi, Florence, inv.n°250). The French baroque sculptor Barthélémy Mélo sculpted in 1684-85 a copy after the antique for Versailles, another similar version was made by Augustin Pajou in 1780 (Paris, Louvre).
The outstanding quality of this bronze as well as the inscription on the tree trunk mentioning only the artist’s birth date, confirm that this bronze was probably cast in the artist’s lifetime. This exquisite and crisp cast renders in great detail the subtle modelling of Mercury’s drapery, the curls of his hair, and his impressive musculature.
The absence of documents or other bronze casts by Jean-Baptiste Giraud prevents comparison with any other existing versions. It is possible that Giraud engaged other sculptors from the circle of artists close to the Hôtel Vendôme, amongst them the medal caster Nicolas-Marie Gatteaux (1751-1832) and his son the sculptor Jacques-Edouard Gatteaux (1788-1881), both masters of bronze casting.
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