Anton Werres is widely considered among the most talented and versatile sculptors active in northern Germany during the second half of the 19th century. Yet his career-defining work, the marble group depicting a Faun and a Bacchante, had been believed lost for most of the 20th century. Exhibited to great acclaim at the Exposition Universelle de 1867 in Paris and subsequently acquired by an eminent Cologne banker, its appearance and whereabouts were shrouded in mystery until only recently, when the marble resurfaced in France. The virtuosic carving and lively exuberance of the present group confirm this as Werres’s unquestioned masterpiece, and shed new light on the stylistic development of this intriguing neoclassical sculptor.
Born in 1830 in Cologne, Anton Werres received his initial training in the workshop of Christian Mohr, who was responsible for the creation and restoration of the sculpture for Cologne Cathedral. Thus trained in the neo-Gothic style, Werres was soon drawn to Berlin, where under the influence of Christian Daniel Rauch a thriving school of neoclassical sculpture was attracting talented apprentices. In 1851 the young sculptor was accepted into the workshop of one of Rauch’s former pupils, Gustav Blaeser, and there developed his skills in the handling of marble.
A valuable and sometimes amusing insight into the reality of sculptors active in neoclassical Berlin is provided by Werres’s letters from this time. Highlighting the importance that was placed upon the emulation of antiquity, Werres recounts being tasked with copying an antique foot, which unexpectedly required weeks of work and caused him to ‘sweat profusely and wish that foot to all the devils’ (Puls, op. cit., p. 26). Werres’s rigorous training was met with success, however, as he became his master’s favoured assistant and in 1857 was awarded the Grand Prix for sculpture, along with a travel stipend which would take him to Rome the following year. It was here that Werres seems to have found his most fruitful artistic calling, and he remained in the Eternal City, with intermittent returns to Germany, for nine years. In 1867 Werres settled down in his native Cologne, and reverted back to the neo-Gothic style of his early years by contributing six large column figures to the decorative scheme of Cologne Cathedral. Werres spent the remainder of his career in the Rhenish city, executing important commissions in the field of public monuments and portraiture.
Apart from the present group, it seems that only one mythological marble by Werres survives; another, a statue of Flora, is lost but known through photographs. The group of Venus and Cupid was sculpted by Werres in Rome in 1860 and now stands in the ‘Flora’, Cologne’s botanical garden, where Werres’s Flora was also housed. Beautiful and restrained, both works clearly exhibit the influence of the antiquities Werres encountered in Rome, as well as the subdued classicism of his Berlin master, Gustav Blaeser. The signature of the present group reveals that it, too, was made by Werres in Rome. In its ambitious conception and superb execution, however, it surpasses Werres’s previous Roman works and presents the sculptor as a more mature and independent artist towards the end of his sojourn in the Italian capital. Here, beauty of forms is combined with a playful subject. Arm in arm, a vine-crowned satyr and a partially draped Bacchante stride forward, the satyr tantalisingly holding up a bunch of grapes in his right arm, which the girl is trying to reach with her left. The figures gaze lovingly at each other and are seemingly engrossed in conversation, with slightly open mouths. Werres showcases his genius in the balletic movement of the figures and the highly finished carving of details, such as the Faun’s anatomy, his naturalistic fur cloak, the sumptuous grapes, and the girl’s drapery, which suggestively clings to her legs at the front, while flowing in harmonious waves at the back. This magnificent homage to Dionysus, the God of Wine, reveals that Werres’s most skilful and original artistic output was in the realisation of mythological subjects, of which only few examples by his hand are known. The group is therefore a rare and vital rediscovery in the sculptor’s oeuvre.
Testament to the marble’s recognition at the time of its making is its inclusion in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. Commissioned by Napoleon III, the Exposition of 1867 was the greatest that had been held up to this date and attracted more than nine million visitors. Werres’s group was one of a small number of sculptures chosen to represent Prussia and the northern states of Germany in this most prestigious of events, offered at the impressive sum of 3,000 francs. Little is known about the marble’s history following its exhibition, except that it was shown in Cologne in the same year and acquired by Eduard von Oppenheim (1831-1909), a member of the city’s foremost banking family. Oppenheim built a grand Palais in Cologne in 1870, where Werres’s group may have found a home. Described in Werres’s obituary as the sculptor’s ‘perhaps most significant work’ (Bloch, op. cit., p. 158), the ‘lost’ marble has been the subject of speculation in the more recent literature. Now returned to the public eye, the Tribute to the God of Wine confirms the judgment of Werres’s contemporaries: ‘His ideal figures are composed most fortunately, with lively movement and grace, and, rather than antique, appear of modern flesh and blood’ (Müller, op. cit., p. 453).
F. Müller et al., Die Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, vol. 4, Stuttgart, 1870; E. Trier and W. Weyres (eds.), Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts im Rheinland, vol. 4, Düsseldorf, 1980; P. Bloch et al. (eds.), Ethos und Pathos. Die Berliner Bildhauerschule 1786-1914, vol. 2, Beiträge, exh. cat. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1990, pp. 152-168; M. Puls, Gustav Hermann Blaeser. Zum Leben und Werk eines Berliner Bildhauers, Cologne, 1996