'M. d’Épinay has a very lively and very personal feel for contemporary beauty. He does not aim at style, but he does aim at elegance and grace, and he achieves them. It is not in the Aegean Sea— notwithstanding her being clad with all the simplicity of a Nymph—that this pretty woman is about to bathe the small child clinging to her neck as he looks at the water in terror: it is at Biarritz or Trouville, in the Ocean or in the Channel. Once they have bathed, she will return to her villa, lunch merrily and with a good appetite before appearing for the first time in a marvelous outfit which will be the talk of the beach for a full three days. The state of dress—that of the very early morning indeed—in which she was sculpted by M. d’Épinay is even more flattering to her. This statue is truly charming. The elongated forms of the bather have been drawn with great elegance and the pose is gracious and natural.'
H. Houssaye, L’art français depuis dix ans, Paris, 1883, pp. 297-298
Prosper d'Épinay exhibited A la mer for the first time at the Paris Salon in 1882 (no. 4342) where it was met with critical acclaim, being described by Alfred de Lostalot as 'a perfect distinction and entirely worthy of the author of the Golden Belt' (op. cit., p. 500). The Ceinture dorée or Golden Belt was the sculptor's most celebrated marble, exhibited at the Salon of 1874. The present group depicts an elegant young mother walking her child down towards the sea. Her sensuous, idealised, body, is typical of Prosper d'Épinay's intrinsically sensitive and graceful nudes, whilst her pose recalls the slightly stooped figure of the Capitoline Venus in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (Haskell and Penny, op. cit., no. 84). The composition nevertheless ultimately derives from Étienne-Maurice Falconet's Baigneuse exhibited in the Salon of 1757 (musée du Louvre, inv. no. M.R. 1846). With her late 19th-century hairstyle, however, the woman is a contemporary nymph, who is imbued with a level of realism in her physiognomy - note the full breasts. As Houssaye commented in 1883, she would fit more comfortably into the context of a fashionable Belle Époque resort, such as Biarritz, than on a deserted beach in the depths of the Grecian past. The emphasis on motherhood, with the child clinging to the woman in a protective embrace, and the prominent breasts, emblematic of fertility and abundance, is, in itself, a more modern theme, which recalls similar subjects by Aimé-Jules Dalou.
Prosper d'Épinay was born in Mauritius in 1836, the son of the prominent lawyer and politician, Adrien d'Épinay. In 1857 he moved to Paris to study caricature under the sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan, and, from 1861, he worked in Rome for Luigi Amici. A British subject, he worked in London during the 1860s and 70s, and, despite eventually settling in Paris, he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy in London until as late as 1881. D'Épinay was responsible for some of the most beautiful and elegant marbles of female subjects made in the 19th-century, a point that was underscored last year, when his Bonne renommée sold for a record £800,000.
L'exposition des beaux arts (Salon de 1882), Paris, 1882, p. 384, no. 4342; A. de Lostalot, 'La sculpture au Salon de 1882', in La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1882-II, pp. 497-507; H. Houssaye, L’art français depuis dix ans, Paris, 1883, pp. 297-298; F. Thiébault-Sisson, “L’art élégant, Prosper d’Épinay”, in La nouvelle revue, 9, vol. 49, Nov. Dec. 1887, pp. 830-849; P. Roux-Foujols, Prosper d'Épinay: Un sculpteur mauricien à la cour des princes, Ile Maurice, 1996, pp. 44-45, 88