M y favourite Old Master auctions are those that take me by surprise, with new discoveries or works that have rarely come to market. Master Sculpture at Sotheby’s Paris, which takes place this November and ranges from the early Middle Ages to the dawn of the French Revolution, is rich in both categories: a sale of the unexpected.
The most poignant work on offer is surely a decapitated stone Head of An Apostle, which was created around the late thirteenth century in Strasbourg – and has been recovered, remarkably, from within the very walls of a house in the city centre. No one knows for sure how it came to be there, but the house in question was built in the sixteenth century, when there was an acute shortage of building materials in Strasbourg, so it seems probable that its builders pillaged stone from some nearby church or perhaps even the cathedral itself. The head, which is carved with beautiful expressiveness, would have belonged to a column figure set against the wall in the porch of a door.
Such figures stood at the same level as people entering the building, one of their roles being to engage the sympathies of the man in the street (unlike the figures higher up on the building, and therefore closer to heaven, which were to evoke wonder and awe). This is why they were carved with the compelling physical and psychological realism that so strongly characterises the Head of an Apostle.
Beardless, with a solemn but tranquil expression that has defied the batterings of time, he is surely meant to represent the youthful St John. On the back of the apostle’s head, profuse curls of hair have been modelled with speed and skill, falling from his tonsure in serpentine shivers. The vivid colour of the piece, a pink almost as dark as rust, is explained by the sculptor’s use of sandstone from the Vosges, rich in iron oxide. At the time of its creation this may have made a less striking impression than it does now: most Gothic portal figures would originally have been painted, to enhance their lifelike effect.
Master Sculpture Auction: Paris | Spotlight
Moving from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance - and from art for the many to art for the few – one of the most difficult skills mastered by craftsmen working for the great courts of Europe was that of carving intricately beautiful objects from unyielding hard rock crystal. The love of such things originally stemmed from a Mannerist taste for works of art that represented the triumph of skill over adversity, or extreme technical difficulty overcome – and what could be more difficult, than to carve an object out of rock crystal, when the slightest misdirection of chisel or point could ruin months of painstaking work?
The resulting creations were strictly for princes, kings and emperors (the cost of labour and materials put them beyond everyone else’s budget), forming tableware for banquets or acting as conversation pieces in royal wunderkammern (“rooms of wonders”). The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a particularly rich collection of such rare things, made for the pleasure of the Holy Roman Emperors, many of them by the celebrated Miseroni family, nonpareil masters of hardstone carving during the Baroque.
All of which makes it a wonderful surprise to discover a rock crystal vessel newly attributed to Dionysio Miseroni and his son Eusebio – the last two generations of the family - in the present sale. It is fascinatingly complex and delicate, this little boat of transparent crystal, with its carved decoration of scrolls, flutes and acanthus leaves. Once upon a time a virtuoso creation such as this might also have served a practical purpose – like the famous salt-cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for Francois I – but I can’t help feeling that in this case that particular ship has sailed. Its lack of utility is surely part of its point. Much of the joy of looking at it stems from the patterns of refraction that it casts on whatever surface it is set, which vary according to the source and direction of the prevailing illumination. It is a vessel made for those who would savour that most immaterial substance of all: light.
"Much of the joy of looking at it stems from the patterns of refraction that it casts on whatever surface it is set... It is a vessel made for those who would savour that most immaterial substance of all: light."
Also from the Baroque period comes a pair of tabletop bronzes after Gaspard and Balthasar Marsy, on themes drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Latona and Her Children and Actaeon with his Hounds, created around 1700-1710. Small bronze sculptures on mythological themes had been established as objets de luxe by the Florentine sculptors of the Renaissance, from Pollaiuolo to Giambologna. But by around 1700 Italian artists who specialised in such fine faced increasing competition from France, in particular from the Parisian workshops, blessed as they were by the abundant patronage of Louis XIV and his court. This pair of lithe, balletic figure sculptures exemplifies the French genius for fine bronze sculpture at this time. Each one, in its twisting, turning forms and nearly liquid folds of drapery, eloquently conveys the theme of startling transformation that lies at the heart of its meaning.
They were presumably commissioned by someone in the circle of Louis XIV, given that one of Latona’s children was none other than Apollo, the Sun God, with whom the Sun King was himself so closely identified. Their later provenance is confirmation of their quality: the sculptures can be retraced until the eighteenth century and have been owned by Honoré III Grimaldi, prince of Monaco (1720-1795), who was one of the most discerning collectors of ancien régime Paris; by the count Pavel Sergeyvich Stroganoff (1823-1911) family until 1931; and, more recently, by the Earls Spencer at Althorp.
"She is a warm-blooded rococo coquette in fancy dress, seemingly enjoying the slightly preposterous act of impersonation in which she is engaged"
Another French sculpture of the ancien régime with outstanding provenance is Clodion’s Egyptian Goddess of 1770-80, once the property of the outstanding the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart (1739-1813); acquired in his sale in 1792 by the famous eighteenth century Parisian dealer Alexandre Paillet (1743-1814); and subsequently owned by the distinguished Parisian collector Albert Lehman. Given that the French taste for all things Egyptian only truly blossomed at the start of the nineteenth century – one of the main catalysts being the publication of Vivant Denon’s expeditions to Egypt in 1802 – Clodion’s light-hearted terracotta must be judged a rather early instance of Egyptomania.
During the formative part of his career the artist spent a little over a decade in Rome, where he was befriended by the famous etcher and engraver Giovanbattista Piranesi. The present sculpture was inspired by Piranesi’s designs for Egyptian-style chimney-pieces, as well as by actual Egyptian statuary. As an archaeologically exact replica of ancient Egyptian art it is anything but convincing, but then that is precisely the source of its charm. Clodion’s bare-breasted girl with folded arms is no stiffly hieratic goddess, no Isis in terre cuite. She is a warm-blooded rococo coquette in fancy dress, seemingly enjoying the slightly preposterous act of impersonation in which she is engaged. Anachronistically, she wears a Greek toga or chlamyde. To my eyes she looks almost as though stifling a giggle. I imagine her to be close cousin to the girl on a swing in Fragonard’s most famous painting.
French terracottas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have become increasingly popular with serious collectors of sculpture, for the simple reason that the quality of such objects is often spectacular. It is in the nature of a terracotta to preserve every trace of its own fashioning, which lends the medium a particular feeling of immediacy; it might be said that terracotta is, to other forms of sculpture, what drawing is to painting.
Among several extremely fine French terracottas in the present sale are two that vividly evoke the era of the French Revolution. Joseph Chinard’s little known bas-relief of 1791, The Genius of Peace Taming the Horses of War, has only come to market once before and has never (to my knowledge) been publicly exhibited. A naked young man with wings, the embodiment of Peace, treads down a trophy of arms while pulling on the reins of three spirited, snorting warhorses. Created in Rome and based partly on the decoration of a red-figure Greek vase the artist had seen there, this severely energetic relief, full of pacifist hope as well as motion and energy, is an early and distinctly idealistic instance of Revolutionary Neoclassicism.
It is a rare relic of that moment, before the darkness of the Terror, when Revolution might still be hymned as the potential harbinger of universal Enlightenment and peace. As a footnote, it should be said that Chinard survived the disappointment of those ideals, enthusiastically embracing the values of a later, post-revolutionary France: by 1802 he was designing pageants to mark the military triumphs of Napoleon, including a huge triumphal arch through which the French leader was to process while fireworks exploded like cannon-fire in the sky above his head.
For me perhaps the greatest surprise of all, in this sale of surprises, is Augustin Pajou’s terracotta Concentration and Pain. It was created two years before Chinard’s frieze, only a few weeks after the storming of the Bastille and the outbreak of the French Revolution, and presented by the artist at the Salon on 25 August 1789, a day before the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Pajou's terracotta might be categorised as an ‘exercice d’expression’, a demonstration of contrasting human emotions, a subject of great interest to the late eighteenth-century mind.
"In the language of 1789, these two young men must have seemed like the very embodiment of Fraternité"
The handbook to the 1789 salon stated that it was the artist's aim "to combine in one piece expressions of pain and concentration"; but I suspect that there was more to it than that, especially when the moment of its creation is borne in mind. The work was directly inspired by the so-called Spinario, or Boy with a Thorn, a subject famously represented by a Greco-Roman bronze in the Capitoline Museum, in Rome, as well as by an antique marble in the Louvre. The boy pulling a thorn from his foot had long been seen as an image of high moral probity, by analogy with Hercules at the crossroads choosing the thorny path of Virtue over the easy path of Vice. Pajou imparted a revolutionary twist to such associations by giving his own boy with a thorn an assiduous helper, frowning with concentration as he sets about the task of extraction. In the language of 1789, these two young men must have seemed like the very embodiment of Fraternité. They even resemble one another, like brothers. Once the thorn has been extracted – might it stand for tyrannous monarchy and all its poisons? – Liberté and Egalité will surely follow.
Pajou’s sculpture is barely known because it has never come to market since the day of its creation and has been exhibited only once in the interim (in 1889, at the Exposition Universelle). At some point between 1789 and his death in 1809 Pajou appears to have given the sculpture to Marie-Angelique Diderot, daughter of the philosopher, encyclopedist and art critic Denis Diderot, in whose family it has remained, remarkably, until now. Not only does Pajou’s gift of it to Diderot’s daughter explain the terracotta’s more or less complete absence from the history of art, it also gives it an added layer of potential meaning. Diderot was a profoundly liberal thinker, many of whose ideas – including his hatred of the slave trade and string reservations about absolute monarchy– had a strong influence on many of the leading figures of the Revolution. As a longstanding critic of the Paris Salon, he campaigned long and hard for what he hoped would be a new kind of art, with a strong sense of public ethics at its core.
Might Pajou have given his terracotta to Marie-Angelique Diderot as a mark of his own sympathy for the beliefs of her father? There is no way of knowing, but it is tempting to suspect that he did. Concentration and Pain is certainly the sort of work to which Diderot, in his later years, would likely have given his approval. How extraordinary that a work of art of this quality, created at at such a pregnant moment, and so long ago, should have all but disappeared until now.