Lot 1
  • 1

Barthélemy Prieur (1536-1611) French, circa 1585-1595

150,000 - 200,000 GBP
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  • The Blind Orion Guided by Cedalion
  • bronze, on a wood base inlaid with tortoiseshell, silver and brass
  • Barthélemy Prieur (1536-1611) French, circa 1585-1595


probably Elizabeth, 1st Duchess of Northumberland (1716-1776);
Northumberland House, London; Northumberland House, London, until circa 1874;
Inner Hall, 2 Grosvenor Place, London, by 1892;
thence by descent.


Middlesex, Syon House, after 1892 until 2014


Inventory of No. 2 Grosvenor Place, 1892, p.2 , "A youth Carrying a child on his shoulder on square Boulle Pedestal" (The Archives of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle Sy.F.VII.3 a(1))


Overall the condition of the bronze is very good with dirt and wear to the surface. There are traces of old lacquers, which have been rubbed away at the high points. There are a few small casting flaws, notably to Orion's head, where there is a lacuna behind the proper right ear. There is particular dirt to the crevices, notably to Orion's proper left hand (if this dirt is excavated, more details may be revealed). There is dirt and wear to the base, including some losses to the metal and wood inlay. The metal inlay is slightly unstable and is projecting outwards in areas and there is some warping to the wood inlay. The base is composed in sections and there is some minor stable splitting, consistent with material. There are small losses to the edges and corners of the base. There is some minor non-active worming visible at the back of the base. The quality of the casting is very high indeed, note the delineation of the toes, fingers and eyes.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Long hidden among a group of Grand Tour bronzes displayed in the Duke’s Study at Syon House, despite its incandescent patina and luxurious Boulle base, the present statuette has emerged as a new addition to the oeuvre of famous French Mannerist bronze maker Barthélemy Prieur. The model was included as one of the touchstones of French bronze sculpture in the ground-breaking exhibition Cast in bronze: French sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution that toured Paris, New York, and Los Angeles in 2009 (op.cit.). It is a wonderfully executed study of the male ideal current in France in the 16th century and a scholarly exercise in illustrating lesser known classical myths. The finesse and technique of the cast suggests that the present bronze is the third version of this rare model that can be attributed to Prieur’s own hand. The other two prime versions are in the Huntington Library Art Collection and the Württembergisches Landesmuseum. The Musée du Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art possess later casts. The base of the present bronze indicates a French provenance and therefore it is tempting to associate it with the missing cast mentioned in the inventory of Louis XIV’s famous landscape architect, André Le Nôtre, completed following his death in 1700. (Guiffrey, op.cit.)

Barthélemy Prieur’s exploration of the indirect lost wax casting technique and his introduction of fresh subject-matter to Mannerist bronzes are key contributions to the history of European sculpture. Indirect casting enabled the Frenchman to preserve his wax models so that further casts were more easily produced. He could thereby disseminate his work widely and spread his Italianate Mannerist style north of the Alps. Being a Protestant, he endeavoured to translate into bronze imagery which was acceptable to Calvinist Europeans. Perhaps most recognisable are the genre bronzes of milkmaids, peasants and farm animals which on occasion earned Prieur a mundane reputation in recent publications. Contemporaries, however, praised Prieur’s learnedness and surviving drawings indicate a thorough understanding of classical antiquity. (Cast in bronze, op.cit., p. 103) His genre bronzes should therefore be seen in the light of moralising humanist publications and influential engravings such as Lucas van Leyden’s Milkmaid (illustrated in Raupp, op.cit., no. 2.2). His bronzes often reference statues from Antiquity but rather than merely copying ancient statues Prieur adapted the models, representing subjects discussed in contemporary scholarly circles (Cast in Bronze, op.cit., p. 135).

The only indication of Barthélemy Prieur's education as a sculptor was given by art historian Giovanni Battista Armenini in a 1587 treatise on painting. It mentions that in the early 1550s, Prieur and another great French sculptor, Ponce Jacquiot, visited Rome before enjoying great fame in their country of birth. (Cast in bronze, op.cit., p. 103, n.2) The youthful Frenchmen had hired Armenini at that time to go round with them and produce drawings of the foremost antiquities and buildings. It seems that Prieur found work as a stuccoist and may have worked in the studios of Daniele da Volterra and Guglielmo della Porta in that capacity. Under the latter's guidance it is likely that Prieur gained experience with producing small bronzes. Sojourns in the circle of Leone Leoni in Milan and as the court sculptor of Duke Emanuel-Philibert of Savoy in Turin in the 1560s cemented his skills as a bronze maker and an international reputation. Upon his return to France in the middle of 1571 he immediately started work on noble and royal commissions incorporating major bronzes such as Virtues for the funerary monument to Anne de Montmorency (Musée du Louvre, inv. no. MR 1681) and personifications of the French provinces to adorn the monument encasing the heart of King Henri II. In 1583 an inventory was made of Prieur’s assets which mentions a large number of small bronzes too, several of which, including Neptune with three Hippocamps in Melun (inv. no. 802), can be identified with existing casts today. Prieur's ascent in Paris halted abruptly with the issue of the Edict of Nemours in 1585, which curbed religious freedom and therefore forced the Protestant sculptor to flee to Sedan. After nine years in exile Prieur's work was noticed by King Henri IV, for whom the sculptor produced bronzes for the rest of his career. Henri IV as Jupiter and Marie de Médicis as Juno (Musée du Louvre, inv. no. OA 11054 and 55) are typical works of this last flourish and a testament to his highly skilled casting and finishing of bronzes.

Originally thought to be Netherlandish, The Blind Orion guided by Cedalion was first attributed to the French school by Jestaz on the basis of the inventory made upon the death of Andre Le Notre, which lists a bronze of the same description (op.cit.). In her note on the model in the Cast in bronze catalogue, Seelig-Teeuwen definitively attributes the bronze to Prieur and dates the model to the period prior to the sculptor's exile. (op. cit., p. 135) The tense musculature and elongated anatomy of Orion compares well to the two Funerary Geniuses from the tomb of Christophe de Thou begun in 1583 (Musée du Louvre, inv. no. MR 1684-85). The fine attention to detail such as in the rendering of the taut back muscles of the right Genius and the crumpled up piece of drapery in his hand is equally evident both in the Huntington Library cast that was exhibited (inv. no. 17.8; Cast in bronze, op.cit., no. 27C) and in the present bronze. It is worth noting the similarities with the later Henry IV as Jupiter too. Both are expertly finished and Orion and the King have similar sympathetic and expectant expression due to the wonderfully modelled furrowed brow. The confident stride forward, slight twist at the stomach, and the way the tight muscles are laid over the rib cage prove that Prieur could have equally created the present bronze after 1585.

In addition to the present bronze and the cast exhibited in 2009, a third version of the Blind Orion cast by Prieur himself was in the ducal collections of Württemberg and is now in the Landesmuseum, Stuttgart. These three are distinguished from casts made by another founder of which one formerly in the collection of Louis XIV is in the Musée du Louvre, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one sold at Sotheby's New York on 23 November 1987 (lot 86, $300,000) is now in the Fondation Bemberg, and one appeared on the art market in 2004. These latter versions seem to lack the finesse of the surface and therefore miss the striking details that give the present bronze its character, including the nicely rendered drapery in the hand, the drooping moustache of Orion and the subtle curls of Cedalion. According to the 2009 exhibition catalogue, which also featured the Paris and New York casts, the Huntington Library bronze is partially hollow and has a wax joint between Orion and Cedalion that is distinguishable in the facture while the lesser casts proved to be solid and have no such joints. (op.cit., p. 135) What sets the present bronze apart from all others is the downward direction of Orion's face, which means a significant alteration of the interpretation of the story.

The myth of Orion features in some of the earliest known Greek texts. Homer let Odysseus encounter Orion in the underworld and Hesiod's discussion of the constellation named after the giant hunter equally contains the story. In most versions of his myth Orion is blinded by the King of Chios after raping his daughter and wanders the globe until he encounters Haephaestus, the smith god. Feeling compassion, Haephaestus instructs his servant Cedalion to guide Orion East where the rays of Helios, the sun, could heal him. 2000 years later, in Renaissance Europe, the story was admired for its association with rebirth, redemption, and even architecture and meteorology. Boccaccio was one of the first to give the story an allegorical interpretation. Prieur may have based his model on a passage by the 2nd-century Greek author Lucian of Samosata (De Domo, 27-29): "[Orion] is blind, and on his shoulder carries Cedalion, who directs the sightless eyes towards the East. The rising Sun heals his infirmity; and there stands Hephaestus on Lemnos, watching the cure." The fact that Orion's gaze is directed forward here as opposed to towards Cedalion in the other bronzes suggests a more literal interpretation of the story in this variant.

Unlike most of the lots in the collection, the present bronze was formerly in the central London residence of the Duke of Northumberland on 2 Grosvenor Place. This house was acquired in the late 19th century after the forced demolition of Northumberland House on the Strand and furnished with many of the treasures from the latter. The magnificent Northumberland House was built around 1605 and stood at the far West end of The Strand bordering what is now Trafalgar Square, with gardens stretching to the Thames. It was the last of the stately homes to remain standing while the area was modernised in the 19th century, but after a devastating fire in 1866, the Duke finally sold the land to the Metropolitan Board of Works for redevelopment in 1874.

J. Guiffrey, 'Testament et inventaire après décès de André le Nostre', Bulletin de la Societé de L'Histoire de L'Art français, 1911, p. 254; H. Weihrauch, Europäische Bronzestatuetten, 15.-18. Jahrhundert, Brunswick, 1967, pp. 365-366; B. Jestaz, ‘Travaux recents sur les bronzes, II, Renaissance septentrionale et Baroque’, Revue de l’art 9, 1970, pp. 78-79; P. Cros, Fondation Bemberg. Bronzes de la Renaissance italienne, Toulouse/ Paris, 1996, p. 124; Les bronzes de la Couronne, exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1999, p. 139, no. 205; European Sculpture, exh. cat. Daniel Katz Ltd., New York/ London, 2004, pp. 44-47, no. 12; G. Bresc-Bautier, G. Scherf and J.D. Draper (eds.), Cast in bronze. French sculpture from Renaissance to revolution, exh. cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Paris, 2009, pp. 102-147