After his death, his son promptly sold his collection in two sales organised in 1777 and 1779. The catalogue from the Conti sale offers a glowing description of what was a highly sought-after motif at the time: "A beautiful bas-relief of the Merchant of Loves by Clodion, a composition with six figures: 8 pouces high, 9 pouces wide, in a gilded frame". The work was purchased by a certain Monsieur Feuillet for the sum of 200 livres.
Our two reliefs show how French artists in the second half of the 18th century were rediscovering and adapting classical sources, heralding the rise of Neoclassicism in France. Clodion took the composition of three figures playing with cherubs from a classical painting discovered at Herculaneum in 1759 and engraved by Carlo Nolli in 1762. (cf. Le Pitture antiche d'Ercolano,t.III,1762, pl.41). Joseph-Marie Vien's famous painting exhibited at the 1763 Salon shows the same composition and most probably influenced Clodion's choice of motif. Vien's Merchant of Loves was received with much critical acclaim at the time. Diderot especially praised the frivolity of the subject.
The marble relief of La Marchande d'Amours is at the musée de Nancy (fig. 1), another marble was presented as one of a pair by Trinity Fine Art in New York in 1994. There appears to be only one other known terracotta relief, which is in an American private collection in Boston (cf. Poulet, Scherf, op.cit., fig. 113).
Clodion's great talent is evident in our terracotta, where he builds the relief by degrees, incising outlines into the clay as a contrast to the raised forms of the figures' bodies. The sculptor achieves perfection in his careful modelling of the elaborate hairstyles and the plump flesh of the cherubs, one of whom is in flight while the other has already settled lovingly next to the seated woman. There is a remarkable delicacy to the faces and silhouettes of the three young women, who are dressed in classical style with long draped tunics finely sculpted to fit their figures.
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