The royal estate of Marly, constructed and organised by Jules Hardouin-Mansart beginning in 1696, was one of the last caprices of the aging king. Secluded in the woods, the château sheltered the famous water machine that fed the fountains of Versailles and Marly. Crossed by a river, the park extended along the southern slope and opened out toward the beautiful panorama of the Seine. Embellished by the water springing from the fountains, the estate is a perfect illustration of the taste of the Grand Siècle. To magnify the victorious royal power and to affirm the importance of Marly in relation to Versailles, special care was lavished upon the sculpted decoration with laudatory symbolic iconography, comprising major marble sculptures with bucolic themes or aquatic subjects.
The great masters of baroque, François Girardon (1628-1715) at Versailles and Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720 at Marly, directed the younger generation of sculptors who worked on these sites, including Nicolas Coustou, Anselme Flamen and Simon Hurtrelle. Corneille van Clève (1645-1732), the pupil of Michel Anguier, also took part. Thus, Coysevox created a majestic figure of the Seine in 1703-1706 for Marly (Louvre, inv. MR1825), Nicolas Coustou made the impressive group of The Seine and the Marne in 1712 and Van Clève created that of The Loire and the Loiret in 1707 (Louvre, inv. MR 1801 and inv. MR 2107).
Originally from Lyon, Antoine Coysevox was trained in Paris in the workshop of Louis Lerambert (1620-1670). In 1671, he was commissionned to create sculptures for the garden of Versailles. He was accepted into the Académie Royale in 1676 with his bust of the painter Charles Le Brun and became its director from 1703 to 1705. Among his pupils were Guillaume and Nicolas Coustou, Jean-Baptiste I Lemoyne and Jean Thierry. In 1705, Coysevox received the royal commission for the sculptures of Marly, which occupied him for several years. Between 1707 and 1709 he created the figures of the Shepherd with flute, Flora and the Hamadryad that were originally situated below the river in the park but were later moved in 1716 to the Tuileries Gardens.
Our bust is distinguished by its power and its expressiveness. The style and technique of Neptune fit completely with the turning point of French art at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, influenced by the Italian Baroque. In this bust of Neptune, we can observe similarities to sculptures of the workshop of Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720) or from his circle. Wearing a crown, his abundant hair is augmented by a long-forked beard blowing in the wind, his shoulders are wrapped in a loose drapery that clings to the lines of his chest, allowing his muscular torso to show through. The way the drapery is attached underneath the shoulder strap is particularly noteworthy. Overhung by bushy eyebrows carved in high relief, the almond-shaped eyelids are finely delineated, and the pupils are incised, with pronounced pouches under the eyes, similar to those of the Shepherd with flute of 1709 by Coysevox (Musée du Louvre, inv. MR1820). The Seine, Coysevox’s monumental figure of 1706, distinguished by luxuriant hair and beard, exhibits a similar treatment of the eyes to that of our Neptune. Also, worth noting are the dolphins and the shells adorning his crown, a detail found on the vase of Pierre Mazeline in the Grand Trianon at Versailles (around 1699-1703). It is extremely rare to find Neptune represented in the form of a bust, which suggests that it may have been commissioned by Louis II Phélypeaux, called 'Chancellier of Pontchartrain', when he became from 1690 to 1699 sécretaire d'Etat de la Marine. Our bust appears neither in the royal inventories (1695, 1707 and 1722), nor in the inventories of the castle of Pontchartrain (1714, 1747 and 1781), which suggests that the work was perhaps intended for one of the other residences of Phélypeaux.
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