European Art: Paintings & Sculpture

European Art: Paintings & Sculpture



Lot Closed

June 18, 01:09 PM GMT


70,000 - 100,000 GBP

Lot Details






signed and dated: C. STEINHÄUSER. F. ROMA. 1848

white marble, on a white marble base

143.5cm., 56½in. overall

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Joseph W. Drexel (1833-1888), Philadelphia;

Dr. & Mrs Walter Edgar, Columbia, South Carolina, until 2019

E. Strahan, The Art Treasures of America: Being the Choicest Works of Art in the Public and Private Collections of North America, Philadelphia, 1882, vol. III, pp. 13-18

This important marble epitomises the classical training of one of Germany’s foremost 19th-century sculptors, Carl Steinhäuser. Representing Psyche, a character from antique legend, it is an original response to versions of the same subject by the great masters of Roman neoclassicism, Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen.

A native of Bremen, Carl Johann Steinhäuser was among the most talented students of the celebrated Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, whose Roman studio he took over after the master’s death in 1844. Prior to his arrival in Rome in 1835, Steinhäuser trained in the workshop of Christian Daniel Rauch, the founder of an influential school of sculpture in Berlin. Settling in the Eternal City under the auspices of his new mentor, Thorvaldsen, Steinhäuser continued to enjoy the patronage of his native Germany, alongside clients as illustrious as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who purchased two statues from him; one, a Siren, remains at Buckingham Palace. He did not return to Germany until 1864, when he took a professorship in Karlsruhe, having become an eminent sculptor in his own right.

As one of Thorvaldsen's leading assistants, Steinhäuser not only attained the technical excellence demanded of his profession, but adopted the soft classicism for which the Danish master was known. While Rauch and his German disciples favoured a rather severe style informed by Enlightenment values, Steinhäuser turned towards an interpretation of the antique that focused on beauty of form and emotional sensitivity. His early work was dominated by romanticised genre scenes and mythological subjects such as Hero and Leander, of which a version was chosen for the Orangerie at Sanssouci in Potsdam. Following his conversion to Catholicism in 1848, Steinhäuser developed an interest in religious themes, carrying out commissions for churches across northern Germany. Although this brought him into association with the Nazarene movement, the sculptor’s oeuvre remained ambitious and varied, combining classical, religious and literary subjects.

With his Gefesselte Psyche (Psyche Bound), Steinhäuser broke new iconographic ground. First conceived in 1846 – two years before his Catholic conversion – the model is emblematic of the sculptor’s unique reinterpretation of mythological subjects within a Christian context.

The story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius' Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD, concerns the overcoming of obstacles and the ultimate union between Psyche ('Soul' or 'Breath of Life') and Cupid ('Desire'). Psyche was a princess so beautiful that the goddess Venus became jealous. She instructed her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous monster, but instead Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche. He only visited her at night and ordered Psyche not to attempt to look at him, but she disobeyed him and in doing so lost him. In her search for Cupid, Psyche undertook a series of cruel and difficult tasks set by Venus in the hope of winning him back. Cupid eventually could not bear her suffering and pleaded their case to the gods. Psyche became an immortal and the lovers were married in heaven.

A classical subject with a timeless sense of romance, Psyche was eagerly represented by early 19th-century sculptors. Antonio Canova famously created a marble depicting the moment Psyche is saved by Cupid’s kiss (now in the Louvre Museum), as well as a group showing the lovers arm in arm observing a butterfly, a secondary meaning of the Greek word psyche and therefore her identifying attribute. Steinhäuser’s master, Thorvaldsen, chose to represent Psyche with butterfly wings, about to open a jar she obtained as part of Venus’ tasks. Steinhäuser, by contrast, omits Psyche’s butterfly wings to turn his figure into a more universally symbolic image. Even more significantly, he shows her bound to a palm tree in her abandonment by Cupid. While the palm tree may be seen as a symbol of Christian salvation, the snake writhing around the stump is an allusion to original sin, likening the character of Psyche to the biblical Eve. Gazing towards heaven with a pure expression of hope, Psyche is transformed into a Christian allegory of the Soul’s search for salvation.

Whilst novel in its iconography, in stylistic terms Steinhäuser’s Psyche is fundamentally indebted to the sculptor’s neoclassical predecessors, and rooted in classical antiquity. The drapery cascading from her lower hips, with a prominent knot at the centre, finds a precedent in Thorvaldsen’s Psyche, and is ultimately inspired by ancient marbles of the Venus Anadyomene type. Leaning slightly forward with a contrapposto stance, the figure’s pose is reminiscent of the Venus de Milo, which was discovered in 1820 and found instant fame across Europe. Steinhäuser’s careful study of classical sculpture is further evident in his sensitive handling of the marble, with beautifully carved drapery balancing the supple forms of the woman’s flesh.

Completed in 1846, the first marble version of Steinhäuser’s Psyche was met with critical acclaim and purchased by the Bremer Kunstverein, a group of philanthropic art collectors, who commissioned a statue of Pandora as a pendant. Both works were acquired for the Bremen Kunsthalle in 1849, where they are still housed today. Dated 1848, the present marble is a second version made by Steinhäuser in Rome. This marble travelled to the United States, more specifically Philadelphia, where Steinhäuser enjoyed the patronage of wealthy collectors and institutions. In the 1850s he received his most significant American commission when he was asked by the Burd family to execute statuary for St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Another important Philadelphian family who admired the sculptor’s work were the Drexels, founders of the bank Drexel & Company in 1838, which would later partner with JP Morgan to become one of the world’s largest banks. It was a member of this family, Joseph William Drexel (1833-1888) – a banker turned philanthropist and art collector – in whose collection the present Psyche was recorded in 1882. It now enters the international art market as the most significant work by Steinhäuser to have come to auction.


P. Bloch et al. (eds.), Ethos und Pathos. Die Berliner Bildhauerschule 1786-1914, vol. 1, Ausstellungskatalog, exh. cat. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, 1990, pp. 305-308; H. Tesan, Thorvaldsen und seine Bildhauerschule in Rom, Cologne, 1998, pp. 227-228; B. Maaz, Skulptur in Deutschland zwischen Französischer Revolution und Erstem Weltkrieg, Berlin, 2010, vol. 1, pp. 32-36, fig. 22