This elegant figure of Mercury is a rare bronze cast of Jean-Baptiste Giraud’s lost marble Mercure, which was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1789 along with the sculptor’s morceau de réception, Achille blessé (musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, inv. no. S-823.2.1; see preceding lot). Both marbles were celebrated as masterpieces in contemporary newspapers, such as the Mercure de France (24 oct.1789).
The languid god is imbued with Giraud’s deep knowledge of antique sculpture, and is inspired by the Farnese Mercury in the Uffizi, Florence (inv. no. 250). The Farnese Mercury had previously been copied by Barthélémy Mélo, 1684-1685, for Versailles (inv. no. MR2056), and by Augustin Pajou (musée du Louvre, inv. no. RF1624). The marble prime version of Giraud’s Mercure was acquired by Philippe Laurent de Joubert, Baron de Sommières et Montredon, who, interestingly, had sold his 3, Place Vendôme to Giraud, where the sculptor would establish his famed private museum (see below and preceding lot). The Mercure was last recorded on 15 April 1793 in sale of the Baron de Sommières et de Montredon’s collection. The marble was described in the catalogue as ‘… a standing Mercury, a beautiful marble figure 30 pouces high [ca. 76 cm]’, and said to have been acquired by an English collector (F. Miel, op.cit. p.108). Giraud also modelled a wax bozzetto for the Mercure which belonged to the sculptor's nephew, the painter Frédéric Montenard (1849-1926), when it was exhibited at the Exposition Centenale in 1900 in Paris (n° 1664). Miel mentions three other wax bozzetti made by Giraud, all lost today.
The present figure is the only known bronze version. It is inscribed OEUVRE de J.B.GIRAUD NE EN 1752 A AIX EN PROVENCE which indicates that it was cast in Giraud’s lifetime (given the absence of death dates). It is possible that the bronze could have been cast by Giraud’s protegé Pierre-François Grégoire Giraud (1783-1738) (unrelated though bearing the same name) who worked closely with his master with whom he shared a governing interest in antiquities; the elder sculptor left his private museum to Pierre-François in his will. Interestingly, Pierre-François created a figure of Paris, which is indebted to his master’s Mercure, particularly in the composition; the Paris is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes (illustrated by Shedd, op. cit., fig. 1). Giraud also had a close relationship to the medal caster Nicolas-Marie Gatteaux (1751-1832) and his son the sculptor Jacques-Edouard Gatteaux (1788-1881), both masters of bronze casting, who could have had a role in the creation of the present bronze.
Born in Aix-en-Provence, Jean-Baptiste Giraud initially trained as a goldsmith in Paris before moving to Italy, where he became friends with the painter Jacques-Louis David. Giraud inherited a large fortune from his uncle, which enabled him to move to Italy in 1790. The young sculptor spent the next eight years in Florence, Rome and Naples, assembling a matchless collection of plaster casts after celebrated antique models, which he installed in a private museum in his redice in the Place Vendôme in Paris. Meredith Shedd has estimated that the collection included at least 188 plaster casts after the antique, including the Laocoön, the Apollo Belvedere, the Borghese Faun, the Capitoline Venus, the Venus de’ Medici, and the Venus de Milo. Giraud provided a charming description of his escape into his private museum in a letter to a friend:
Je suis rentré dans ma caverne retiré comme un ours au milieu des plus beaux chefs-d’oeuvre grecs, la nature à côté, je la compare, je l’étudie, j’aperçois de plus en plus les grâces, les finesses qu’ils ont eu l’art de si bein réunir aux formes divines. J’espère que vous ne me prendrez pas pour une égoïste, si je caresse tous les jours les chefs-d’oeuvre de l’art; j’aime à communiquer mes réflexions.
The collection of casts was celebrated by Giraud’s contemporaries, who were invited to visit his rooms in the Place Vendôme and study the models, notably principal actors of Neoclassicism, such as the painters Ingres, David, Granet, as well as the sculptor and medallist Jacques-Edouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). Giraud promoted the return to Antiquity in other arts as well and contributed in particular to one of the most popular works of art history in France of that period, the Recherches sur l'art statuaire consideré chez les Anciens et chez les Modèrnes, published in 1805 by Emeric-David. Sadly the collection was dispersed later in the 19th century, after the French government had refused an offer to acquire it in 1830.
Livret du Salon de 1789, p. 54, no. 283 (Achille mourant); Mercure de France, 24 October 1789, no. 43, p. 91 (Achille mourant & Mercure, exhibited in addition to the Livret under no. 348); T-B. Émeric-David, Recherches sur l'art statuaire considéré chez les Anciens et chez les Modernes, Paris, 1805, pp. VII-VIII (Avertissements) ; F. Miel, ‘Notice sur les deux Giraud, sculpteurs français’, in Annales de la Société libre des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1840, pp. 105-113 ; 1900, Universal Exhibition, Catalogue illustré officiel de l'exposition centennale de l'Art français, 1800 à 1889, Paris, 1900, p. 229, no. 1664 (wax bozzetto of Mercure); L. Gonse, Les Chefs d'œuvres des Musées de France, Paris, 1904, p. 27; S. Lami, Dictionnaire des sculpteurs du dix-huitième siècle, vol. I, Paris 1910, p. 375-377; M. Shedd, ‘A neo-classical connoisseur and his collection: J. B. Giraud's museum of casts at the Place Vendôme’, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, April 1984, pp. 198–206; A. Maral and A. Pingeot, Sculptures: La galerie du musée Granet, Paris, 2003, pp. 76-77