T his July, Sotheby’s Ancient and European Sculpture departments are delighted to present a curated live auction comprising 19 works selected for their mastery of form. Master Sculpture from Four Millennia includes sculpture ranging in date from antiquity to the Enlightenment, showcasing a variety of media and techniques. The richness in diversity creates salient dialogues between artworks not normally presented in the same context while highlighting the manifold European tradition of creating three-dimensional imagery.
Napoleon Bonaparte – The First Portrait Bust
Giuseppe Franchi (1731-1806), Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Estimate: 120,000 - 180,000 GBP
The sale includes the earliest known sculpted portrait of Napoleon. Carved in 1797 by the Carrara-born Milanese sculptor Giuseppe Franchi, the bust represents Napoleon as the victorious commander-in-chief of the French Army of Italy. The circumstances surrounding its commission are documented by a contemporary letter which documents a meeting between Napoleon and Franchi on 14 May 1797. The unveiling of Franchi’s bust of Napoleon is a major discovery which contributes to a deeper understanding of the sitter’s iconographic aims in the early part of his career.
Given its unique ability to invoke a three-dimensional likeness, sculpture has been a favoured mode to create religious imagery in the Western world from ancient civilisation to the rise of Christianity. Works depicting divinities in this sale range from a beautifully abstracted fertility goddess from the Cycladic islands to a sensitively rendered head of an angel from the Upper Rhine. Scenes from the Life of Christ are depicted with virtuoso carving in a minute boxwood prayer bead and an alabaster group by the Master of Rimini, manifesting faith through wonder of form.
The Human Form
Ancient Greek sculptors formed an artistic tradition that both reinvented and celebrated the human form. When classical statuary was rediscovered in the Renaissance, European sculptors sought to emulate this approach, resulting in works that beautifully reflect human anatomy in its most glorified state. Examples in this sale range from a Roman marble group of Dionysos with a satyr, to the sensually rendered musculature of Pierre Julien’s terracotta Gladiator and Alfred Gilbert’s bronze Icarus.
Sculpture in Conversation: Heads of State
Despite the span of three millennia between their creation, these two busts of rulers show a striking formal similarity. Lot 2, an Egyptian Indurated Limestone Head of a King, probably depicts the Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1363 B.C.), who ruled as one of Egypt's most prosperous kings. In his portraiture, Amenhotep III favoured powerful, frontal facing sculptures that betray a confidence befitting an emperor who was also considered divine. Lot 16 is the earliest known portrait commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte. Its frontal directness recalls the head of Amenhotep, linking the formal representations of power from 18th Dynasty Egypt to France's Napoleonic period.
Sculpture in Conversation: Maternal Beneficence
Iconography surrounding a mother holding a child on her lap is typically associated with the Virgin Mary and the Infant Christ. This sale however features two non-Christian examples which illustrate the atemporal significance of the pose in Western art history. The same sense of intimacy is felt in an Egyptian bronze figure of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus, which dates to the 8th to 6th centuries B.C., and Alfred Gilbert's Mother and Child of 1876.