The present group speaks of a significant point in art history. The discovery of traces of faded colour on antique statuary had given rise to a scholarly debate on how Greek sculptures really looked and performed in their original settings. The archaeological find in 1873 of thousands of small coloured terracotta figures in and around Tanagra finally gave artists a direct visual of the Classical past: the daily life of ancient Greece suddenly presented itself in a new, vibrant and colourful light.
Certain contemporary sculptors, inspired by these polychromatic finds, proceeded to achieve colourful effects in their own works through a range of techniques, from painting marble and plaster to gilding to complex lacquered patinas. The developments were by no means universally approved, with Léonce Bénédite as late as 1899, quoted in Pingeot, asserting ‘la couleur déconsiderait l’art’ ('colour devalues art', op. cit. 1982, p. 223). French archaeologist Charles-Ernest Beulé had earlier begged the critical question: ‘Is [polychrome sculpture] worth reviving or should it remain forgotten?’ (op.cit. 1982, p. 576).
Hugues answers the question emphatically. The present group enjoys variation in colour by the naturalistic association of different materials: bronze, marble and stone. The marbles used are of different intrinsic colours themselves and are boldly but naturally veined, achieving further polychromatic effect. The languid bronze figure of the Muse complements the effect achieved by the natural tones of the materials, creating a mood that is both sensual and serene. The group thus upholds the noble simplicity of earlier sculptural fashions, while also entertaining the new and exciting finds of polychromy. The present work is at once traditional and modern, questioning and deferential.
Hugues was honoured with residency for three years at the Villa Medicis in Rome in 1876 and his participation in the 1889 and 1900 Expositions Universelles earned him a gold medal. After being named Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1889, he was made Officer in 1900. A fine version of the present group is in the Musée D’Orsay, Paris (inv. no. RF3684). The Musée D’Orsay also holds the terracotta sketch of the model, entitled La Source (inv. no. RF2568). A plaster model, which was acquired by the Salon des Artistes in 1893, is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseilles, while a marble version can now be found in the Jardin Botanique in that city.
C.-E. Beulé, ‘La statuaire d’or et d’ivoire: la Minerve de M. Simart’, Revue des Deux-Mondes, 1856; A. Pingeot et al., De Carpeaux à Matisse, Calais, 1982, pp. 222-223 and 576; A. Pingeot et al., Musée d'Orsay: Catalogue sommaire illustré des sculpteurs, Paris, 1986, pp. 176-177, no. RF 3684 and RF 2658; A. Blühm et al., The colour of sculpture, 1840-1910, exh. cat. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 1996, pp. 11-60; L. Noet, Jean-Baptiste Hugues, un sculpteur sous la IIIe République. Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 2002, p. 87-89, no. 14h; R. Panzanelli (ed.), Polychromy in sculpture, from antiquity to the present, Los Angeles, 2008
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